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Alfie Bass

The well known actor, Alfie Bass, was born Abraham Basalinksy in 1916 in Bethnal Green, London, the youngest of a large Jewish family. His parents had fled persecution in Russia and would have welcomed the 1917 revolution as liberation.

After leaving school at the age of 14, Alfie worked first as a tailor's apprentice, then a messenger boy, and a shop-window display fitter. His acting career began at Unity Theatre, London in the late 1930s, appearing in `Plant In The Sun’, with Paul Robeson, and as the pantomime King in `Babes In The Wood’.  Unity was a Camden theatre club formed in 1936, which was strongly influenced by the Communist Party and came out of the Workers' Theatre Movement. Alfie’s teenage years were dominated by the exhilaration of learning his trade at Unity Theatre.

At the age of only 19, Alfie became a leading figure in the Communist-inspired Londonshelter movement, which emerged during the early stages of World War Two, as the blitz ensued. Londoners resolved the problem of a lack of public air raid shelters, after local Communist groups led the way, by the simple remedy of breaking in what were at first locked underground stations.

This Communist Party initiative took on a typically organised approach.  Some local shelter committees produced newsletters, such as the Hampstead Shelterers’ Bulletin. Partly through these publications and partly through planned co-ordination, an all-London network grew out of this struggle. This held a conference in November 1940, with some eighty delegates from around fifty shelter committees attending. The conference elected the LondonUnderground Station and Shelterers’ Committee and Alfie Bass was its secretary.

During the Second World War, Bass joined the Middlesex regiment as a despatch rider. Like many who found a niche in the post-war entertainment industry, Alfie was involved in concert parties, as well as taking part in documentaries for the Army Film Unit.

Back in Civvy Street, during the late 1940s and early 1950s, he directed plays at Unity and performed in works as diverse as Shakespeare and Shaw. His big break came in the late 1950s. Still remembered by some, is the low-budget masterpiece of an adaptation of a Gogol short story, which was renamed “The Bespoke Overcoat”.

Filmed in 1956, it became a widely-shown additional feature in cinema showings, especially in parts of London. The film is an ironic ghost story, which touches on themes of friendship, grief, poverty and injustice all of which illuminate the lives of immigrant workers. The roles in the story are played by Alfie Bass and also David Kossoff, who was also a rather well-known actor of the 1960s-80s. Kossoff has been reputed to have also been a Communist at the time and earlier, and may have still been so up to the time of the 1967 `six days war, in which Israel aggressively expanded its borders. Kossoff’s sense of Jewishness overcome his commitment to radical politics, unlike Bass. 

The film certainly aided both men’s professional careers. Whilst Bass had first appeared on film in wartime documentaries, he had to wait for `The Lavender Hill Mob’ in 1951, set in Battersea to really project him into the limelight. Yet, had his career blossomed in the late 40s or early 50s, Bass may have found himself subject to hostility from producers owing to the unofficial boycott of Communists promoted by cold war warriors.

Thus, for much of the 1950s, he did not find film work but, partly since his accomplished character acting of specific London types made him eminently book-able, and partly since a new mood began to emerge in the late 1950s, he began to be seen on high budget mainstream productions after `The Bespoke Overcoat’.   

A break in television brought him to widespread public attention after he appeared in the comedy show, `The Army Game’, from 1957 to 1961), as a private and a spin-off with the same lead characters in `Bootsie and Snudge’, which ran from 1960 to 1963.

The exposure brought more work and Alfie was in `A Tale of Two Cities’ in 1958. Bass later appeared in the well-known film, `Alfie’ (no connection to him!) in 1966, which starred Michael Caine, and he also took over from Chaim Topol in `Fiddler on the Roof’ on the West Endstage. In all, Alfie was the almost stereotypical `Cockney’ and/or Jewish variant in a total of over sixty films. He had roles in the TV series `Till Death Us Do Part’, `Minder’, and `Are You Being Served?’.

Alfie was openly supportive in all this time, even at the height of his fame, of the Daily Worker and later the Morning Star, being interviewed around the time of the 1967 six days war in the paper, in the context of his declaration of life-long support for the Party and paper. Alfie was also publicly to the fore in campaigns against the Vietnam War in the mid to late 1960s.

Many participants in Unity Theatre, which Bass was long associated with, recall his support for the Party. He was also a frequent visitor to the social scene at the Highgate home of the Communist Party’s Seifert family. Contemporaries, Harold Godwin and Aubrey Morris have both confirmed that Alfie Bass was a long-term Communist Party member.  

His profile fell somewhat during the 1970s and has been next to impossible to discover where Alfie stood on events the unfolded within the Communist movement in the last decade or so of his life. But he continued to work periodically in a range of roles in TV and in film and died suddenly on 15th July 1987.