Denholm Elliott CBE (1922-1992)

English Character Actor, former Surrey Schoolboy

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Denholm Elliott, 1989
(Courtesy of Post Apocalyptic Bohemia)

Denholm Mitchell Elliott was born in May 1922, at Lexham Gardens, London. Elliott first began acting at Ripley Court Preparatory School in Surrey.

Early Career and Wartime Exploits
In 1933, Elliott’s father was killed in a terrorist attack whilst serving as a crown prosecutor in Palestine and he was sent to boarding school in Hampshire. Elliott hated public school life and developed kleptomania, until a psychiatrist recommended he go to RADA to act. He stayed for two terms and left to join the RAF during World War Two. His plane was shot down over Denmark and he was captured and spent three years as a prisoner of war in Silesia. With acting now firmly in his system, he participated in the camp’s theatre company, performing plays given to them by the Red Cross.

Personal life and HIV
Denholm Elliott was bisexual throughout his life. Elliott and his first wife, the Surrey actress Virginia McKenna, divorced but his second marriage to Susan Robinson was an ‘open relationship’ and lasted until his death. Elliott had already been identified as HIV positive when he received a CBE from the Queen for services to drama. He died in 1992 of AIDS related tuberculosis. He had two children.

An Acting Legacy
Elliott’s career lasted for 47 years and covered theatre, television and film. A classic English actor, he was nominated for an Oscar for his role in A Room With A View and was popular in film throughout the later half of the twentieth century, starring in such classics as Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Alfie and They Who Dare with Surrey gay icon Dirk Bogarde.

Many of Elliott’s most celebrated performances were in supporting roles. He commented:

‘I’m often given parts that aren’t as big as they are colourful, but people remember them. When it’s a minor or supporting role, you learn to make the most of what you’re given. I can make two lines seem like Hamlet!’

Gabriel Byrne who played the lead alongside Elliott in Defence of the Realm, added ‘I amended the actor’s cliché to “Never work with children, animals or Denholm Elliott”.’

Ripley Court School

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Renowned Surrey artist John Hassell painted this beautiful watercolour of Ripley Court in 1823. (SHC REF: 4348/3/84/2)

The school was established in 1893 in the Grade II listed buildings of a Queen Anne mansion called Ripley Court, situated in Rose Lane. During the Second World War the school was evacuated and the buildings used as a temporary maternity home. The mansion house is featured on the Surrey Heritage Environment Record (HER), which can be viewed here

Surrey History Centre holds a number of photographs, published works, archives and articles relating to Ripley Court and the school, all of which are accessible in the public searchroom.

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