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Archdale, Alexander Mervyn (1905–1986)

by Ailsa McPherson

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Alexander Mervyn Archdale (1905-1986), actor, director and manager, was born on 26 November 1905 at Jhansi, India, second of three children of Theodore Montgomery Archdale, British soldier, and his wife Helen Alexandra, née Russel. Alexander returned to England with his mother as a young child and attended (1914-24) Bedales school, Hampshire. In 1925-27 he was enrolled at McGill University, Montreal, Canada, where he spent most of his time in the drama club, and did not complete his studies. Commencing his stage career in a company run by Henry Ainley, he then performed for five years in British repertory theatre and began producing for stage clubs. Archdale made his first London appearance in 1932, establishing a career as a West End supporting actor, mainly in light comedy. He married Lilian Patricia Dysart Wolseley on 25 March 1933 at the register office, St Martin, London; they were later divorced. Archdale served at sea and ashore in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve in 1940-45, and was demobilised as a temporary acting lieutenant commander.

Like other ex-service personnel Archdale could find little work, so he invested his gratuity in establishing in London the Services Sunday Society, a production company and agency which in 1946 presented Sunday performances by returned servicemen. From 1946 he performed in a variety of plays and also on radio and television. Nevertheless he felt out of sympathy with the contemporary theatrical style and left England at the end of 1951 to visit his sister, Betty Archdale, in Sydney. Joining the Mercury Theatre, he produced and acted in plays including Strindberg’s The Father, in which he was judged to be the `outstanding actor for 1952’. In 1953 Archdale led an extensive Arts Council of Australia tour in country New South Wales, and in 1954 performed in Alan Melville’s light comedy Dear Charles. Later he was a director with the Young Elizabethan Players.

In the 1950s Archdale was associated with the Australian Broadcasting Commission: on the opening night of ABN-2 in Sydney in 1956 he played the lead in J. M. Barrie’s The Twelve Pound Look. He had appeared in films in England and Australia including House of Darkness (1948), Floodtide (1949) and His Majesty O’Keefe (1953). He also provided commentaries for the Commonwealth Film Unit in Australia. In 1957 he returned to Britain, briefly revisiting Australia in 1960 for the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust. Next year in England he suffered a heart attack while working on the television series Deadline Midnight. This experience led to his decision to settle in Australia.

Beginning a new phase of his career with an appearance as the Earl of Warwick in George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan at the Adelaide Festival of Arts in 1962, Archdale achieved his main goal in 1965 when he founded the Community Theatre Company Ltd (Marian Street Theatre Company) on Sydney’s North Shore. There was an echo of the approach of the nineteenth-century actor--manager in his conception of the company, with Archdale appearing in and directing many productions. His stated aims were to `bring the theatre to the people’, to provide work for actors and to teach. He planned to stage classics, being outspoken in his objection to the current experimental theatre. His productions received mixed reviews and the theatre suffered financial difficulties, even with a change to supposedly more popular works. Archdale was involved in the creative, technical and administrative aspects, and this broad engagement interfered with the performance of his designated artistic role. A car accident accelerated his retirement (1970) as artistic director. He continued to live on the 5-acre (2 ha) property at Galston which he had purchased with his sister early in the 1950s.

In 1972 Archdale again visited Britain but found little employment, and returned in 1974 to Australia, where he continued as a jobbing actor. Seeming dissatisfied, he was critical of the limited work available for older performers. He still had small parts in radio shows, local films and television series but had little success on stage. One of his last theatre appearances was in 1975 in the Old Tote’s production of Abelard and Heloise by Ronald Millar. He also performed in a one-man show, Time’s Wing’d Chariot (1977), at the Festival of Sydney.

Archdale was a tall, spare, rather gawky man, slightly precious in manner, with a shy giggle. He was a fine singer and classical musician and an adept sportsman. Although a loner and a perfectionist, he was sensitive and could be amusing, endearing and affectionate. He was a generous teacher who respected actors, and who saw `the best thing in the theatre … [as] the relationship between the performer and the audience’. But he also wanted his own way, liked to impress and could be argumentative. His wit could be cruel. Although skilled in his theatrical craft, he was too linked to pre-World War II British culture for the Australian ethos of his time. Survived by his two sons, he died on 13 May 1986 at Hornsby and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • B. Archdale, Indiscretions of a Headmistress (1972)
  • D. Macpherson, The Suffragette’s Daughter (2002)
  • Australian, 18 July 1967, p 16, 7 Nov 1970, p 10
  • TV Times, 2 Dec 1972, p 44
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 3 Oct 1975, p 57
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 15 May 1986, p 9
  • series SP1011/2, item 55 (National Archives of Australia)
  • Archdale and Community Theatre files (State Library of New South Wales)
  • private information.

Citation details

Ailsa McPherson, 'Archdale, Alexander Mervyn (1905–1986)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/archdale-alexander-mervyn-12146/text21763, published in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 30 July 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

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