To mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of David Kossoff on Sunday 24th November, we focus this week’s blog post on his papers here.Born on 24 November 1919 at the Mothers’ Hospital, Clapton, London, David Kossoff was the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, Lewis (Louis) Kossoff, and his wife, Annie, née Shaklovich. Growing up in Hackney, Kossoff attended an elementary school in east London, and trained at art and architecture schools, including the Northern Polytechnic until 1937. He worked as a commercial artist, a draughtsman and a furniture designer. At the age of 23, he decided to try something new, which would improve his life after years of seeing the poverty of his parents. This was acting. Kossoff made his debut with the Left-wing Unity Theatre during World War Two, starring in the play Spanish Village, which was about the Spanish Civil War. He stayed with the company for three years, writing and directing as well as acting for shows performed for members of the services and for people protecting themselves from air-raids. He then spent six years with the BBC Repertory Company, before making his West End debut in Peter Ustinov’s comedy The Love of Four Colonels (Wyndham’s, 1952), replacing the author as Colonel Alexander Ikonenko. In giving a convincing and heavily praised performance, it was this part that convinced Kossoff that he could work as an actor full-time. Such a performance would lead to Kossoff playing a KGB spy in the film The Iron Petticoat (1956), starring Katharine Hepburn and Bob Hope. Kossoff created one of his most memorable parts in 1953 at the Arts Theatre, which was Morry the guilt-ridden tailor in The Bespoke Overcoat. This was adapted from a Gogol short story by Wolf Mankowitz. Kossoff repeated his acclaimed performance in Jack Clayton’s film version, which won a prize for best short film at the Venice Film Festival. At the same theatre, Kossoff appeared as Tobit in a revival of James Bridie’s Tobias and the Angel, and in Ustinov’s No Sign of the Dove, he was Professor Lodegger. Film appearances also include Wolf Mankowitz’s A Kid For Two Farthings (1955), for which Kossoff gained a British Academy award for his role as an elderly confidant of a boy who believes his one-horned goat is a unicorn. Such an award established Kossoff’s status as a ‘natural’ for playing Jewish men, often aged and certainly knowledgeable, generous, and empathetic.
“Dear David, I was so impressed by your performance last night that I feel I must write & congratulate you on it. It was one of the most moving things I’ve seen on the stage, but it wasn’t just that it was a good part – & how often one is apt to mistake that for good acting – but the restraint with which you played it.” [Quote from a letter written to David Kossoff, 7 Apr 1945, MS348 A2084 7/2]
Kossoff also starred in The Young Lovers (1954), I Am A Camera (1955), The Mouse That Roared (1959) and The Mouse On The Moon (1963), and John Huston’s Freud (1962). In Philip Leacock’s emotional Innocent Sinners (1958), Kossoff and Barbara Mullen play a caring, tough couple who, with the help of a solitary spinster, are able to adopt a disruptive teenager. Kossoff’s last film was Staggered (1994).In the late 1950s, Kossoff was most notable for his role as Alf Larkin, a rural old rogue in the television series The Larkins, which was based on the novels of H.E. Bates and first broadcast in 1958. The programme became so popular, that Kossoff, went on to star in a screen version, Inn for Trouble, in which his character Alf and his wife Peggy inherit a run-down pub. Kossoff also had great success performing his own material, such as in his play On Such a Night (Big Night for Shylock) (1969), where he plays an actor-manager playing Shylock in a touring edition of The Merchant of Venice. In 1957 he compiled a one-man show at the Arts Theatre, With One Eyebrow Slightly Up, and in 1963 he performed another one-man show, Kossoff at the Prince Charles, which he later took to Adelaide and New York, with the title, A Funny Kind of Evening with David Kossoff. Kossoff was also famous for his story-telling skills, especially in terms of reinterpreting the Bible. In 1961 he started reading his own adaptations of Bible stories on “Thought for the Day” on the radio, and their success led to published works such as The Book of Witnesses in the 1970s, and his own TV series, Storytime, telling his bible stories with a charming wit and self-critical humour. From the TV programme Kossoff’s square beard, heavy spectacles, and furrowed brow became his trademark. After his success in telling Bible stories on radio and television, he played in another one-man show, As According to Kossoff from 1970. He also went on to write many publications, such as Bible Stories, retold by David Kossoff (1968); The Three Donkeys (1972); The Voices of Masada (1973), The Little Book of Sylvanus (1975), You Have a Minute, Lord? (1977), A Small Town is a World (1979), based on nineteenth-century Russian Jewish folk tales, Sweet Nutcracker (1985), and The Old and the New (2002). Many of these works were written or corrected while Kossoff waited in his dressing room to make his entrance in plays. Tragedy hit Kossoff in 1976 when his second son Paul, guitarist with the rock group Free, died from a heart attack at 25 as a result of a heroin addiction. Kossoff thereafter became an anti-drugs campaigner and set up the Paul Kossoff Foundation. Kossoff even constructed a show called The Late Great Paul which he performed at a number of schools, providing pupils an insight into the dangers of drug abuse. Kossoff had earlier planned to give the proceeds from a year of one-man shows to charity in appreciation for his son’s recovery from a serious heart attack in 1975. After Paul’s death, Kossoff continued with the shows, declaring them a memorial to his son. Kossoff died of cancer of the colon on 23 March 2005. The actor, writer and raconteur gained popularity from being able to see the comical side of Jewishness and religion. He had the ability to entertain a wide society without causing offence because he could also make fun of himself. The MS348 Papers of David Kossoff provide a valuable insight into Kossoff’s roles as an actor, writer, and raconteur. Not only are there photographs and programmes, but also notes and illustrations for his publications, and notebooks and manuscripts for his works on Bible stories. Scripts, newspaper cuttings, and fan mail also feature. Material from the David Kossoff collection is on display in our current exhibition A Philanthropic Spirit in our exhibition gallery on level 4 of Hartley Library. To find out more click here: https://level4gallery.wordpress.com/current-exhibition/a-philanthropic-spirit/