Eric Portman: Forgotten movie idol

Eric Portman, and below with Michael Caine in Deadfall
Eric Portman, and below with Michael Caine in Deadfall
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It took a Halifax author to unravel the complex tale of Halifax film star Eric Portman, says film critic Tony Earnshaw.

Yorkshire breeds intensely territorial folk. Which is perhaps why they are doubly thrilled when a local lad or lass who’s made it good returns home to approbation and acclaim.

Nowhere is the example more relevant than in the movie stars that hail from the Broad Acres. The pantheon is impressive. York has Judi Dench, Sheffield has Sean Bean, Bridlington has Charles Laughton, Huddersfield has James Mason, Bradford has Michael Rennie, Hull has Tom Courtenay and Ian Carmichael.

Yet arguably the biggest of the lot is also the most neglected. He was a Halifax lad. And his name was Eric Portman.

During the 1940s and into the 1950s Portman was one of the biggest stars of British cinema, ranking alongside other greats such as John Mills and Trevor Howard. The movies are there to prove his appeal. Titles such as One of Our Aircraft is Missing, 49th Parallel, A Canterbury Tale, Daybreak, The Colditz Story, Millions Like Us, His Excellency, We Dive at Dawn, The Good Companions and The Naked Edge gave Portman a 30-year career on screen. He evolved from support to leading man to reliable character star.

In the West End and on Broadway he was notable for the lengthy service he gave to some popular productions, so much so that he rightly earned the sobriquet “Long-Run Eric”.

Now Portman’s career has been charted by Halifax author Andy Owens in a biography – the first – of an actor who appears as forgotten today as he was famous then.

Owens claims that his is the first-ever biography of Portman. And in a literary landscape scattered with memoirs of his contemporaries Our Eric – A Portrait of Eric Portman does indeed delve into the life and times of a star who was equally proud of his roots and secretive about his personal life.

Like Noel Coward and John Gielgud, Portman was gay during a period in British life when homosexuality was illegal. Coward’s sexuality was an open secret. Gielgud fell foul of the obscenity laws when he was arrested in 1953 for soliciting in a public lavatory. He survived the scandal.

One can only imagine the effect such tales had on Portman. In the 1940s he had bought a modest cottage with an apple orchard in the hamlet of Penpol, Cornwall. He shared it with his partner Knox Laing, a fellow actor variously described as manager and housekeeper.

The two were regulars at local inns and hostelries. Described as quiet, cultured, charming and reserved he nevertheless brought a touch of West End glamour to austere wartime Cornwall by sporting a silk dressing gown with white silk scarf. If he flaunted his style he was discreet about his life at Penpol.

None of this mattered to the wider film-going public because they knew nothing of it. To them Portman was that distant creature: a movie star. He knew how to behave around his fans and letters to Owens from those who crossed his path recall only a gracious and accommodating star.

Sympathetic features of the time picture Portman relaxing at home, with one of his dogs or taking tea with friends. The Hello! magazines of their era, they airbrush out any whiff of impropriety. Women, marriage and domesticity are not mentioned. The clues are there for any who wished to seek them. No-one did.

Donald Walker, former manager of the Grand Theatre, offers a succinct appraisal of Portman’s predicament: “One needs 
to remember that his time as a leading player on stage and screen came before 
the permissive years when actors such 
as Ian McKellen came out as openly gay men.

“Remember the horror amongst the tea cups when John Gielgud was arrested for soliciting; that incident put back his expected knighthood for at least a decade. Many other public figures stepped back into the shadows thinking, ‘There but for the grace of God...’ so Eric’s ultra-discreet private life was very understandable.”

Portman was oft quoted about his metamorphosis from stage actor to film star. He famously walked out on Hollywood in the late 1930s after being put to work in an Errol Flynn picture (The Prince and the Pauper) and emerging with the screen credit ‘First Lord’. Four short years later he turned in a star-making performance as a fanatical Nazi on the run in Powell and Pressburger’s propaganda piece 49th Parallel.

Thus his interviews focused on his youthful ambitions as the son of a Halifax tailor, his epiphany at age seven seeing a performance of A London Actress at the town’s Grand Theatre and the mechanics of acting. Portman was comfortable talking about his work; it presented him with a smokescreen and prevented any questions about his private life. One quote not destined for publication is attributed to Portman. He is alleged to have quipped: “Acting is like masturbation. You either do it or you don’t. But you never talk about it.”

During the war years Portman frequented the east coast where an aunt lived in Scarborough. He would travel by train, selling his autograph outside the station to raise money for warship funds. Then he would walk smartly to his aunt’s home in Garfield Road with his raincoat slung over his shoulders. Very much the actor.

“He’s here again,” the neighbours would say. One, Christine Holliday, was a child of eight when Portman used to visit. “Nobody mobbed this matinee idol in our quiet neighbourhood,” she recalled. “He simply visited his auntie and departed again like a good nephew should.”

His return visits to Halifax were of a more celebrated fashion. In his home town he was feted and mobbed. But he returned as a stranger who had moved on; still the local boy made good but with the knowledge – freely accepted by the crowds that thronged the streets – that he had left small-town life behind. There is newsreel footage of Portman presiding at the official opening of a new Halifax shop in the early 1950s. The star himself, lost within the cheering locals, can barely be seen. When he does emerge he wears the smile of a contented man.

In 1956 Portman returned to Halifax with the entire West End cast of his hit play Separate Tables. His purpose was to raise money for the Grand, then threatened with closure.

On the night – a sell-out – patrons read a foreword in the programme: “ Eric has come home. His beloved theatre must not close. He’s here to keep it open.”

Alas, the theatre did close shortly after. Portman himself bitterly lamented its loss and the end of a repertory company in Halifax. He was also quoted railing against the good folk of Halifax – they perhaps they did not deserve a theatre if they were not prepared to support it.

It was frustration talking – raw emotion rather than cold logic. But actors like Eric Portman built their careers on emotion and the loss of the Grand must have hurt. After that he rarely visited Halifax any more. He’d done his bit. In fact he’d done more than most.

The remaining 13 years of Portman’s 
life were taken up with stage work, films and radio. When he died in December 1969 he did so quietly in his sleep at home in Cornwall, with a minimum of fuss.

The late Bryan Forbes, who directed Portman in two films, claimed he was “grossly overlooked when it came to handing out honours” but pointed to Portman’s fondness for the bottle as a reason. He was, he added, “always pursued by his own demons”.

Our Eric – A Portrait of Eric Portman 
by Andy Owens is published by Sigma Press, www.sigmapress.co.uk.