Leslie French

Was he, or wasn’t he? That is the question. Was Leslie French trained at Ginner-Mawer, or wasn’t he?

According to his obituaries, he wasn’t (or at least they don’t mention Ginner-Mawer), but then again the two obituaries that I have looked at also give different dates for various moments in his life and can’t decide whether he was born in 1904 or 1906, so how certain can we be?

Here is what I know, and we can make up our own minds about the actor who achieved a great deal of fame in the 1930s, in particular for his playing of two Shakespearian characters, Puck and then Ariel.

Leslie French was born either in 1904 or 1906 – let’s go for 1904 and take 1906 as a typo. He attended the London School of Choristers, and as a boy acted in Jean Sterling Mackinlay’s Christmas matinees at the Little Theatre – which I think was amateur theatre. (Later, in 1939, Mackinlay and her husband, Harcourt Williams, were both patrons of the Institute of Mime. Harcourt also acted in a Ginner-Mawer production of L’Enfant Prodigue in 1928, with Mawer playing Pierrot, and Ginner playing Pierrot’s father.)

Leslie French joined the Ben Greet Company and spent five years there as a general assistant doing a bit of everything and learned Shakespeare. If we take his birthdate to be 1904, this would have taken him from age 14 – 19 (and this would fit in with the school leaving age of around 14 in those days). (Later, in the 1930s, the Ben Greet Academy would teach the Irene Mawer method of mime.)

In 1916, a ‘fellow student’ (so was he still in education at the Choristers?) Edward Gordon Craig took him to meet his mother, famous actress Ellen Terry (1847-1928). (I don’t understand the dates here. Edward Gordon Craig born 1872; French was born 1904 – how could they be ‘fellow students’?)

1916 – Ginner-Mawer School was founded.

At some point around this time, he also spent four years earning money from singing solo in cathedrals and churches around Britain, and at the Royal Albert Hall in London.

In the early 1920s – as a multi-talented individual, he turned to earning his living from dancing. This date of the early 1920s would, indeed, have given him enough time to have attended Ginner-Mawer, and they taught all the dances that are listed in his obituary – ballet, classical, national, musical comedy, ballroom. So it is entirely possible that he was a student there.

In 1928, a little girl called Ann Cornford was born. Her father had ‘learned singing’ with Leslie French. Now that I know where Leslie French was educated (at the London School of Choristers), I assume that Ann’s father was educated there, too, and this would indeed fit in with what I know of Ann’s background.

1929/30, Leslie French found fame with his portrayals of Puck and then Ariel.

1932, Leslie French suggested to the parents of Ann Cornford, then aged 4 years, that she attend Greek Dance lessons with Ruby Ginner to help strengthen her weak legs. So this gives a first definitive account of Leslie French’s connection with Ginner Mawer.

1933, Irene Mawer founded the Institute of Mime. I only have two records, one from 1934 and the other from 1939 – both show Leslie French as being on the Council of the Institute of Mime.

1937 – Irene Mawer gave a speech at the 21st birthday celebrations of the Ginner-Mawer School and said “Among the Ginner Mawers who have gone on to do stage work we are proud to number Leslie French, Renee Gadd and Elinor Shan.” She mentions him first, but doesn’t make a big deal of him, even though by this time he was very famous, well connected and highly thought of for his stage talents.

1950s – newsclippings from the days of the Ginner-Mawer School in Cheltenham, plus first-hand memories of former pupils, show that Leslie French was one of the famous people who regularly judged the drama exams and drama festivals at Ginner-Mawer.

1962 – Irene Mawer died, and a Memorial Fund was set up in her memory, which led to 3 successive years of a mime competition in her memory. I only have a record from the 1965 event, and this shows that Leslie French was a judge and he is noted in the newspaper as being a ‘staunch supporter of Ginner-Mawer’.

(Information in this post was sourced from Obituary by Alan Strachan, Independent Newspaper, 26 January 1999; Obituary by Eric Shorter, Guardian Newspaper, 26 January 1999; IMDb website)

What do you think – did he train at Ginner-Mawer? Please let me know.

As a final piece of trivia, in the same way that John Laurie was a well-respected Shakespearian actor best known today for his role in the TV sitcom Dad’s Army, so too is Leslie French remembered for a role in TV entertainment – namely Dr Who. This famous BBC light entertainment series has run for years in Britain, and has avid followers who know every detail about every programme. Leslie French was in the running to be the very first Dr Who. I don’t know why he didn’t take the role, or wasn’t given the role – perhaps any Dr Who fans out there would be able to let me know, please? However, in 1988, at the age of 84, Leslie French was invited to act the character of a mathematician in one of the Dr Who episodes, thereby completing the circle. (Source: TARDIS, the Dr Who Wiki)

Author: Janet Fizz Curtis

Janet Fizz Curtis is trained in the Irene Mawer Method of Mime and Movement and is now writing a book about the life of Irene Mawer.

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