Chichester was always “special” to actor Frank Finlay, who has died.

Finlay in The Handyman in Chichester - left is future Downton Abbey star Hugh Bonneville
Finlay in The Handyman in Chichester - left is future Downton Abbey star Hugh Bonneville

Chichester was a place dear to the heart of the actor Frank Finlay who has died aged 89.

Finlay, a star of the Three Musketeer films and of TV’s Bouquet of Barbed Wire, had an association with Chichester Festival Theatre going right back to its earliest days.

Finlay, who earned an Oscar nomination for his role as Iago opposite Laurence Olivier in Othello in 1965, was one of the company at the fledgling CFT.

He regarded the city as a place full of memories.

In 1963 he appeared in Shaw’s Saint Joan in a cast including Joan Plowright, Robert Stephens, Jeremy Brett, Derek Jacobi and Norman Rossington.

The Workhouse Donkey also saw him alongside Stephens, Brett, Jacobi and Rossington.

The following year, The Dutch Courtesan saw him on stage with Billie Whitelaw and John Stride, and also as Iago to Olivier’s Othello in a mouth-watering cast which boasted Jacobi as Cassio, Maggie Smith as Desdemona, Edward Petherbridge as a senate officer and Edward Hardwicke as Montano.

In an interview with the Chichester Observer, Finlay said he still relished the sense of excitement which surrounded the new theatre.

“Saint Joan and The Workhouse Donkey were the second season, and it was wonderful. It was so exciting when we were all asked to go to Chichester.

“Olivier had started the first season with Uncle Vanya, and between him doing the first and the second he was offered the directorship of the National.

“The second season was really a try-out for lots of actors. It was Olivier’s way of preparing himself for running a company for the National.”

Maybe about a half or two thirds of that company went on to become founder members of the National.

“You really did feel that it was the beginning of everything. There was a great sense of expectation.”

Things had obviously moved on since then, and for Chichester too, he said.

“Chichester seemed quieter in those days. It was still very much the kind of place that people came for the summer. It had a wonderful feeling about it, and there was a lot of hospitality given to us.”

Members of the summer season company all played in at least a couple of the plays, and many of the actors had young families.

“My children were then four or five years old and eight or nine years old, and in that second year there was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing to London.

“Once the children’s holidays had started we could come to Chichester as much as we wanted. I stayed in Bosham one year and in Selsey the next year. There were lots of children around and it was the most marvellous family feel to the whole thing.”

Frank admitted it all seems a long time ago now, but the passing years hadn’t dimmed his admiration for Olivier.

Olivier’s contribution wasn’t just to Chichester. It was to the National and to the world of acting in general, Frank was quick to insist. But those Chichester days were special indeed.

“I worked with him over many many years. We did a lot of plays together and we worked on television. I was devoted to him both as a man and as an actor.”

Finlay returned to the CFT in the 1990s to appear as Captain Hook opposite Toyah Willcox’s Peter Pan. He also appeared opposite future Downton Abbey star Hugh Bonneville in The Handyman in the Minerva.