Henry Stamper

Last updated 09 January 2020

Henry Stamper (1937-2009)
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Henry Stamper

Born: Tuesday 2nd March 1937
Died: Sunday 18th January 2009 (age: 71)


HARRY Stamper was an Edinburgh-born actor whose unique skill was his uncanny mastery of regional dialects, his repertoire extending far beyond his native Scotland.

Stamper, whose most successful work was performed in the 1970s, was master of almost the entire range of British dialects, be they Manchester north or Manchester south, Liverpool posh or Liverpool Irish, all delivered with a golden voice that accurately coloured every vowel and consonant.

It was a lifetime obsession. He would dismantle every dialect and intellectualise its structure and might, for example, offer friends informed discourses on the many minute variations of the word "hut" in various parts of Britain.

With Stamper, mimicry wasn't so much an art as a science, and it was a science he had mastered as few others in recent Scottish theatre

On one occasion he performed 56 separate voices in a single radio play, They Came to Britain, an achievement that earned him a place in the Guinness Book of Records.

During his most productive era he played usually small television roles in such classics as Dr Who, The Avengers, Z cars, The Saint, Softly Softly and The Wednesday Play.

He also performed in an even greater number of radio plays, which many saw as his forte, for although he was good looking his greatest talent lay in his voice, and radio was his best medium.

Perhaps his most notable stage appearance was at the 1977 Edinburgh Festival fringe, when he did a portrayal of Hugh MacDiarmid so accurate that even the usually thrawn MacDiarmid grudgingly admitted he had felt he was watching a younger version of himself. The play won Stamper a Fringe first, a greatly increased fan base and a lasting closeness to MacDiarmid.

He also wrote screenplays and produced a series of CDs of his own short stories.

Stamper's background was financially poor though culturally rich.

His father, a Geordie soldier, left his wife, Mary, and their four sons when Harry was still a baby and for the first 12 years of his life the family were to live in a single end in Hutchison, with Mary working as a nanny in Morningside and other wealthier parts of the city.

In the evenings Mary would sometimes settle her lively brood by doing hilarious impersonations of her employers and diverse others she had encountered during her day, and the young Harry was entranced and soon mimicking the mimic.

At night Mary would sleep on a couch in the front room while her four sons shared two beds, though they would all be up early doing paper rounds and any casual jobs available to make ends meet. Stamper's many tasks included working as a butcher's boy and several paper rounds.

Soon Stamper was apprenticed to a furniture maker, Martin's, in George Street, but he wasn't content and his passion lay with his hobby as a performer in amateur dramatic groups around town, for he had inherited his mother's skill as an impersonator.

Finally he got his break. A more senior member of one of his drama clubs had been asked to audition for Radio Scotland and had asked Stamper to "chum" him along and sit in the waiting room to give him courage. An assistant producer mistook the waiting Stamper for a youngster who had been called for another audition and he seized his chance, pretended he was the other candidate and landed the part.

His subsequent career was largely one of intensely focused effort on various small roles, the drudgery made tolerable by intermittent glory. He travelled the world in search of theatre work, particularly to Canada, and when he wasn't acting would fill in doing causal jobs or lecturing in drama.

Such a lifestyle wasn't easy for one so hugely talented and passionate about his calling and he sometimes sought solace through drink.

On such occasions a darker side would sometimes emerge, though many attributed this to his understandable frustration.

His private life was less fraught. He enjoyed supportive and stable relationships within his family and in 1968 became happily married to Helen Redmond, daughter of the renowned film actor Liam, though they divorced amicably around ten years later.

In middle age he was to partner Betty Huntly Wright in a successful relationship which ended only at her death in 1991, a loss from which he never fully recovered.

Stamper's latter days were not his best. He would become profoundly depressed and several of his latter stage performance were more expansive than the plays' authors might have wished.

Details from the Scotsman Obituary by Maxwell Macleod, 18 Feb 2009