Born on May 20th 1915 in Bushey, Hertfordshire, Peter Copley’s His parents were the printmaker John Copley and the painter Ethel Gabain, although one grandfather was a scientist. After changing his mind about joining the Royal Navy, Peter’s artistic tendencies came out in the form of acting, which he studied at the Old Vic school. He made his stage debut there as the gaoler in The Winter’s Tale in 1932, made his first film appearance in 1934 and a West End theatre debut came the year following that. He was part of a theatrical tour of south America in 1936, had a season at the Gate, Dublin in 1939 and worked at the Oxford Playhouse in Oxford.
It was Dicky (Walter) Hudd, an actor and light comedian, who introduced Copley to the Communist Party, which Hudd was a keen member of in the period just before the Second World War. They both lived in Hampstead and were good friends and Copley was himself a fully supportive member of the Party during all of the 40s and much of the early 1950s.
His wartime naval service (1940-41) was sandwiched between a wide range of theatrical work. He performed in Hamburg immediately after the war and spoke of seeing SS men sitting, broken, on the pavement, and himself finding a copy of Mein Kampf alongside the Bible in a dressing room. In Paris they played at the Comedie Francaise, the first time that any English company had ever played there.
From the autumn of 1944 to August 1945 Copley ran a theatre at Worthing on the south coast. In the run up to the 1945 general election, Copley recalled the actor-comedian Sidney Taffler and himself trying to persuade Larry Olivier to vote Labour, but the actor-manager was very doubtful about all this, very uncertain. “Two or three days later, he came to see us and he said, he said `You boys, you’re wrong,’ he said, `I’ve been having a talk to the general, the British commander in Hamburg, and he’s put me right on all this. I shall vote Conservative.’
Then, up to 1950, he achieved a high level of critical praise in performances for Olivier’s Old Vic Company at the New Theatre, St Martin’s Lane. Work appeared to dry up around this time and his leaving of the Communist Party did Copley’s career no harm, it has to be said, though he remained thereafter a committed socialist and was actively involved in the actors’ union Equity. He trained as a lawyer and was called to the Middle Temple bar in 1963, though he never practised.
Like many left-wing actors, his career took off in the 1960s. He appeared on television hundreds of times, in everything from The Forsyte Saga to The Avengers, The Bill and One Foot in the Grave. He was in many movies, including a role as the jeweller alongside the Beatles in `Help!’ (1965), and worked with some of the great directors. He was in Roman Polanski’s `Oliver Twist’, Steven Spielberg’s `Empire of the Sun’ (1987) and Basil Dearden’s `Victim’ (1962). Between 1980 and 1995, he appeared in 25 theatre productions, including many Royal Shakespeare Company productions. He worked on and off until the end of his life, and Peter Copley died on October 7th 2008, aged 93.
Sources: Peter Copley interview at: http://www.padovanet.it/infogiovani/memory2000/int_uk_1.asp
The Guardian October 11th 2008