Duckworth was known internationally for major works on the 18th
century, especially Voltaire and French counter-revolutionary
espionage, and on modern theatre, with particular reference to Samuel
Beckett. He was a freelance academic, writer and occasional
television actor and theatre director. He held an M.A. in Modern
Languages from Birmingham, where he studied singing at the
of Music. He also had a Ph.D. from Cambridge and a D.Litt. from
Melbourne University, where he was an emeritus professor and
professorial fellow. He was a Commander in the Ordre des Palmes
His theatre and book reviews, essays, stories and articles appeared in journals and newspapers in England, the U.S.A., Canada,
Australia, New Zealand, France and Germany. As writer, actor and
director he was involved in works for radio, television and
stage (including writing libretti for two children’s operas). He held British and Australian
nationalities, was married, lived in Melbourne, and had two children.
his third novel, grew out of a short story, ‘Summer
Lark’, which won the inaugural Melbourne Uni News
Sadly, Colin Duckworth passed away in December 2012.
His obituary from The Age
BY THE SAME AUTHOR
Steps to the High Garden, (Calder Publications, 1992)
Digging in Dark Places,
(Ryan Publishing, 1997) $19.95 RRP
ISBN 0958705 941
D’Antraigues Phenomenon: The Making and Breaking of a
Revolutionary Royalist espionage agent
Translations and adaptations for theatre
The Underground Lovers:
Twelve experimental plays by Jean Tardieu
The French Relapse
(a bilingual adaptation of Vanbrugh and Voltaire)
Ubu Deceived and Enslaved
(a bilingual adaptation of Alfred Jarry)
(an adaptation for solo performance of Albert Camus’
(music by Michael Easton)
Beauty and the Beast
Leon Bopp, Novelist and
Angels of Darkness:
Dramatic effect in Beckett and Ionesco
Samuel Beckett: En
Gustave Flaubert: Trois
Ernest Renan: Le
Broyeur de lin
Le Comte de Boursoufle
(with Marie-Rose de Labriolle)
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Obituary for Colin Duckworth
Scholar of French Literature Who Acted in TV Soaps
31 January 2013
Scholar, actor, writer
20 July 1926 to 6 December 2012
It is highly likely that Colin Duckworth was the only Melbourne University professor to act in Neighbours
[the Australian television drama series].
who has died at the age of 86, was a scholar of international renown,
an actor and a writer with a wide circle of friends, colleagues and
students around the world. While being an impeccable scholar, he was
also an accomplished actor and an intensely practical and compassionate
man with a great sense of humour.
Undoubtedly he will be best
remembered as one of the most significant writers on the works of
Samuel Beckett. In 1966 he produced the first critical edition of En attendant Godot
(Waiting for Godot
His correspondence with Beckett is widely cited as answering many of
the questions scholars and audiences have about one of the greatest
works of modern drama.
Colin’s start in life was not one that
promised the career he had. He was born on the outskirts of Birmingham
in England’s Midlands, not long after the 1926 general strike in
Britain. He grew up through the Depression and World War II in a family
in which no one had finished school, let alone gone to university.
father, Arthur Clement Duckworth, was a salesman, selling jam for
Lyons. His mother, Doris Ryder, was a talented musician who was stopped
by her father from finishing school or doing further study, even though
she was offered the opportunity.
Colin became bilingual at an early age, at home speaking as his parents did and at primary school using the ‘Brummy’ dialect.
But he passed the ‘11 plus’ exam and went to Moseley Grammar School and there excelled academically and in sport.
despite its grim reputation, was, and is, home to several great
cultural institutions, all of which Colin went to: the Birmingham Rep,
the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Stratford-upon-Avon is only
60 kilometres from Birmingham. Colin would ride his bike through what
was then the countryside to see plays there.
When he was 14, during the darkest days of the war, he heard on the radio two French works of music: Debussy’s Prelude a l’apres-midi d’un faune
and Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe
. He swore to himself then that he would devote his life to the country that produced such beautiful music.
So it was through music that his devotion to French began. Then, when he was 15, Voltaire’s Lettres philosphiques
was a set text for the higher school certificate. Voltaire’s commitment
to freedom of thought and his willingness to take on established
authority had a profound intellectual, philosophical and political
influence on Colin. In particular this was because France was then
under Nazi occupation.
In 1944 he was called up to the RAF to be
trained as a navigator in Bomber Command. As part of this he went to
Trinity Hall at Cambridge University. He stayed in the RAF until 1948.
the war he completed his BA and MA at Birmingham University in French
and Spanish. He did brilliantly and took up a position in the English
department at Montpellier University, where he was first offered
the chance to do the type of detailed critical analysis of a text for
which he became renowned. Colin loved minute analysis of manuscripts,
examining changes and crossings out that revealed the author’s creative
In 1951 he returned to Trinity Hall on a scholarship to
write his PhD. This was on the Swiss novelist and philosopher Leon Bopp
and was awarded in 1954.
