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DEATH OF IAN CALDER (article first published : 2005-01-10)

Sad news came from former Durban actress Jill Fenson, now living in Hove, UK, of the death of Ian Calder who was a leading radio actor in Durban between 1949 and the late 70’s. Jill had picked up an article in the Brighton Argus written by regular feature writer Jean Calder. “Just before Christmas,” says Jill, “I read a very moving piece by her on the death of her father - she didn't name him, but the South Africa connection and mention of radio led me to wonder, so I wrote to her because I thought if it WAS Ian Calder, she might like to know I had enjoyed knowing him a little.” Thanks to Jill’s efficient networking, artSMart was able to contact Jean Calder who has sent the following obituary.

“My father, the actor Ian Calder, is dead. He died painlessly and peacefully in England at the Royal Sussex County Hospital on 26th November 2004. He had lived in Brighton since 1978. Television didn’t reach South Africa until after I left in 1972, so all through my childhood and adolescence I listened to my father’s plays on the radio.

In the 1960s, to my father’s despair, I used also to listen to radio series such as Superman”. Every time the moment came for Clark Kent to transform himself into Superman, my brother and I would chant with him “Up with this window! Off with these clothes! Up, up and away!” I loved the thought that the quiet bespectacled Clark Kent could undergo such complete metamorphosis. In just such a way my father transformed himself. By day he was a clerk working for the Durban City Treasury in the Martin West Building. By night, he was an actor, a knight, a soldier, a clown, a comedian, a romantic lover. Anyone who knew my father would know how unlikely a ‘superman’ he was. He was serious and thoughtful and gentle. There was nothing macho about him. And yet on stage, and particularly in front of a microphone, he was transformed. He became one of the best-known radio actors of his generation.

He was born in Durban on 24th February 1918, the youngest son of working class Scottish parents, both of whom yearned for Edinburgh and the Highlands until the day they died. Profoundly affected by the extreme Protestantism of his background, he rejected its bigotries, but retained a powerful sense of duty and moral obligation. He attended Durban High School and was the first of his family to go to university, though he did not complete his degree. A pacifist during the war, he started work at the Durban City Treasury where he remained until he took early retirement in 1978. He married Molly Salmon, the daughter of a successful businessman, in 1946 and subsequently had two children, a son and a daughter. His theatre work began in 1946 and by 1949 he had started the radio career which dominated his life for almost three decades. In common with most of the Durban actors of that generation he could not make a living by acting. Most of them worked by day and acted by night, fitting rehearsals into evenings and weekends and demanding stage productions into periods of annual leave. I knew their names by heart. It was a magical litany - Maureen Adair, Anne and Harold Freed, Yolande D’Hotman, Bob Holness, Tom Meehan, John Simpson, Tom Read and Joan Brickhill, amongst many others. The output of this generation of actors was little short of miraculous.

My father had a fine untutored baritone and sang in many of his early stage performances for the Durban Operatic Society and Durban Municipal Opera Company. He would undertake anything from Gilbert and Sullivan to pantomime. By 1955 he was regularly playing lead roles in such productions as Johann Stauss’ Pink Champagne (Die Fledermaus), RC Sherriff’s The White Carnation (1956) and Elmer Harris’ Johnny Belinda (1957).

A great deal of his stage work was under the direction of Anne Freed. He played leading roles in such productions as Jacque Duval’s Tovarich, Peter Coke’s comedy The Breath of Spring (1960), and Noel Langley’s The Gentle Rain (1954). One of his finest performances was as the Bosun Johnny Cordell in Beverly Cross’ play One More River (1961). This powerful drama about mutiny on a small boat received huge acclaim. The production was also a memorable because it was the first time a coloured actor had performed on stage at the hitherto all-White Lyric Theatre in Durban. Hector Gordon later paid tribute to my father, saying that it had been he who had been behind the decision to cast him. There was also a memorable performance with June Davidson in Edmund Morris’ tragic play about old age The Wooden Dish (1962) and a comic cameo in Joan Little’s production for NAPAC of Anouilh’s Ring Round the Moon

As the years went he performed less and less on stage, but continued with his first love which was radio acting. This shy, serious man came alive before the microphone and between 1949 and 1978 performed in many hundreds of plays. These ranged from sophisticated farces such as Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit to repertory staples such as An Inspector Calls to plays by Ibsen and Shakespeare. Typical of these was his performance in Ibsen’s The Lady from the Sea (1955) in which he played Dr Wangel to Joan Brickhill’s Ellida.

