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Frederick George Peter Finch (1916–1977)

by I. M. Britain

This article was published:

Peter Finch, by John Vickers, 1951

Peter Finch, by John Vickers, 1951

National Library of Australia, 28558192

Frederick George Peter Ingle Finch (1916-1977), actor, was born on 28 September 1916 at South Kensington, London. His putative father was George Ingle Finch, a research chemist from Australia. George was attached to the Imperial College of Science and Technology, London, served with the Royal Field Artillery in World War I and later became a famous mountaineer. Peter's mother was English-born Alicia Gladys Finch, née Fisher. Her husband divorced her in 1920 on the grounds of her adultery with Wentworth Edward Dallas Campbell, an Indian Army officer and Peter's real father. The full circumstances of his birth were not revealed to Finch until he was in his mid-forties.

George and his sister Dorothy had assumed custody of Peter before the divorce. They subsequently dispatched him to their mother Laura who presided over a salon of artists and musicians at Vaucresson, near Paris. Abandoning Continental sophistications for sub-continental simplicities, in 1925 she embarked on a pilgrimage to Adyar, the Theosophical community near Madras, India, with Peter in train. His waif-like aura and wafer-thin body proved irresistible, at least in the spiritual sense, for Adyar's twin panjandrums Dr Annie Besant and 'Bishop' Charles Leadbeater. From Dr Besant, Peter had lessons in meditation; 'Bishop' Leadbeater was more noted for his lessons in masturbation. Early in 1926, not unwillingly, the young Finch (without his grandmother) joined a shipload of Theosophists bound for their Australian headquarters in Sydney.

At their Garden School at Balmoral, Peter first learned to read and write English. He soon had to quit this progressive establishment when Laura's estranged husband Charles, a pillar of bourgeois rectitude, discovered his 'grandson's' existence in Sydney and removed him to the family home at Greenwich Point. Peter attended the local public school until 1929, and, over the next three years, North Sydney Intermediate Boys' High School. These institutions provided him with his earliest opportunities to show off his versatile dramatic talents. While working as a copy-boy for the Sun, he developed a taste for popular writing which might have developed into a career in journalism. He produced romantic verses, and yarns and sketches with a bush or army setting, several of which appeared in the A.B.C. Weekly in the early 1940s.

Travelling from the age of 19 with the tent-shows of George Sorlie, Finch had played in both variety and legitimate theatre. His acting interests were nurtured by the small, semi-professional repertory companies in Sydney. From 1937 he was under contract to the Australian Broadcasting Commission and later sought by Macquarie Broadcasting Services Pty Ltd because of his adaptable accent and richly resonant voice which—according to one commentator—'dripped sex appeal'. He won Macquarie awards for the best radio actor in 1946 and 1947, worked as a producer and as a compere, and wrote scripts based on his own fiction.

His luxuriantly wavy hair and his facial features—penetrating eyes, high cheekbones, tulip-shaped mouth, solid curving jawline—made him 'a natural' for the screen. He had taken prominent roles in several Australian feature films from the late 1930s, including Dad and Dave Come to Town (1938). Enlisting in the Australian Imperial Force on 2 June 1941, Finch served as a gunner in the 2nd/1st Anti-Aircraft Regiment in the Middle East (1941-42) and in Darwin (1942) where he entertained the troops with impromptu shows known as 'Finch's Follies'. He was then posted to concert parties throughout Australia and was granted leave to appear in some wartime documentaries for the Department of Information and in Charles Chauvel's feature film, Rats of Tobruk (1944). Promoted sergeant, he was director of the Army Theatre Unit at Pagewood, Sydney, when discharged medically unfit on 31 October 1945. At St Stephen's Anglican Church, Woollahra, on 21 April 1943 he had married the Russian ballerina Tamara Rechemcinc ('Tchinarova'), a principal dancer with the Borovansky company; they were to have one daughter.

