Leonard White – British Actor and Television Producer – 5th November 1916 – 2nd January 2016
Picture above: Leonard White – British Actor and Television Producer
Leonard White (5 November 1916 – 2 January 2016) was a British actor and television producer. In the latter role he was responsible for The Avengers and Armchair Theatre. Whilst researching his biography on Ian Hendry, Gabriel Hershman was very grateful to Leonard for his help in filling in much of the background with regards to the creation of Police Surgeon (1960) and The Avengers (1960)
He published a memoir, Armchair Theatre: The Lost Years, in 2003, and the first volume of his autobiography, Many Moons and a Few Stars, in 2010.
Here we pay tribute and reflect on his life and his great contribution to television.
The following obituary was first published in The Telegraph on 18th February 2016 – with additional pictures added of Ian Hendry, from Police Surgeon and The Avengers.
Leonard White, who has died aged 99, was a television producer responsible for the first 40 episodes of the cult “spy-fi” caper The Avengers, whose camp adventures helped to define 1960s television.
Picture: Ian Hendry in Police Surgeon – TV Times Cover October 2nd 1960
White was working in Canada when he was lured back to Britain by Sydney Newman, head of drama at ABC Television, to work on the series Police Surgeon (1960), starring Ian Hendry as Dr Geoffrey Brent. Police Surgeon did reasonably well but at the end of its run Newman decided that there would be no more series.
Instead White and the ABC drama team were asked to work up a new series based around Hendry’s acting talents. The result was The Avengers, in which Hendry played a doctor, Dr Keel, who becomes involved in dangerous escapades. To support this plot line they postulated a mysterious, debonair figure who would co-opt Keel into helping in various adventures. That character was John Steed, played by Patrick Macnee, whom White had known from Toronto. Initially Keel was the main character and Steed quite a peripheral figure.
The first series got off to a rocky start with the critics, but soon began to creep up the ratings.
Picture: Ian Hendry and Patrick Macnee – The Avengers (1960)
After the first 26 episodes, however, an actors’ strike intervened, forcing it off the air from the end of 1961 until September the following year. Then, as the strike neared its end, Hendry announced that he was moving on. Up against the clock, White and his team decided to enlarge the role of the Steed character and to introduce three new assistants, including the “anthropologist” Cathy Gale, played by Honor Blackman.
Picture: Honor Blackman and Patrick Macnee in The Avengers. Photo: Trinity Mirror / Mirrorpix / Alamy
“We decided to make her a compelling, brilliant woman, a match for any man,” White recalled. “We were hearing stories from the Mau Mau uprising of farmers being killed and their wives ably taking over the running of the farm – doing physical work, maintaining the machinery and taking up arms. This is the sort of woman we envisaged Cathy Gale to be. We even gave her an African background: she had married a white African farmer and gone to live on his farm, where he had been killed and she had carried on.”
Later, so the legend goes, she returned to England, got a PhD in anthropology and a job as curator in a museum. A chance meeting with Steed, in which he elicits her help in a case involving black magic, introduces her to the world of espionage.
The new-style Avengers proved a winner, and the introduction of a female lead was well received by the public. The leather catsuit-wearing Cathy won a devoted following and her flirtatious banter with Steed made the dialogue sparkle. She would be followed in turn by Diana Rigg and Linda Thorson. A huge cult hit, The Avengers ran from 1960 to 1969 and was shown in more than 70 countries.
After 40 episodes, however, White moved on to other projects.
Leonard White was born on November 5 1916 at Newhaven, East Sussex, where his father ran a bookmakers and his mother a newsagents. He was educated at the local Council School for Boys, where he was taken under the wing of an energetic headmaster, who established a company of all-boy Shakespeare Players. “I didn’t want anything to do with it. The thought of acting, of going on stage, scared me stiff,” White recalled. “I even got my mother to write a note to the headmaster telling him that I did not want to do it and asking that I be excused. He threw that note into his waste paper basket.”
White was horrified when, for his first part, he was cast as Lady Macbeth in the sleep-walking scene: “The funny thing was that after doing it – been made to do it – I didn’t want to do anything else but be an actor.”
After leaving school aged 16, he got a job as a customs-entry clerk with a French transport company, but he continued to act in his spare time at an old chapel which the headmaster had bought with his own money and where he had established a boys’ club and staged productions of Shakespeare.
Soon White moved to London where he got a job in a shipping company in the City and joined the Tavistock Repertory Company, a semi-professional company based in Bloomsbury.
Called up into the Army at the outbreak of the Second World War, he was selected to be an instructor in Signals and, after the end of the war in Europe, returned to the stage after securing a transfer to the Army Bureau of Current Affairs Play Unit.
After demob White called upon a director he knew who had been appointed manager of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon. Within a few days he was rehearsing for the 1946 season in a production of Cymbeline.
He went on to work alongside such actors as Ralph Richardson, Laurence Olivier and Michael Redgrave, and as an understudy to Dirk Bogarde. He also appeared in West End shows, most memorably as one of the original leads in Christopher Fry’s A Sleep of Prisoners (1951), also starring Denholm Elliott and Stanley Baker.
Picture: Leonard White, Denholm Elliott and Stanley Baker – A Sleep Of Prisoners (1953)
He then began to think of directing. Peter Hall took him on as an actor at the Oxford Playhouse with a promise that he could direct one play per season. Shortly afterwards Hall moved to the Arts Theatre in London and White was appointed director of the Oxford Playhouse in his stead. In the meantime, in 1953 White had been invited to direct (and act in) the Canadian premiere of A Sleep of Prisoners in Toronto. He cast Patrick Macnee and took the opportunity later that decade to take part in a training course run by CBC Television.
After 40 episodes of The Avengers, White won further acclaim as producer of ITV’s Armchair Theatre, and went on to work on many other productions, both for ITV and the BBC.
In 2002 he published a memoir, Armchair Theatre: The Lost Years, followed, in 2010, by an account of his early life, Many Moons and a Few Stars.
In 1942 White married Margaret Kent, who died in 2013. They had two sons, both of whom predeceased him. He is survived by his niece and five grandchildren.
Leonard White, born 5th November 1916, died 2nd January 2016
Our thoughts and condolences go to the family and friends of Leonard White.
Until next time,
Editor, Official Website of Ian Hendry
A detailed account of the life and work of Ian Hendry in the new biography: