Person - Peter Finch

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In the 1930s Peter Finch hung around with New Theatre League (NTL) people drinking in bohemian haunts such as Pakies club. Often down-and-out, he slept in doorways and in the Domain, or shared cheap digs around Kings Cross with actors such as comedian Cecil Perry or took a room in a Challis Avenue boarding house. From 1933 he started picking up acting work, gaining stage experience with the Repertory, Studio Theatre Club and Independent little theatres. He toured outback with George Sorlie’s vaudeville tent. Finch received a bravery award for his action in 1935 when, a "juvenile" with a professional company, he dived into the Yarra River trying to save a drowning fellow actor. By 1937 he was in demand as a radio actor. In 1938 Finch made his feature film debut in Dad And Dave Come To Town.

In 1941, shortly after his engagement to socialite Sheila Smart was announced, Finch enlisted in the AIF. While serving, he was given leave to act in radio, theatre and film. He appeared in propaganda shorts and, with Des Rolfe , in Red Sky at Morning scripted by Dymphna Cusack . Finch also produced and performed with the Army Theatre Entertainment Unit, its personnel including Vic Arnold, Bill Cathcart, Michael Pate and Alan White. Discharged at war's end, Finch in 1946 narrated Indonesia Calling, financed by the Wharf Labourers Union and scripted by Catherine Duncan.

In 1943 when Peter Finch was cast as the lead in NTL's Golden Boy he was fitting regular acting work around his army commitments. Warned off by Security, he was replaced by Beresford Conroy . On leave the same year, he met ballerina Tamara Tchinarova of the De Basil Company at Redleaf Pool. A few days before they married, he attended the opening night of NT's Let’s Be Offensive . The couple moved into a flat (Finch put his acting award in the toilet) at 52 Phillip St with Tamara's Russian mother. Nervous of Madame Tchinarova, Finch preferred the company of Actors Equity companions and after the war became a heavy drinker.

Active in the actors union, Finch supported its call for a quota of Australian cast in locally produced plays, for the staging of works by Australian playwrights, and for a subsidised national theatre. He championed amateur groups "who had done more to keep legitimate, intelligent and progressive theatre alive than any commercial theatres". But Ralph Peterson, who ate with him at the Russian Club, said Finch was a humanist, not a political animal.

After a chance meeting with Hungarian refugee Sydney John Kay in a Kings Cross cafe, Finch became a co-founder of the Mercury Theatre Company using his army back pay and that of Allan Ashbolt and Michael Pate. In July 1946 they staged three plays, designed by Bill Constable , at the Conservatorium: Gogol's Diamond Cuts Diamond, Lope de Vega’s The Pastrycook (rehearsed so vigorously in Dennis Glenny’s Macquarie Street flat that plaster in the ceiling of the flat below fell into its occupants’ soup) and Kleist's Broken Pitcher. The actors were Finch himself and several associated with NT: Edgar Yardley, Catherine Duncan, Jock Levy, Alan Herbert, Lou Vernon and Ken McCarron. Elsie Dayne also joined the Mercury.

Encouraged, they set up a workshop and the Mercury Theatre School (Eleanor Witcombe joined) to make some money, but couldn't find a theatre, so put on lunch-hour performances at venues including a hall at Killara, the Masonic Hall Double Bay, Sydney Town Hall, David Jones staff club, Frensham school, and Arnott’s and O’Brien’s Glass factories.

Finch's break came in August 1948 when Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, in Australia with the Old Vic Company, were in the lunchtime audience at Frank O'Brien's Glass factory at Waterloo for The Imaginary Invalid and spoke to him encouragingly after the show. NT members formed a big group at a subsequent Sydney Town Hall performance where, despite appalling acoustics and lack of intimacy, Finch was again stunning in the role of Argan. In October 1948 Finch sailed to England to try his luck. Before leaving, unsure if he was doing the right thing, he got sloshed with Bud Tingwell. In April 1949 Finch appeared in his first London play Daphne Laureola, directed by Olivier.

Apart from the Mercury Players, NT people with whom Finch worked included Harry Howlett on radio, and Jean Blue in the cast of the film Eureka Stockade 1949. Enid Lorimer who directed Counter Attack was a Theosophist and "mothered" Finch when he was living at the Theosophists' The Manor at Mosman. Jerry Wells knew him, as did Simon Bracegirdle who remembered him as a "knockabout character" at the Cross who ate with his wife Tamara at the Jewish Café in Hughes Street. Finch was friendly with Russel Ward and George Farwell whose radio play Portrait of a Gentleman developed from informal readings. Oriel Gray recalled Finch as an actor who could make words leap off the page.

There is plenty of online material about Peter Finch. He has Wikipedia and Australian Dictionary of Biography entries. The National Library of Australia holds some Peter Finch papers dating from 1937. Tamara Tchinarova Finch also has a Wikipedia entry and other material online.

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