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Finch, Frederick George Peter (1916–1977)

by Ray Edmondson

from Filmnews (Sydney)

Peter Finch, by J. Arthur Rank Organisation, 1955

Peter Finch, by J. Arthur Rank Organisation, 1955

State Library of New South Wales, 447779

At what may well be one of the high points of his career, and without a hint of previous trouble, Peter Finch died suddenly of a heart attack on January 14.

Gifted and versatile, an actor of considerable stature, he had long since become one of the world's enduring cinema personalities. Australians regarded him as one of their best known expatriates.

Finch was not born in Australia – but in London, in 1916, the son of a professor at the Royal College of Science, London University.

His childhood was spent in a village outside Paris; an aunt, after taking him to India for two years, brought him to Australia in 1928. High School was followed by a variety of jobs which eventually led to the theatre, radio and films.

After a screen debut in Magic Shoes – a shadowy and otherwise unknown short, now lost – the young actor landed roles in two Ken Hall features at Cinesound: Dad and Dave Come To Town and Mr. Chedworth Steps Out (both 1938).

In the first, he plays an awkward but ardent country swain, smitten by the Rudd's daughter, in the second – a larger role – the weak and irresponsible son of a downtrodden insurance clerk, George Chedworth (Cecil Kellway) In both, Finch leaves a strong impression – his acting is confident, assured and completely convincing ; he was clearly headed for bigger things.

When the war came, Finch was already a contract player, on ABC radio, and in 1941 came another (and again larger) film role, this time in Noel Monkman's anti-Nazi drama The Power and the Glory – he had matured, and fits more easily into an adult role. War service as a gunner in the AIF was interrupted for further film work; government propaganda shorts, a minor (and now lost) convict-era drama called Red Sky at Morning 1943) and Charles Chauvel's Rats of Tobruk (1944).

It is in Rats of Tobruk that Peter Finch finally came into his own. Sharing top billing with Grant Taylor and Chips Rafferty, he turns in a strong performance as a sensitive Shakespeare-quoting Anzac which almost overshadows the contrasting characterisations of his partners. He was now, if he still needed to prove it, star material.

More radio work and a featured role in Eric Porter's A Son is Born (1946) followed the war; frustrated, however, with lack of creative opportunity in radio and film work he turned to the live theatre, throwing his energies into Sydney's Mercury Theatre group – where he was noticed by Laurence Olivier on a visit to Australia.

After a further film role – in Harry Watt's Eureka Stockade (1949) – he accepted Olivier's encouragement and sailed for London, where spectacular stage success led to the international film career that has become part of cinema history. That career has been detailed in articles and studies which do not need supplementing here.

Peter Finch returned to Australia in 1957 to make Robbery Under Arms for Rank, and The Shiralee for Ealing, settling with complete ease into two archetypally Australian roles which rate among his best performances.

Such was the professionalism of a man who determined early in his career that he would not be a 'reader of scripts' but ... 'a real actor'.

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Citation details

Ray Edmondson, 'Finch, Frederick George Peter (1916–1977)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/finch-frederick-george-peter-10179/text35099, accessed 13 November 2019.

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