Dudley was a one-off, a unique confection of actor, performer, poet, artist, writer and one of the funniest people I have ever met. His ribald and gloriously indiscreet tales of life in the theatre, television and film kept one entertained for hours, and his fierce attacks on pomposity were always well-aimed and invariably hit the target. He was not a man who took prisoners or suffered fools gladly. He told it how it was and never shrank from the truth, and when egged on by an appreciative audience, he would deliver a killer punch in the form of a withering put-down. He was also around long enough to have mixed with some of the great and the good of British theatre and movies, and had an endless stream of stories about John Gielgud, Larry, Richard Harris, Peter O’Toole and Richard Todd, some unrepeatable in a family newspaper.
His first big break was in Sidney J Furie’s The Leather Boys as a gay biker astride a Norton in 1964, with his baby-face, tousled hair and an air of nonchalant confidence about him. He had bit parts in early episodes of Dixon of Dock Green, Z-Cars, The Sweeney and The Beiderbecke Affair, and was rarely out of work, appearing in such films as Ken Russell’s The Devils, Federico Fellini’s Casanova and Sally Potter’s Orlando with Tilda Swinton. He was always drawn back to the theatre, however, as he tired of playing villains in crime series on TV, his villainy made all the more chilling by having such a lived-in cherubic face. He was in the first production of Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr Sloane at the New Arts Theatre in 1964 playing Sloane, directed by Patrick Dromgoole. He appeared in a number of episodes of Emmerdale, Holby City and Eastenders as Wilfred, but his most widely-praised and much-loved role was as Tinker Dill in Lovejoy with Ian McShane. Now, there was a man who Dudley revealed that he was not all that he seemed. Tinker was Dudley’s own creation, in his flamboyant check suits, beret, silk handkerchief and spotted bow-tie, and was the perfect antidote to the skallywaggish Lovejoy, as he oozed charm and warmth as the tout.
Charm and warmth was what Dudley had in spades in ‘real life’, mixed in with friendliness and a genuine interest in the person to whom he was talking, but above all, it was his wit and humour that came across. He was also generous with his time, and would appear at dinners I was hosting at the London Sketch Club and perform his socks off, extemporaneously, with ne’er a note. He also turned up at this paper’s Christmas lunch in the loggia of the Chelsea Arts Club year after year and would recite some of his heroic verse, with jaw-dropping effect on some of the younger staff who had never heard anything of the like before. My Daughter’s Fucking Wedding was a favourite. He found a new lease of life in his seventies, with one-man shows at the Edinburgh Fringe, Killing Kittens in 2003 and Pandora’s Lunch Box in 2006. Dudley wanted to call it Pandora’s Hairy Lunchbox but they wouldn’t have it and tried to censor the show. He was furious, and thought the Fringe had become all too safe and corporate. Two years ago, he was playing Candy in Of Mice and Men at the King’s Head in Edinburgh, performing alongside a dog, which, in the audition notes said should look ‘relatively elderly and have the appearance of a ‘working’ dog.’ Going back on tour aged 83, because ‘I was out of work and I take what comes’, put a spring in his step and he put it down to ‘Dr Theatre’. Eight years ago, he appeared in Romeo and Juliet at Bristol Old Vic, set in an old folks’ home, with Sian Phillips and Michael Byrne. Charles Spenser wrote in the Daily Telegraph at the time, ‘Among the supporting cast, I particularly liked Dudley Sutton, whose mischievous Mercutio delivers the Queen Mab speech with great beauty.’
Actor, performer, poet, artist, writer and friend. I shall miss you, dear boy.