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

15:05 04 June 2014

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

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


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

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.


Welcome , please leave your message below.

Optional - JPG files only
Optional - MP3 files only
Optional - 3GP, AVI, MOV, MPG or WMV files

Please log in to leave a comment and share your views with other Hampstead Highgate Express visitors.

We enable people to post comments with the aim of encouraging open debate.

Only people who register and sign up to our terms and conditions can post comments. These terms and conditions explain our house rules and legal guidelines.

Comments are not edited by Hampstead Highgate Express staff prior to publication but may be automatically filtered.

If you have a complaint about a comment please contact us by clicking on the Report This Comment button next to the comment.

Not a member yet?

Register to create your own unique Hampstead Highgate Express account for free.

Signing up is free, quick and easy and offers you the chance to add comments, personalise the site with local information picked just for you, and more.

Sign up now

Latest News Stories

40 minutes ago
Art dealer and Channel Four star Jeff Salmon

As a celebrity art dealer, Jeff Salmon appreciates the finer things in life – so he has no time for plastic flowers.

Yesterday, 18:30
The Dorchester Hotel in London was just one of several five-star hotels targeted by the pair

A Hampstead pensioner who went on a drink-fuelled spree of unpaid fine dining in some of London’s most luxurious hotels was only caught because he left his spectacles behind, a court heard.

Yesterday, 15:00
Charlie and Lola author Lauren Child visits Highgate Pre-Preparatory School. Picture: Nigel Sutton

The author of popular children’s book series Charlie and Lola signed books and gave an assembly for young pupils.

Yesterday, 13:44
The LA Fitness gym in Highgate Road, Kentish Town

A petition has been launched to save a Kentish Town swimming pool threatened with closure because a gym is changing hands.

Most read news

Property Newsletter Sign-up

Get the latest North London property news and features straight to your inbox with our regular newsletter

I am also happy to receive other emails...
Fields marked with a * are mandatory
Email Marketing by e-shot


You could be splashing the cash at Topshop!

Just imagine what you could do with £1,000 to spend at Topshop.

You won't need to fork out for groceries for a while!

Asda, one of the country’s leading supermarkets, prides itself in being one of the cheapest places to shop, so you can be sure that your money will go a long way here!

Digital Edition

Read the Hampstead & Highgate Express e-edition today E-edition
Family Notices 24

Local business directory

Our trusted business finder