Malcolm Bull's Calderdale Companion : Foldout

Eric Portman

Eric Portman – the popular film star and theatre actor – was born Eric Harold Portman at 71 Chester Road, Akroydon, Halifax, the son of Matthew Portman.

There is some confusion amongst filmographers about his exact birthdate: most record it as 13th July 1903, but this is incorrect.

The documents show that

The council erected a Blue Plaque in his memory at 20 Chester Road, Akroydon which shows the incorrect date of birth, 1903. This may be a consequence of house renumbering as he was born at 71 Chester Road.

He was best known for his portrayal of strong, sensitive men – often with a psychotic tendency – and his firm, commanding voice made him ideal for his rôles in war movies. He was rarely the ladies' man or the lover.

After leaving Rishworth School, Eric went to work for a short time in the Halifax shop of his father – Matthew Portman.

In 1922, he started work as a salesman in the menswear department at Marshall & Snelgrove's department store in Leeds

He was a member of the Halifax Opera Society and the King Cross Amateur Dramatic Society

Eric was a friend of Wilfred Pickles and Wilfred's brother, Arthur.

In 192?, the actor-manager Henry Baynton came to play at the Theatre Royal in Halifax. Eric joined the company.

In 1923, he joined Robert Courtneidge's Shakespeare Company while it was playing at the Grand Theatre, Leeds. In 1924, he made his professional stage debut when played his first speaking part with the company at the Victoria Theatre, Sunderland.

In 1924, he made his first appearance on the London stage at the Savoy Theatre as Antipholus of Syracuse in The Comedy of Errors.

He was engaged by Lilian Baylis for the Old Vic Company, and made a reputation as a noted Shakespearian actor, appearing as Romeo, Charles Surface, Edmund in King Lear, Arcite in The Two Noble Kinsmen and Strength in Everyman

On 14th February, 1928, he played Romeo at the reopening of the Old Vic in London.

In July 1932, he played John Worthing in The Importance of Being Earnest. The cast included Donald Finlay and Sybil Holroyd. This was the last production at the Theatre Royal, Halifax.

He had great success in the theatre in London and New York, and, from 1935, he appeared in many films. His only Hollywood appearance was a minor rôle in The Prince and the Pauper.

In 1936, he signed a contract with Warner Brothers in the US – though nothing came of it.

He claimed to have met Ribbentrop in 1937. This meeting was the basis of the play Dinner with Ribbentrop.

In 1942, he was voted one of the top 10 money-making stars in the British film industry.

In 1945, he won the Ellen Terry Award for Best Actor.

In 1948, he was voted one of the top 10 money-making stars in the British cinema.

On 5th November 1953, he came to Halifax to open Mollett's store in Silver Street.

On Sunday 11th March 1956, he brought a London production of Separate Tables – which Terence Rattigan had written specially for Eric – to raise funds to save the Grand Theatre, Halifax. Along with Eric, the cast included Margaret Leighton, Phyllis Neilson-Terry, Beryl Mason, and Basil Henson. Members of the audience included Robert Morley, Margaret Rutherford, and Laurence Harvey

In 1957, he was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Actor (Dramatic) for his Broadway performance in Separate Tables.

Except for short visits, he never returned to Halifax. In response to a question during an interview for the BBC Talkabout series in 1965, he said

What is there to go back to Halifax for?

He was a quiet, retiring man – possibly because of his homosexuality, in an era which was much less open than today and when this was a criminal offence.

It has been said that one of his lovers was killed by the Mau Mau whilst in Kenya.

In 1968, ill-health – a heart condition – forced him to retire while appearing in a production of John Galsworthy's Justice.

In 1969, Terrence Ladlow made a number of 16 mm educational films for schools. One of these was The Brontë Sisters and Ladlow, seeking a Yorkshire voice, asked Portman to record the commentary on the film. Portman agreed and recorded the commentary at studios in Soho Square, just three days before he died.

A life-long bachelor, Eric died at his cottage Penpoll in St Veep, Cornwall on 7th December 1969

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© Malcolm Bull 2017 /
Revised 19:05 on 4th February 2017 / p112_2 / 9