By 1956 my father was amused to find himself being referred to as a “veteran” radio actor. He worked a great deal with producer Humphrey Gilbert, usually in leading roles. Typical of these plays was Jean Morris’ In the Foolish Ranges (1958) and Gilbert Phelp’s The Winter People (1959), in which he starred with his old friend Bob Holness, who later went on to forge a highly successful television career in Britain. To play so many different parts in so short a time required skill, commitment, adaptability, meticulous preparation and a prodigious capacity for work, It is difficult now to remember how important those radio performances were to a pre-television South African audience – particularly in those areas in which there were few theatres or access to them was denied to all but whites. One of his later productions for the SABC, this time produced by Don Ridgeway, was in William Golding’s The Brass Butterfly (1975) in which he played the Roman Emperor.

My father was also deeply committed to helping young actors, especially those who, like him, had come from working class backgrounds. At a time when most White actors worked only with other Whites, he encouraged young coloured actors. He helped set up the City Players, a group of amateur actors, most of whom were council employees and for a while acted as their Chairperson. He later joked that theatre work had “not assisted his career in the Treasury”. He was deeply committed to supporting, and working with, the Y Club Repertory Players.

My father knew that if he was ever to make a full time career in radio he would need to leave Durban for Johannesburg. While our grandparents were alive he was not prepared to do this. His duty as son and son in law took precedence over his career. He also expressed a fear that to succeed in the SABC at that time, he would have to make unacceptable political compromises. Though he loved acting, he was never able to forget the situation in South Africa. He was not an activist, but he was rebellious, constantly questioning the reality and truth of things. In the early years of their marriage he and my mother were members of the multi-racial International Club. He was a trade unionist at a time when this was considered to be tantamount to membership of the Communist Party. He hated Apartheid. Because of it he was determined, following my grandparents’ death, to leave South Africa.

He was well aware that restarting an acting career in late middle age in a foreign country would be virtually impossible. He knew that he was leaving at the very moment when he and my mother could have expected to live more comfortably. But he never chose comfort. My mother supported him loyally as she did throughout their long and devoted marriage. He left South Africa in 1978 and though he undertook some professional theatre work in Brighton with the Brighton Actors Workshop, his acting career was effectively over. He continued to paint and to write poetry, carried out voluntary work with homeless people and became actively involved in the Labour Party. But, he soon began to suffer from the ill health which dogged the later years of his life. The last 10 years of his life were lived in the shadow of severe disability.

Each stroke and fall damaged his brain. Words failed him. He struggled for them, baffled and frustrated. For someone who had had an excellent grasp of language and its nuances it was sad to see. He’d always been a quiet man, but became almost silent. Patient in the face of the inevitable indignities which accompanied his frailty, he was embarrassed and apologetic, but rarely angry. The phrase he used most often – wrenched from his impoverished vocabulary - was “Thank you for your kindness”. Though his understanding was impaired, he loved to hear poetry read and music played. One of his proudest moments was when – already frail - he and my mother travelled to London with me - and my husband and daughter - to vote for the African National Congress in South Africa’s first free elections.

My father leaves behind a house full of beautiful landscapes, notebooks packed with poetry and the memory of many fine performances. Many of those who knew him in England have said how much they learned from him. He is survived by his widow, two children, two grandchildren and many friends. He was greatly loved.” Jean Calder. (Jean Calder is the cousin of well-known Durban lawyer, Richard Salmon. She can be contacted on e-mail: mfj.calder@tiscali.co.uk)

Veteran radio actor, scriptwriter and presenter John Simpson says that “My own reflections on Ian Calder are as sharp as when they were etched on my mind in 1949. Here was the most serious-minded person I had ever met. Here was the most accentless English radio actor cast in many of the most important productions by the legendary Cedric Messina. If he and subsequent producers wanted the perfect straight actor who would meticulously study his script before rehearsals began--Ian Calder was the man for the job. He wasn't a romantic--but he was always very good. Ian Calder was an usung hero of Radio Drama.”

Another veteran radio actor who remembers Ian Calder well is Tom Read: “I remember him as a quiet, gentle man with a lot of talent. At the time I worked with him, my experience in radio drama was limited and the patience of the more experienced actors, like Ian, must have been rather stretched! He, however, was always kind and considerate and gave me guidance and advice which stood me in good stead in my future career.”




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