Top Ten British Film Actors of the 1970s who Didn’t Become Film Stars

September 4, 2021
Stephen Vagg turns his eye to the British film industry of the 1970s and asks why a country that produced so many stars in the 1960s and 1990s made so few in the 1970s.

The 1970s is a fascinatingly odd decade in British screen history. It has always lived under the shadow of the 1960s, when UK cinema dominated the Western world; the subsequent generation is associated with decline, strikes, and movies involving extreme violence, sex and big-screen adaptations of TV shows. In recent years, there has been an increasing reappraisal of the 1970s; I’d like to discuss it in terms of movie stars.

In the 1960s, Britain was a movie star factory. There had been plenty of stars from the sceptred isle in previous years but nothing like the sixties explosion; you had swinging London, musicals, angry young men theatre, smashing birds, spies and sex-mad kitchen sinkers.

What was left of the Empire, pumped out movie star after movie star: Michael Caine, Hayley Mills, Albert Finney, Terence Stamp, Julie Christie, Alan Bates, Julie Andrews, Vanessa Redgrave, Lyn Redgrave, Peter O’Toole, Sarah Miles, Peter Sellers, Hayley Mills, Oliver Reed, Richard Harris, Sean Connery, Rita Tushingham, Susannah York…  not to mention the continuing popularity of stars who started in the 1950s like Stanley Baker, Dirk Bogarde, Peter Finch, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, Vincent Price, Richard Burton, Laurence Harvey, Alec Guinness, Deborah Kerr, the Carry On team and so on…  It was, truly, a tidal wave of talent.

That all changed in the 1970s. Hollywood money, which propped up the British industry in the late 1960s, was withdrawn. Cinema attendances plummeted. High tax rates led to many big stars emigrating. British film production slowed right down.

This had inevitable impact on the production of new movie stars. There were some… Glenda Jackson emerged as a genuine box office draw off the back of a series of brilliant performances. Roger Moore had been internationally known from The Saint, but being cast as James Bond put him in a different league. Frankie Howerd, after years of trying, finally graduated from television to features with success in the Up Pompeii series. The Monty Python team became hugely popular. A jovial youngster called Robin Askwith carved out a niche in sex comedies and Fiona Richmond was one of several porn stars. At the end of the decade, Dudley Moore sprung up seemingly overnight from stage draw to genuine box office attraction.

A number of already-established stars had a strong ‘70s too, especially Harris, Connery, Christie, Redgrave, Burton, Sellers, Finney, Peter Finch, Oliver Reed and (to general surprise) Joan Collins. They had their ups and downs to be sure, but all were stars at the beginning of the decade and remained so at the end.

What is notable about the decade though, is the number of “false dawn” stars in 1970s British cinema. By “false dawn star”, I mean one who comes along and everyone thinks is going to be the next big thing, but then they fade away. (In Australia, anointing the next Mel Gibson/Russell Crowe/Cate Blanchett is an annual event; few make the distance.)

I’d like to go through my list of the top ten Britishers who surprisingly didn’t become film stars in the 1970s. In doing so, I stress I’m not making any criticisms as to their talent, ability or looks – for the record, all the people on this list have an abundance of all three. What I’m trying to do is analyse them as film stars.

Jon Finch

In the early 1970s, Jon Finch, an up-and-coming leading man, received the sort of break most male actors would kill for: the lead roles in the latest movie from two legendary directors, Roman Polanski (Macbeth) and Alfred Hitchcock (Frenzy). For a nanosecond, Finch seemed destined to be the Next Big Thing. His rise had been fairly rapid – the lead role in a TV series, Counterstrike (1969), the support in some Hammer horrors, and a brief cameo as one of Peter Finch’s lovers in Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971). The latter is a terrific little turn from Finch (Jon that is), all glowering intensity and danger; he leaps off the screen, as they say. The actor had a sexy back story too, being a former member of the SAS (reserves) and driving racing cars for fun. There were even whispers he might take over James Bond before Roger Moore got the gig in Live and Let Die (1972) and he was signed to a lead role in Robert Bolt’s Lady Caroline Lamb (1972).

