Geoffrey Keen

Pencil Portrait by Antonio Bosano.

Geoffrey Keen Pencil Portrait
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I’ve always felt sympathy for the small-part player, the unsung hero that is the supporting actor. They turn up regularly on stage, television and films, becoming instantly recognisable through their sheer workload, yet fame eludes them. One cinemagoer in ten thousand would be able to name them.

So here’s to the legacy of Geoffrey Keen, who had minor roles in over one hundred films, many of them personal favourites of mine. An underestimated character actor, he was rather self deprecating about his work, whilst admitting that “it’s a very exciting thing to get a mediocre part and give it a third dimension – to make a character a real chap instead of being cardboard.”

So prodigious was his workload that I’ve sometimes been convinced he appeared in films even when the opening credits suggested otherwise. In any event, as I’ve said before – and for better or worse – this is my website so Mr keen gets a look-in.

Under construction.

Roger Moore, who starred alongside Keen in several Bond movies and an an episode of ‘The Saint,’ recalled a discussion he had with the actor in the 80’s in his 2014 memoir “One lucky bastard – Tales from Tinseltown.”

Keen had been at home, sitting at his writing desk, when his plumber popped into the study. A bunch of english actors from the 1920s and ’30s, including Laurence Olivier, had just died, one right after the other.The plumber eyed Keen and said, “You’re an actor, aren’t you, sir?” “Indeed I am,” Keen replied. “Well, you lot are dropping like f - - kin’ flies!”

Born Geoffrey Knee in London in 1916, he had a difficult childhood. His mother and father, Malcolm – a stage actor also seen in films as doctors, detectives and aristocrats – split up before his birth. (Father and son both changed their surname to Keen by deed poll.)

He and his mother moved to Bristol, where he attended the city’s grammar school and worked briefly in a paint factory, before joining the Little Theatre there and spending a year in repertory productions, making his stage début as Trip in Sheridan’s The School for Scandal (1932) at the age of 16.

Briefly unsure about acting as a career, Keen started studying at the London School of Economics but left after two months and was awarded a scholarship to Rada, where his father was teaching, and won the prestigious Bancroft Gold Medal (1936).

He then joined the Old Vic Theatre, playing Florizel in The Winter’s Tale (1936) and Edgar in King Lear (1936), and continued on stage until fighting with the Royal Army Medical Corps as a corporal during the Second World War and performing with the Stars in Battledress concert party. During that time, he made his film début, directed by the legendary Carol Reed, as a corporal in The New Lot (1943), an army training film that starred Bernard Lee (later to play 007’s boss, M, in the Bond films).

After the war, Reed cast Keen in two thrillers, as a soldier in Odd Man Out (starring James Mason, 1947) and a detective in The Fallen Idol (written by Graham Greene and featuring Ralph Richardson, 1948). Once he played an MP in ‘The Third Man’ (another Reed-Greene collaboration), the actor was on the way to becoming typecast.

“It got around the studios that I only played the type of character who scowled and thumped tables,” he explained, adding; “I accepted any role that came my way. This is a tough profession. You can’t be too choosy – you may never get another chance.”

As a result, he was seen as policemen in The Clouded Yellow (1950), Hunted (1952), Genevieve (1953), Portrait of Alison (1955), The Long Arm (1956), Nowhere to Go (1958), Deadly Record (1959), Horrors of the Black Museum (1959) and Lisa (1962), soldiers of all ranks in Angels One Five’_(1952), _’Malta Story (1953), Carrington V.C. (1954) and The Man Who Never Was (1955), the Assistant Chief of Naval Staff in Sink the Bismarck! (1959), a doctor in Storm Over the Nile (1955), priests in Yield to the Night (1956) and Sailor Beware!’_(1956), a solicitor in _’A Town Like Alice (1956), headmasters in The Scamp (1957) and Spare the Rod (1961), a prison governor in Beyond This Place’_(1959), the Prime Minister in _’No Love for Johnnie (1961), a magistrate in The Cracksman (1963) and a British ambassador in The Rise and Fall of Idi Amin (1980).

Recommended viewing

The Fallen Idol (1948)

Treasure Island (1950)

The Long Memory (1952)

The man who never was (1956)

The Long Arm (1956)

Yield to the night (1956)

The Spanish Gardener (1956)

Devil's Bait (1959)

Keen is baker Joe Frisby, who finds he has some rats scuttling around in his flour storage-room. Conscious of hygiene regulations, he phones the local vermin killer and asks him to come round and sort out the problem. The man arrives and mixes up his poison and lays it as cyanide traps in all the likely places. When he has finished, he places all his mixing stuff in the sink before deciding to pop out to his local for several ‘medicinal whiskeys.’ Stirring momentarily at closing time from his inebriated state , he remembers compromising the health and safety of Frisby’s clientele. Staggering out of the pub, he falls down the railway bank. Meanwhile, back at the bakery, Joe’s wife, assuming the rat catcher has finished and left, takes the offending bowl used to prepare the poison and mixes her dough for the next batch of loaves. Placed on display, the loaf is sold the following morning.

The rat catcher’s head injuries are fatal, but not before he has expressed his concerns to hospital staff. The police are called in and Frisby’s fatal slip under questioning places he and his wife under surveillance. Matters eventually escalate as an emergency alert is issued to find the purchaser before a fatality ensues.

Keen’s character is affable enough, if a little over preoccupied with his business. Vaguely neglectful of his wife, the pair are united in their moment of crisis.

An entertaining B movie, clocking in at a little over an hour, there’s sterling support work from the ever dependable Gordon Jackson as a Police sergeant.

The Angry Silence (1960)

The Saint steps in (ITC) (1964)

Doctor Zhivago (1965)

Born Free (1966)

Cromwell (1970)

The Spy who loved me (1977)

The Troubleshooters (BBC Tv series) (1965-72)