I was delighted to discover recently that two great West Country actors went to my old school.
Robert Newton, who played the archetypal Long John Silver (and arguably originated the ‘pirate accent’) and George Woodbridge, the classic Hammer horror innkeeper and comedy policeman, were both students of Exeter School in Devon.
Newton, born in Dorset and raised in Cornwall, was at Exeter School for a year, from 1918 to 1919, when he was around 13, while Woodbridge, who was born and raised in Exeter, attended from the age of eight in 1915 until 1925.
If their names aren’t familiar, their faces and voices surely are.
Newton rose to fame as a character actor in British films in the 1940s, and was a memorable Bill Sikes in David Lean’s acclaimed 1948 Oliver Twist, but his big break was as Long John Silver in the Walt Disney production of Treasure Island (1950).
He exaggerated his West Country accent for the role, effectively creating the phenomenon of the ‘pirate accent‘. Apparently, before then, screen pirates had no particular accent, but his eye-rolling ‘Arr. Jim, lad!’ became a cliche and even led to International Talk Like a Pirate Day.
The film’s success earned him a string of Hollywood roles, including the title part in Blackbeard, the Pirate (1952) and then an Australian production Long John Silver (1954), which spawned a TV series, The Adventures of Long John Silver (1955). Plenty of opportunity for “Arrr, matey!” etc.
A notoriously heavy drinker, Newton suffered from alcoholism in his latter years, and died in Beverly Hills in 1956, aged 50. His final film part was a major role in Around the World in Eighty Days (1956).
His fellow Old Exonian, George Woodbridge can’t claim such a dazzling Hollywood resume or the creation of any international celebratory day, but his chubby frame and West Country burr enhanced many of the films I love, especially in the horror genre.
In Hammer‘s Dracula (1958) and its sequel Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966), he was the innkeeper – warning unwary travellers about the dangers awaiting strangers “in these parts”.
He also appeared in The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958), Jack the Ripper (1959), The Flesh and the Fiends (1959), The Curse of the Werewolf (1961), The Reptile (1966) and Doomwatch (1972).
And his jovial demeanour lent itself well to comedy, often as a policeman or notably as the mild-mannered prison guard in Two-Way Stretch (1960), as well as Heavens Above (1963) and Carry On Jack (1963).
At the end of his career, he reached a younger audience as the lead in the children’s TV puppet show Inigo Pipkin (1973), but he died early in the second series, and the show continued for many years under the title Pipkins.
Many thanks for Karen Dart, alumni officer at Exeter School, for information on their years of attendance.
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