While Macbeth was a commercial disappointment, Frenzy was a big hit and Lady Caroline Lamb did alright. However, Finch never became a star. He had the lead in a few films, The Final Programme (1973) and Diagnosis Murder (1974), then was out in Australia making the TV series Ben Hall (1975). He soon shifted into character actor land, which, because it was Britain, isn’t a bad place to be, mixing theatre with TV and the odd film (like 1978’s Death on the Nile).

What happened? He had a few flops, yes, but like I said, Frenzy was a hit and if Macbeth and Lady Caroline Lamb disappointed, they were widely seen. He was good looking, could act, but he was very much a blink-and-miss-it leading man. Was it lack of desire? Opportunity?

In hindsight, I think it was a failure to go to America. Finch stuffed around in Europe for a lot of the ‘70s, presumably having a good time, when going over and playing the Hollywood game would’ve been better career-wise. So maybe, he lacked the hunger you need to become a big star. I also think Finch had an anti-heroic persona that wasn’t amenable to long term stardom, at least not in the British film industry of the late ‘70s (it was different in the late ‘50s when Stanley Baker scowled his way to fame in a series of crime movies).

Finch’s character in Frenzy is incredibly unlikeable – when people talk about that film they generally discuss Barry Foster’s killer. I also wonder if Jon Finch actually liked acting that much? He did not seem to seek out working with really top directors and writers. That’s just guessing. Maybe it was bad luck.

Peter Firth

Years before Colin Firth became a film star, another Firth (no relation) seemed destined to become the next big thing. Peter Firth (b 1953) was a juvenile who leapt to theatrical fame when cast in the London and New York productions of the play Equus. It was an eye catching role, if you’ll forgive the pun, playing a boy who has blinded several horses, and  involved going full frontal on stage every night. Leading man offers came: Firth was cast in three big features, Aces High (1976), a redo of Journey’s End only with airplanes; Joseph Andrews (1977), Tony Richardson’s return to the world of Henry Fielding after Tom Jones (1963), and Sidney Lumet’s film of Equus (1977). All three films underperformed at the box office, and although Equus earned Firth an Oscar nomination, he never became a star.

So, Firth’s luck was bad. I also think that Firth, while a good actor, came across passive and sensitive on screen rather than dynamic: compare his Joseph Andrews with, say, Albert Finney’s Tom Jones. Maybe that limited his options. However, Firth went on to have a fine career in film (including a part in Polanski’s Tess), TV and theatre, especially TV.


Ingrid Pitt

For Hammer movie fans like myself, looking back on their early ‘70s period gives rise to much frustration. Why did they abandon a policy that had worked so well (i.e.  adaptations of well-known pre-existing source material) and start spending thousands on expensive risky original projects like Moon Zero Two (1969)? Why didn’t they work with better directors (did they lose Don Sharp’s phone number)? And most of all – why did they not use Ingrid Pitt more?

Hammer output is mostly associated with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee but their female leads were just as big a part of the movie’s success and every now and then they hit the jackpot. Ursula Andress was never more effective than in Hammer’s She (1965); ditto Raquel Welch in One Million Years BC (1966). Well, Ingrid Pitt looked to top both in The Vampire Lovers (1970). She was charismatic, beautiful, aggressive, sensuous, sympathetic, funny, warm – everything you needed in a Hammer star. Yet her actual horror CV is surprisingly short – Countess Dracula (1971), The House That Dripped Blood (1971), The Wicker Man (1973) and… that’s about it.

I know the British film industry was wonky in the ‘70s, but Pitt had X factor and was easily castable in the sort of films they were making: it is easy to envision her as, say, a cave girl, or reincarnation of an Egyptian princess, or psychotic killer. Apparently, Pitt turned down Twins of Evil, and she blamed her career downturn on being blacklisted after she left her industry-connected husband for another man.

