Obituary: Christopher Downes ; Charismatic Theatre Dresser

By Granger, Derek | The Independent (London, England), December 22, 2003 | Go to article overview
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Obituary: Christopher Downes ; Charismatic Theatre Dresser

Granger, Derek, The Independent (London, England)

AS AN actor's dresser, Christopher Downes became one of the most charismatic and renowned of the back-stage luminaries who worked at the Old Vic during the great heyday of Laurence Olivier's newly formed National Theatre.

Few outside the acting profession can imagine what qualities and skills this humble-sounding functionary must successfully combine to be on top of the job. Confessor, confidant, candid friend, cheerleader, raconteur, psychologist and nanny - all these and more Downes exemplified in abundance. With his large and capable frame, his bluff Irish good looks, the embracing warmth of his character and his easy natural confidence, he had the personality to inspire a calming trust in even the most nervous or temperamental of actors.

After joining the National Theatre he soon became the favourite dresser of a host of stars including Laurence Olivier, Robert Stephens, Maggie Smith, Colin Blakeley and Albert Finney.

Peter Thomas Downes, the youngest of four children, was born in Hendon, the son of an army sergeant in the HAC and an Irish mother. He renamed himself Christopher after playing Christopher Columbus in a school play.

During the Second World War he was briefly evacuated to Ireland but soon returned to England after his mother obtained a position as housekeeper at a manor-house in Northamptonshire. Among the many grand guests was Winston Churchill, for whom the young Downes would run errands at his mother's behest.

He won a scholarship to Towcester Grammar School and when the family returned to London he finished his education at Willesden Grammar School, where the headmaster noted: "When Downes stops posing he might be very successful."

His first employment was with Simpkin Marshall, the wholesale book distribution company run by the publishing tycoon Robert Maxwell, who had spotted Downes as a likely talent and put him in charge of the Maxwell bookshop at the Ideal Home Exhibition. Overcome by a sudden surge of wanderlust Downes then cut adrift and took off to southern France where he spent time on the Isle St Marguerite, then a haunt of rich beatniks. Journeying north to Sweden, he found himself working as a jazz singer in a Stockholm night- club called the Blue Goose, an engagement quickly terminated when, afire with strong Swedish liquor, Downes fell suddenly off the stage in the middle of a number.

Back in London he went to work for the charity SOS as the warden of a hostel off Tottenham Court Road where, placed in charge of highly disturbed inmates, he had his qualities of tact and sympathy tested to the full. Returning to a more conventional way of earning his living Downes next went to Horne Brothers, the gentleman's outfitters, where he discovered that his new-found skill as a bookkeeper allowed him, after his work had been speedily accomplished, to slip away from the office to attend West End matinees.

As a stage-struck young man he had already struck up a friendship with the boisterous American musical star Betty Hutton, after seeking her autograph at the stage-door of the London Palladium. Downes now discovered his true bent and at Shepperton Film Studios he found himself dressing the Beatles as they were being filmed for various television appearances.

His big break came in 1962 when he was summoned to Wyndham's Theatre to dress Michael Redgrave in a play entitled Out of Bounds. Redgrave, notoriously self-critical and highly strung, established with Downes an immediate and easy rapport, finding in him just the kind of sympathetic support he required to quell his first-night fears. He also discovered in Downes a shared love of Milton (Redgrave was then preparing a stage version of Samson Agonistes) and he and Downes would recite to each other long passages of Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained.

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