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Obituary: Acclaimed director, playwright and Ham&High book reviewer William Tanner

William Tanner in April of this year (2014). Picture: Alex Mavrocordatos William Tanner in April of this year (2014). Picture: Alex Mavrocordatos

Wednesday, June 4, 2014
3:05 PM

Bill Tanner, a long-time local resident, born in Krugersdorp, South Africa, has died, aged 72.

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He was a former book reviewer for the Ham&High, a playwright (the original Tsafendas, Patty Hearst, Who is Eddie Linden?) and a stage director acclaimed for Long Day’s Journey into Night, The Glass Menagerie and others with Yvonne Bryceland at Brian Astbury’s The Space, Cape Town – where he was a luminary.

Schooled at St John’s College, Johannesburg, his pocket money came from devising an insurance scheme against various punishments.

He studied at Rhodes and Cape Town University, where the precocious film reviews and articles were published in Varsity and collected in 1966.

Threatened by the state security service with spying on activist student friends, he escaped to London, continuing to work as director for Hampstead theatres such as the New End, which closed in 2011, and Pentameters, in Heath Street. He lived across NW3 after moving to Prince Arthur Road, Hampstead, in 1973, latterly in Lithos Road.

His father died early of coronary disease (as his sister would, and now he), and so he entered an all female household, with an absent father.

Mother and children moved in with the paternal mother who denigrated her daughter-in-law but indulged the progeny – with film matinees.

Both these factors, he thought, were influential and lasting: one, malign, impacted his psychology and identity; the other, creative, made him an expert cutting room film editor.

Out of this grew the astute movie and drama critiques, intellectual, liberal humanist, at times even matching his idols Durgnat, Kael, and Empson.

Here he is on the actor’s gaze: “Olivier once said that he could lose anything but his eyes. Garbo, Monroe, Taylor all had a very distinctive, probably instinctive, eye time with the camera. The absolute secret of their allure. Lesser, but exceptional Barbras Stanwick or Streisand, had a measure of the glancing power. The azure factor – blue-eyed Semites – are always drop-dead good: Streisand, Paul Newman. Camp men, Dirk Bogarde, are almost all audience eye-massage. The dull straights, Richard Harris, rely on eye-liner.”

For one co-worker he came in two flavours: bitter and mild. True, in that his younger contrarian self bristled with edgy attitude; but older, a car crash and runover survivor with tunnel vision, he was a gregarious and convivial raconteur, though stagey, even eccentric, on occasion – presenting for one teaching interview incongruously in the guise of Prospero with voluminous robes and an outsize staff.

He was also treasurer of the Branch Hill allotments, having been a prime mover when the area was threatened with development.

The lodestar of his life, however, was friend and stage partner Tessa Marwick. His recreations were literature (passim); music: Britten, Janacek, Poulenc; and the cherished cinematic videos he was watching to the end.

n Daniel Hutchinson is an academic, formerly Head of the English Department, Dean of the School of Humanities and International Director at Hertfordshire University. He and Mr Tanner met as students at the University of Cape Town more than 50 years ago.

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