September 1, 2003
By Brian Pendreigh
Andrew Ray became a star at the age of 10, playing the cockney waif who charms Queen Victoria in the popular sentimental drama The Mudlark, and for a while in the early fifties he was a major attraction in British films.
Son of comedian Ted Ray and brother of Face the Music’s Robin, the wide-eyed youngster was briefly the brightest star in a celebrated showbiz family. But Ray blew his fortune in his late teens and barely survived his fast lifestyle and dipping popularity, before re-establishing himself on television in the seventies and becoming a regular on Peak Practice in the nineties.
Stardom took its toll on the perky youngster. At 17 he had already gained control of GBP 5,000 of his earnings as a child actor, held in trust, and spent it recklessly in a short time. He partied wildly, bought a string of sports cars and survived two near-fatal crashes. Unemployed and burnt-out at 25, he attempted suicide.
However, by the mid-Seventies he had worked his way back from the brink to become a familiar and popular face in television drama. Born Andrew Olden (Ray was his father’s stage name) in London in 1939, he became a star by chance. He was recovering from the mumps when a casting director with 20th Century Fox called on his parents to see if his older brother would audition for The Mudlark. Robin proved too tall – Andrew got the part instead.
In the film, a cockney orphan lives by scavenging the banks of the Thames and finds a medallion of Queen Victoria. Obsessed with meeting her, he gatecrashes Windsor Castle and charms the widowed Queen out of seclusion.
Andrew’s impish performance was widely praised and the public adored him. He followed his success with films such as The Yellow Balloon and Woman In A Dressing Gown, but his schooling suffered.
He was born Andrew Olden (Ray was the family stage name) in London in 1939, supposedly while his father, a star of the music halls, was appearing on radio for the first time.
20th Century-Fox originally considered elder brother Robin for the role of Wheeler, the orphaned waif who manages to sneak into Windsor Castle and win royal favour in The Mudlark. But Robin was too tall and Andrew got his big break instead. The Mudlark (1950) also starred Irene Dunne as Victoria and Alec Guinness as Disraeli, but Ray stole the movie.
Later Ray recalled that his schooling, and indeed his childhood, effectively ended with the release of The Mudlark. He found himself in sudden demand, with a starring role in J Lee Thompson’s thriller The Yellow Balloon (1952) as a boy blackmailed into helping with a robbery. Ray’s innocent gaze dominated the poster, accompanied by a promise that the audience would be “wide-eyed in amazement”. But this was no family entertainment. At the time it was highly controversial, one of the first British films to get an adults-only X certificate, because of the element of “child terror”.
Thompson used Ray again in the melodrama Woman in a Dressing Gown (1957) as the teenage son whose parents’ marriage is falling apart. In between he made the thrillers Escape by Night and A Prize of Gold, and the schoolboy comedy Escapade, with Alastair Sim and John Mills. He also appeared in a number of plays, including a production of Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle.
He played a young policeman in John Ford’s Gideon’s Day (1958) with Jack Hawkins, but the transition to adult roles was not a smooth one. Able to access his trust funds at 17, he spent the lot in a matter of months, writing off two sports cars in the process. He married Rhodesian actress Susan Burnet, whom he met when they appeared in a play together.
In the early sixties he played the young homosexual in Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey on stage in New York and appeared in the films Twice Round the Daffodils and The System, whose American title The Girl-Getters adequately describes the premise. But while the careers of co-stars Oliver Reed, David Hemmings, and John Alderton were on the rise, Ray found it increasingly difficult to secure the calibre of film roles that had come so readily to him in the fifties.
Depressed and broke, he attempted suicide, underwent psychiatric treatment, and separated from his wife, who returned to Rhodesia with their two children, though they later got back together for a time, and never divorced.
In South Africa he helped stage a one-woman show by Churchill’s daughter, Sarah, with whom he had previously appeared in the film Serious Charge (1959).
Queen Victoria helped launch his acting career and George VI played a vitalrole in reviving it. In the early seventies, Ray played George VI in the play Crown Matrimonial, and he reprised the character, albeit as Duke of York, in the 1978 television series Edward and Mrs Simpson.
It was followed by several single dramas and appearances in a wide range of programmes including Tales of the Unexpected, The Goodies (as Churchill), Inspector Morse, and latterly Peak Practice, the long-running Derbyshire medical drama, in which he played Dr John Reginald.
He is survived by his wife, daughter, and son.