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Kingston University acquires archive of talent scout Cary Ellison

Posted Monday 6 February 2012

Ellison’s withering assessment of Alan Bennett’s acting:  “a pity he was in it at all”.A collection of vintage theatre programmes owned by a professional talent scout, including detailed notes on some of the world's biggest stars early in their careers, has been donated to Kingston University.

Cary Ellison began his career as an actor in 1939, aged 24, spending many years in touring productions.  Eventually he decided to move on from acting and joined the staff of the casting directory Spotlight in 1953.

As part of his work, he would tour repertory theatre companies twice a year, making notes on each and every play, including his brutally frank assessments of the cast to help match the actors with suitable parts, and to identify future stars.  He sat through thousands of plays - some in draughty, damp seaside theatres - in order to get to know the talent that was advertised in Spotlight, and was the driving force behind the publication's growth.  The news that he was sat out front would be guaranteed to cause a shiver of excitement among any cast. Among the actors he spotted are some of the biggest names in British television and film, including Anthony Hopkins, Patrick Stewart, Derek Jacobi, Richard Briers, Judi Dench and Patricia Routledge.  When he retired in 1980, The Stage said "around 15,000 actors owe him a debt and, in many cases, a career".

Cary Ellison’s notes on Anthony Hopkins’ appearance in A Winter’s Tale.Picking out a young Anthony Hopkins who was playing Leontes in A Winter's Tale at the Queen's Theatre in Hornchurch in 1965, he described the future Oscar winner as "short and stocky" with a "good grasp on this complex character", and as being "'method' in his approach".  Future Hollywood star Patrick Stewart in the title role in Henry V at the Library Theatre in Manchester in 1963  had "a touch of the Peter O'Tooles" about him.   Ellison "liked him", even though he displayed "not a great variety perhaps, but it's a part that doesn't develop".

Actress Vanessa Redgrave was judged to look "tall and good - nearly very good" when she appeared in the panto Mother Goose at Leatherhead in 1958.  However Ellison was withering in his criticism of acting royalty Laurence Olivier in Semi-Detached at London's Saville Theatre in 1962. "Well I can honestly say that I hardly understood one word, even with glasses focused on his mouth.  And so miscast!" Alan Bennett's appearance in his own work Forty Years On in 1968 received similarly short shrift, with Ellison saying his performance was so "out of step" that "it was a pity he was in it at all".

University archivist Katie Giles with the Cary Ellison theatre programme collection."The great thing about Cary Ellison is that he didn't mince his words and he kept all his verdicts for posterity," university archivist Katie Giles said.  "He could be as critical of the big name famous stars as he was of up-and-coming actors and actresses.  He also watched performances with an extremely detailed critical eye - for instance he said one of the actress' hands were too 'red'."

Ellison wanted managements to find the most suitable talents, and he wanted to make opportunities, particularly for young actors. His influence was not confined to Spotlight. He also held an advisory service for performers looking to improve their career prospects, and founded '12', an association for those interested in supporting the future of the acting industry.

He retired from Spotlight in 1980, but continued to advise potential new actors at Guildford School of Drama.  He died in 2002, aged 87.

The Cary Ellison Theatre Programme Collection at Kingston University consists of the theatre programmes he collected on his tours of repertory theatres from 1953 to 1980.  Ellison's notes are very detailed and in some cases run to great length.  The collection provides a history of British repertory theatre for the latter part of the twentieth century.

When Cary Ellison retired in 1980, The Stage said “around 15,000 actors owe him a debt and, in many cases, a career”.

  •  Find out more about the archives at Kingston University.

Contact us

General enquiries:

Journalists only:

  • Communications team
    Tel: +44 (0)20 8417 3034
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Contact us

General enquiries:

Journalists only:

  • Communications team
    Tel: +44 (0)20 8417 3034
    Email us
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