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Harry Towb (1925 - 2009):

Harry Towb

Harry Towb was one of the finest character actors of his generation, whether Ulster born or not. He appeared on stage on both sides of the Irish border, both sides of the Irish Sea including London's West End, and both sides of the Atlantic, including New York's Broadway. He worked with the National Theatre in London and the Royal Shakespeare Company, amongst many others. One of the hardest working of people, in his long life as an actor he performed numerous roles, by no means all on the stage: he also had a very busy television and film career, having parts in a highly impressive number of films and television programmes ranging from World War I German Air Force intrigues, to police dramas in contemporary England, to benevolent Time Lords traveling the Universe.

Towb (he sometimes styled himself Harris Towb) was born in Larne, County Antrim. While he may have been the only Jewish person ever born there, as once was quipped, certainly he later described his background as "the minority of all minorities", the Jewish community of Northern Ireland. His father was originally from Russia (the name Towb is of German origin, meaning "dove"), joined the British Army in the First World War and met his future wife in a Belfast synagogue while on leave. Eventually his postwar business as well as his marriage failed, and Harry, his mother and his sister stayed together and settled in Belfast between the Oldpark and Crumlin roads, in north Belfast. Harry Towb joined the army during the Second World War and managed a military canteen, but it was discovered that he lied about his age and was dismissed. He had a variety of jobs for a short time, while making one of his first stage appearances, as Hugh O'Caghan in Professor Tim by the popular Ballymoney playwright George Shiels. That was in 1946, in the Guildhall, Derry. Soon after he moved to London, with twenty pounds in his pocket and to a country where at that time it was common for letters of small properties displayed signs saying "No Irish, No Jews, No Theatricals". Towb, who of course qualified on all three counts, nonetheless set himself to patiently build up experience in repertory theatre, including stage managing, before in 1950 making West End appearances such as in Roger MacDougall's The Gentle Gunman (Arts Theatre) and Clifford Odets' Awake and Sing.

In 1951 he appeared in the London premiere of Summer and Smoke by Tennessee Williams (a relatively minor Williams play which was not performed in London for another five decades; though John F Kennedy is said to have praised it to its author) and also for the first time had a part in a film, as a fugitive criminal in The Quiet Woman, directed by John Gillings. He was slowly but surely developing a career in the three media of stage, film and television, a first television part coming in 1955, when he played an Irishman in an episode of an American production of a Sherlock Holmes story. In the same year he appeared in a first-flight film, Above Us The Waves, a drama concerning Royal Navy submarine actions during World War Two and whose principal stars were Donald Sinden, John Mills, James Robertson Justice and John Gregson, a notable array of that time; the producer was the Ulsterman William MacQuitty.

In 1959 came a noteworthy casting, in JP Donleavy's Fairy Tales of New York, in which he portrayed four different characters, all American, over the course of the evening. In 1966 he played in a triptych of Saul Bellow plays (Out from Under, The Wen and Orange Soufflé); after successful performances in the United Kingdom under the title The Bellow Plays and subsequently on Broadway under the title Under the Weather. Time Magazine, while a little lukewarm about the pieces themselves, wrote approvingly of Towb's "unerringly professional" acting. Towb in fact found himself cast as a variety of nationalities as well as American, and while often these characters were Irish in one form or another, it was also said of him that his stage presence often had an underlying "European or even Slavic melancholy": he appeared as Lenin in the world premiere production (by the Royal Shakespeare Company) of Tom Stoppard's Travesties in 1975. As Irish figures, he was the Ulster Unionist figure, Sash Walker, in a BBC "Play for Today", was a Catholic priest several times, and was the fictional leader of the Jewish community of Belfast in a later television appearance (a soi-disant comedy described by one newspaper as "best-forgotten"); he portrayed Jewish characters several other times. He was the presenter of a documentary about Ulster's Jewish community for the BBC in 1983, in which he interviewed President Chaim Herzog of Israel, himself born in Belfast. Towb was also the writer of the television drama Cowboys (which he based on his own short story of the same name) as well as its star; the themed is a Belfast-born Jew who returns to visit his native city from his new country, the United States.