I’m sure those things didn’t help, but there were likely other factors at play. I think that Hammer Films, in their heart of hearts, felt that their female stars were interchangeable. You only have to look at their track record – they had imitation Ursula Andresses (Carita, Olinka Berova), imitation Raquel Welches (Edina Ronay, Victoria Vetri, Julie Ege), and back up Ingrid Pitts (Yutte Stensgaard, Katya Wyeth). They never seemed keen to build up their female stars the way they did with their male leads, tike Cushing and Lee, Ralph Bates, Oliver Reed and Shane Briant. There may have been other factors at play – and Hammer fandom being what it is, I’m sure I will be pulled up for something inaccurate here. But Ingrid Pitt was a fresh star at a time Hammer badly needed one and the fact that they only worked together twice is a damn shame.

Pitt was an icon, but I think if used correctly she could have saved the company, or at least prolonged it a few more years.

Oliver Tobias

Throughout the 1970s, the Swiss-born Tobias always seemed like he was on the verge of becoming a star. He gave off next-big-thing vibes with roles in Romance of a Horse Thief (1971), starred on TV in Arthur of the Britons (1972) and Luke’s Kingdom (1973) (shot in Australia), had the title role in The Stud (1978) with Joan Collins, and the lead in Arabian Adventure (1979). I have a soft spot for Arabian Adventure in particular, the fifth in a series of British adventure-fantasy films from director Kevin Connor and the first not to star American Doug McClure.

The only hit was The Stud and credit for that went to Joan Collins, who somehow managed to keep appearing in feature film leads throughout that decade (eg. Revenge, Fear in the Night, Empire of the Ants) before roaring back with Dynasty. Tobias never became a star in his own right – within a few years of the 1980s, he was in supporting roles. Maybe, he should have moved to Hollywood. Maybe, he didn’t want stardom. Maybe, he just lacked that specific individuality the great stars need. And British cinema in the 1980s was an even tougher time to be a star of British films unless you were Michel Caine, Jeremy Irons or ex-Monty Python. However, as pointed out by David Del Valle in his Trailers from Hell commentary for The Stud, Tobias has remained a jobbing actor for many years and that alone is a considerable achievement.

Edward Fox

Edward Fox was a busy actor in British cinema, often being mistaken for his higher-profiled brother James, popping up in movies like Battle of Britain (1969) and The Go Between (1971). He received the role of a lifetime when cast in the lead of The Day of the Jackal (1973), an excellent movie and big hit that seemed to promise a real run for Fox as a leading man. But, it never panned out that way, and he went back to supporting roles relatively quickly.

I think Fox was basically a (very good) character actor who got a big star role, but that role depended on a certain kind of anonymity to be effective, which did not translate into a long reign as star. Michael Caine is a great star, but I don’t think Caine would have worked as well as Fox in Day of the Jackal because Caine has too much of a distinct personality. Still, like all the actors on this list, Fox has gone on to have an excellent career. You’re far better off being a star who didn’t quite make it in Britain than in Hollywood – there’s far less stigma.

Jenny Agutter

There’s a generation of boys and girls for whom if you hear the words “Jenny Agutter”, their hearts will skip a beat. In part because of her girl next door English rose quality, but also, to be honest, the disrobe factor, as most notably seen in Walkabout (1971), China 9 Liberty 37 (1978), Equus (1977) and American Werewolf in London (1981).

Agutter is best known for playing “The Girl” – but it’s often forgotten she had the lead in The Railway Children (1970) and Walkabout (1971) and the TV movie The Snow Goose (1971), and did extremely well in all.

Yet, while Railway Children was a big hit and Walkabout and Snow Goose widely seen, Jenny Agutter did not make a feature film after Walkabout until her “The Girl” parts in Logans Run (1976) and The Eagle Has Landed (1977). She wasn’t idle – she did a lot of TV – but why did feature film directors and producers steer clear? She would have been perfect to star in, say, a comedy, a woman in peril thriller, a horror, a period drama, a terminal illness weepie. But she rarely got the chance for an actual lead in features until Sweet William (1980) and Amy (1981). Maybe the public wouldn’t have gone for her but it seems odd, not to mention unfair, Agutter never got the chance. But then, one of the hallmarks of British cinema was its lack of interest in female stars unless they were Glenda Jackson (eg. Diana Rigg). At least there was a healthy theatre and TV scene which kept Agutter busy.