After the war Finch kept up the tradition of touring theatre with the Mercury Mobile Players which performed in factories during the workers' lunch-hour. Its repertoire included serious drama and there was a theatre-school attached to it where Finch became a treasured teacher. He also prepared lectures on the history of Australian theatre for the Sydney University Dramatic Society. In a limited way, the Mercury enterprise provided an experimental model for an Australian national theatre. In August 1948 his performance in an English version of Molière's Le Malade Imaginaire so impressed the touring Sir Laurence (Lord) Olivier that he offered him a theatre contract, on the strength of which Finch left for London next year.

Another early patron was the English director, Harry Watt, who persuaded Ealing Studios to give Finch his first part in British films (in Train of Events, 1949). For a few years Finch successfully combined cinema with theatre, sharing the stage with the likes of Dame Edith Evans, (Sir) John Mills, Orson Welles and Claire Bloom. In addition, he worked for British Broadcasting Corporation radio and television programmes; but, after landing his first movie lead in the Hollywood production of Elephant Walk (1954), he concentrated almost exclusively on film.

His talents as a film actor were as versatile as in radio and theatre, and gained him international recognition. In 1947 he had been assistant-director of a documentary on Arnhem Land Aborigines, Primitive People (1949), an experience which stood him in good stead when, in 1959, he wrote and directed a fictionalized documentary on a young boy's life on the Spanish island of Ibiza: entitled The Day (1960), it won him awards in 1961 at film festivals at Venice, Italy, and Cork, Ireland. Although he only returned briefly to Australia for the shooting of The Shiralee and Robbery under Arms (both released in 1957), Finch had already made himself into something of a symbol of Australian maleness through his appearance as Nevil Shute's hero, Joe Harman, in A Town like Alice (1956). In this role he most embodied the world's idea of the 'typical' Australian man—lean, intrepid and laconic—and won the first of several British Film Academy awards for best actor. Yet both his face and his voice were sufficiently flexible to attract demand for a vast range of character types: he won British academy awards for his portrayal of the title character in The Trials of Oscar Wilde (1960) and of the homosexual Jewish doctor in Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971).

Finch clearly radiated a catholic sensuality, though his character off the screen was quite assertively heterosexual. It was for his relationships, in his maturity, with a series of 'leading ladies' that he attained worldwide notoriety. An affair with Vivien Leigh, which began during the making of Elephant Walk, helped to precipitate the breakup of his marriage to Tamara. Following their divorce, he married a 25-year-old South African actress, Yolande Eileen Turnbull ('Turner'), on 4 July 1959 at the register office, Chelsea; they lived mainly in London and had a son and daughter. Press rumours in 1964 of a relationship with the singer Shirley Bassey proved the last straw for this marriage. Finch was to find greater stability in his relationship with Mavis 'Eletha' Barrett, with whom he lived from 1966 at her home in Jamaica; they had a daughter in 1969, were married in Rome on 9 November 1973 and remained together. Finch died of myocardial infarction on 14 January 1977 at Los Angeles, California, United States of America, and was buried in Hollywood Memorial Park. His wife and children survived him. Posthumously, he won British and American academy awards, as well as a Hollywood 'Golden Globe', for his role as the crazed television anchorman, Howard Beale, in Network (1976).

Select Bibliography

  • H. Porter, Stars of Australian Stage and Screen (Adel, 1965)
  • D. Shipman, The Great Movie Stars (Lond, 1972)
  • T. Faulkner, Peter Finch (Lond, 1979)
  • E. Dundy, Finch, Bloody Finch (Lond, 1980)
  • Y. Finch, Finchy (Lond, 1980)
  • M. Pate, An Entertaining War (Syd, 1986)
  • University of Sydney Union, Union Recorder, 3 Apr 1947
  • Woman's Own, 23 Sept 1961
  • Good Housekeeping, 100, no 5, Nov 1971, p 89
  • Times (London), 10 Nov 1973, 15 Jan 1977
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 16 Jan 1977
  • Finch papers (National Library of Australia).

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

I. M. Britain, 'Finch, Frederick George Peter (1916–1977)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 15 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (Melbourne University Press), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Peter Finch, by John Vickers, 1951

Peter Finch, by John Vickers, 1951

National Library of Australia, 28558192

Life Summary [details]


28 September, 1916
London, Middlesex, England


14 January, 1977 (aged 60)
Los Angeles, California, United States of America

Cause of Death

heart disease

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

Military Service