While some of Towb's film appearances throughout his career were in relatively lesser-known productions, there were notable titles. In The Blue Max, Towb was a squadron adjutant in the German Air Force late in the First world war who stands up to favouritism of George Peppard's ambitious young flying ace, who is eventually (and literally) brought down to earth by James Mason's cuckolded General. (This film was made in Ireland, with Trinity College in Dublin itself having a part, that of a hospital in Imperial Berlin.) In complete contrast, Towb was a doctor in Carry On At Your Convenience, one in that popular series of tongue-in-cheek English comedies (this one from 1971), known for their "adult" double entendres.

Closer to home, Towb was a priest in Lamb; set in a tough-régime Catholic boarding school on the Irish coast, this is a grim drama with a tragic denouement on an Ulster beach, adapted for the screen from his own novel by the Ulster writer Bernard MacLaverty. Towb also played in Murderers Among Us: The Simon Wiesenthal Story, a television film version of the autobiography of the famed Nazi hunter. Other film appearances were Moll Flanders and Patton, about the famous United States General, said to be the favourite film of President Nixon, and The Thirty-Nine Steps, a colour remake of the classic film version of John Buchan's thriller.

Of his stage appearances back in Belfast, one of the more notable came in January 1960, and apart from Towb's acting, the notability was for the play itself and the tale of how it got onto the stage at all. Sam Thompson, a former shipyard worker from east Belfast, who had written radio plays commissioned by Sam Hanna Bell for BBC Northern Ireland, wrote a stage play about sectarianism in the Belfast shipyards, Over the Bridge. This was accepted for production by the Group Theatre, in Belfast, but pulled at the last minute (actually two weeks before the premiere) at the insistence of the Group Theatre's Board of Directors, who objected to the play's graphic portrayal of sectarianism as against the ethos of the Theatre. This prompted the Group's Head of Productions, the actor James Ellis, and a number of other members to resign and to set up their own company in order to produce the play; to emphasise the point they named themselves Over The Bridge Productions. The play was staged at the Empire Theatre, Belfast, to wide acclaim (in fact, it attracted record audiences for that city) and was subsequently toured all over the British Isles. Towb had the major rôle of Baxter, a politically vacillating shop steward. Another Belfast performance was Uncle Connell in Stewart Parker's television drama, Lost Belongings.

Towb's television credits constitute an impressive list. He had appearances in Z Cars (a sort of social realist drama, about police patrol cars in a fictional area of north-west England, and whose principal actor was James Ellis who had staged Across The Bridge); Dixon of Dock Green, also a police drama though with rather less gritty themes); The Champions (of the genre known as "spy-fi" or spy science fiction), The Avengers (of the same genre; in an episode called "Killers", Towb's character is stabbed and shot with a crossbow);  Doctor Who, (a cult series about a "time lord" who travels throughout time and the universe battling wicked enemies of various kinds including sentient malicious diseases) and many others. Late in his career he had a storyline in EastEnders, the BBC soap opera set in working class east London and became famous for its extreme social realism and popularity (one episode attracted 15 million viewers, about a quarter of the UK population).

Perhaps fittingly, one of his last-ever stage roles was in Belfast, when he appeared as Tiresias in Owen McCafferty's adaptation of Sophocles' Antigone. McCafferty, who also directed, described Towb as: " of the most inspirational actors I have ever worked with, truly, truly professional...[o]n a personal level he was a beautiful man, delightful, one of those people who have grace and dignity."

Towb was married to a colleague in the acting profession, Diana Hoddinott, who appeared in a number of drama roles, mostly on television, but also in the highly successful BBC political comedy Yes Minister and its sequel Yes Prime Minister. While many more prominent names in the profession received many types of civil and academic honours, Towb always enjoyed the highest regard amongst his peers and later in his career received what he himself described as one of the greatest honours an actor can expect: for a production at the National Theatre, he was allotted his own dressing room.

Born: 27 July 1925
Died: 24 July 2009
Richard Froggatt

Wesley McCann


The Times 29.7.2009; Jewish Chronicle 27.7.2009;; (27.7.2009); Time magazine 4.11.1966;; Belfast Telegraph 8.1.2003 & 27.7.2009; The Guardian 30.7.2009