Simon Ward

Ward was a chubby cheeked actor who specialised in aristocrats – you’d recognise him from a hundred different television performances, but he’s best known for starring in two big British films of the seventies, Young Winston (1972) playing Winston Churchill, and All Creatures Great and Small (1975), as James Herriot. Both were big hits in England and when you throw in a well-received turn as the Duke of Buckingham in The Three Musketeers (1973), which was a global blockbuster, one wonders why Ward didn’t have more of a spell as a leading man. Indeed, he only starred in a few more features such as Deadly Strangers (1975) – by the late ‘70s he was back to being a supporting actor in films like Zulu Dawn (1979). From interviews I have read it seemed like Simon Ward didn’t have the drive to really push his film career, especially not when other options were available. Also, he had an aristocratic look that wasn’t hugely in demand at the time. Still, it’s odd that he played so few lead roles in features.

David Essex

An amiable performer who leapt to fame starring in two unicorns, i.e. successful British films in the mid ‘70s: That’ll Be the Day (1974) and its sequel Stardust (1975). This helped Essex become a pop star, and he was hugely busy alternating recording and touring with appearing in stage musicals. It seems a little odd that he didn’t make another film until Silver Dream Racer (1980) but such was the rickety nature of the British film industry of the time. It feels like British producers missed a trick not putting Essex in another musical film during the late ‘70s (or even ‘80s – Silver Dream Racer was a sports film) – that’s what they did for artists such as Tommy Steele, The Beatles and Cliff Richard in their heyday – but maybe there were no suitable projects. Essex was probably wise to concentrate on singing and musicals, where he’s remained a genuine box office draw.

Michael York

A tricky one. Was Michael York a movie star? He had one of the best runs of British leading men in the 1970s, including Cabaret (1972), The Richard Lester Musketeers films (1973-74), Murder on the Orient Express (1974), Conduct Unbecoming (1975) Logans Run (1976), The Last Remake of Beau Geste (1979). He’s certainly played the most leading roles out of anyone on this list, and it seems a little unfair in a way to put him in with the rest. But I do, because despite starring in many, many hit films, York never seemed to quite consolidate himself at the top. He was in a lot of hits but people gave credit to the quality of the source material or a co-star rather than York. For instance, the bulk of the credit in Cabaret went to Liza Minelli, in Beau Geste to Marty Feldman, in Logan’s Run to the concept. He never enjoyed a reputation as a great actor. He suffered from the further decline of the British industry in the 1980s and never managed the segue into “Hollywood villain type” of say Jeremy Irons or Malcolm McDowell or grand old man of the theatre like Tony Hopkins. Michael York’s had a glorious career with many fabulous performances; one just senses he was taken a little bit for granted.

Susan Penhaligon

An “English Rose” type probably best remembered for her star turn in the Aussie film Patrick (1978), Penhaligon played a lot of leads in ‘70s British films: Private Road (1971), No Sex Please We’re British (1973), The Land That Time Forgot (1974), House of Mortal Sin (1976), The Uncanny (1977), Leopard in the Snow (1978). She was a scream queen I guess, though she was probably best known for the TV series Bouquet of Barbed Wire (1976). Penhaligon had her moment in the sun; the moment passed but she remains a busy, jobbing actor. She might’ve made a bigger splash in, say the 1990s, when there were better opportunities for female film stars in England.

If the 1970s were tough times for British stars, the 1980s were even worse. Some old timers like Michael Caine and the Python boys did okay, but only a few new names came through like Jeremy Irons (and, briefly, Tom Conti – remember when he was a star after Reuben Reueben?).

However, in the 1990s, Britain reverted to its own star making ways. Consider who took off during that decade: Daniel Day Lewis, Ken Branagh, Emma Thompson, Hugh Grant, Rowan Atkinson, Kate Winslet, Judi Dench. The big change, of course, was the local industry boomed again, with infusion of Lottery money and the success of movies like Four Weddings and a Funeral (1995). I also think the ‘90s saw the re-emergence of star driven commercial British films (romantic comedies, period dramas) which had gone away for two decades. The talent was there to make British stars in the ‘70s and ‘80s – what the actors lacked was opportunity.

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