Colin’s love of theatre came to the
fore while he was at Cambridge. He became involved in many productions
and was president of the Cambridge Comedy Theatre Club. He once played
the lead in The Insect Play
a satirical Czech play by the Capek brothers. He played the tramp and
sported a few days’ growth of a beard. One of the moths (with a green
face) was a young chemist working at the Chivers factory in Cambridge:
Mary Adams. So Colin met his wife Mary on stage and their love of
theatre drew them together.
Colin became a lecturer at Bedford
College at the University of London. His first articles and critical
editions were on Thibaudet, Scribe, Renan, and Flaubert.
His edition of Flaubert’s Trois Contes
was very well received. An editor wrote to him in the early 1960s
offering him another text to subject to critical analysis, stating in
the letter ‘if you can make sense of this rubbish, good luck to you’.
The text was En attendant Godot
Colin’s encounters with Beckett began. At that time, not many people
were writing on Beckett. Colin started a correspondence with him that
lasted till Beckett’s death.
Colin’s critical edition and
introduction remains one of the standard works on the play. He first
met Beckett in a pub in London on a cold January day in 1965. Beckett
invited Colin, if he happened to be in Paris, to come to see the
original text. In April 1965 he spent some hours in Beckett’s apartment
going through the manuscript before Beckett came back with a silver
teapot and a large tube of condensed milk in a jug, for which he
apologised. ‘I don’t get any milk delivered up here,’ Beckett
explained. Colin was the only person Beckett allowed to study the
original manuscript in detail. In 1971 Colin published Angels of Darkness
, an analysis of the plays of Beckett and Ionesco. The work remains an important source for Beckett’s views about his own plays.
the early 1960s Colin’s administrative talents were recognised by his
appointment to oversee the completion of a new intercollegiate hall of
residence for 400 students at London University - Commonwealth Hall.
Colin became its first warden until 1972.
The Queen Mother
opened Commonwealth Hall in 1963. Colin accompanied her to the
reception in the new building. They both got in the lift, which became
stuck. The Queen Mother commented to Colin, ‘I always have this effect
on lifts.’ For many years at graduations and other formal events, Colin
and the Queen Mother would meet and, on seeing him, she would say ‘Ah,
In 1966-67, Colin was a visiting professor at the
University of California, Davis. A few years after that he accepte an
appointment as professor of French at the University of Auckland.
in January 1978 he became professor of French at the University of
Melbourne. Again he threw himself into writing, teaching and directing.
He directed several Australian premieres of Beckett plays at La Mama: Ohio Impromptu
and Rough for Theatre
He was also dramaturge for Ngundalelag Godotgai, an Aboriginal
translation of Godot that was part of the 1997 Festival of Dreaming in
He wanted to bring French theatre to a wider audience,
through bilingual adaptations, often with the Melbourne French Theatre.
He was also vice-president of the Alliance Francaise de Melbourne. The
French government recognised Colin’s contributions to French language
and literature by appointing him a Commandeur dans l’Ordre des Palmes
His acting continued, including roles on TV and in
film, such as Tibor the vet in Blue Heelers
and three different roles
over several seasons in Neighbours
. In Melbourne he also found great friendship and kindred spirits devoted to acting, writing and music at the Savage Club.
was a truly outstanding teacher. Across Australia and around the world
there are many former students who still recall his lectures. He
brought to them his acting skills and a sense of drama that made them
memorable. They were so highly regarded that other academics at
Melbourne University sometimes attended. In one particularly memorable
lecture he would launch, without introduction, into Lucky’s speech in Waiting for Godot
Once, by mistake, he started to deliver this speech to a lecture
theatre filled with astonished accountancy students, many of whom
nevertheless asked to come to listen to the rest of the lecture as they
found it more interesting than what they were studying.
loved teaching and writing but hated the ever-increasing bureaucracy in
Australian universities. In particular he detested the constant
measuring and form-filling imposed by the Commonwealth government. One
form asked him to set out how he accounted for his time. ‘Filling out
useless forms for federal bureaucrats’ was his response.
of this, he took early retirement at the end of 1988, and was
reappointed immediately as an honorary professor so he could continue
to teach. He was also appointed an honorary professor at La Trobe
University where he taught on its drama course. But above all he wrote:
three novels, many articles in refereed journals, newspapers and
magazines. In addition to this he gave much of his time to many boards
and committees, including those of the Castlemaine State Festival, the
Friends of the Grainger Museum, and the Journal of Beckett Studies
in his late 70s he started a series of dramatic adaptations of Camus,
Proust, Duras and Stendhal for performances at the Stork Theatre, to
great critical acclaim. Even last August despite failing health he was
struggling to complete a new adaptation, based on Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus
the last few years he was afflicted by a rare neurological
syndrome that left his mind as sharp as ever but sent his body
into decline. Supporting, as ever, the interests of inquiry, and at the
request of his specialist, Colin left his brain to the Victorian Brain
Bank Network to help with further research into the rare condition.
gave his last public lecture in 2009 at Melbourne University - quite
fittingly on why Voltaire is still important to the modern world. You
can still see the lecture online at The Monthly
Colin was never happier than with his family: Mary at his side for
almost 60 years, with their children Tessa and Mark and six
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