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Henry Hinchliffe Ainley (21 August 187931 October 1945) was an Englishmarker Shakespearean stage and screen actor, father of actors Richard and Anthony Ainley, and Sam Ainley, who was not an actor.

He was born in Leedsmarker, where he was baptized in St. George's Parish Churchmarker and brought up in Morleymarker by his father Richard, a cloth finisher, and his mother Ada, but moved to Londonmarker as an adult to pursue an acting career. He made his professional stage debut for F.R. Benson's company of actors and later joined Herbert Beerbohm Tree's company. He found fame in 1902 as Paolo in Paolo and Francesca.

Shakespearean roles

Ainley's first stage role was as a messenger in Macbeth. He subsequently appeared as Glo'ster in Henry V at the Lyceum in London and returned to Leeds to play at the Grand Theatre. Later roles included Oliver Cromwell, Mark Antony in Julius Caesar and Macbeth himself. He played Malvolio (1912) and Leontes under the direction of Granville Barker and portrayed Hamlet several times, including a 1930 production that was chosen for a Royal Command Performance.

John Gielgud, writing in the Sunday Times in 1996, described Ainley's Prospero as "disastrous", although he generally held Ainley in high regard and fulfilled a longstanding ambition to perform with him when Gielgud played Iago opposite Ainley's Othello in a 1932 BBC Radio broadcast.

Shakespearean screen credits include Henry VIII and As You Like It, a 1936 film which also featured his son Richard and Laurence Olivier.

Other roles

Ainley played Joseph Quinney in Quinneys' on stage in 1915 and on film in 1919. He appeared in A. A. Milne's The Dover Road opposite Athene Seyler in 1922 and as the Bishop of Chelsea in Bernard Shaw's Getting Married at the Haymarket Theatremarker. In 1929, he played James Fraser in St. John Ervine's The First Mrs. Fraser, a role he reprised for the film version in 1932. He also starred in stage and radio productions of James Elroy Flecker's Hassan.

Behind the scenes

In 1921, Ainley became a member of the council of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and served as its president from 1931 to 1933.

Ainley's own theatre company launched the stage career of Robert Eddison.

In 1932, Ainley was part of the effort to save the debt-laden Sadler's Wellsmarker theatre. According to a report in The Times dated 15 March 1932, Ainley considered Sadler's Wells stalwart Phelps the "greatest actor of all" and Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson "the greatest of Hamlets".

Fifteen letters in the possession of Laurence Olivier's widow suggest that Ainley may have had a sexual relationship with the younger actor in the late 1930s. The letters - said by Olivier's biographer Terry Coleman to be explicitly homosexual in content - suggest that Ainley was infatuated with Olivier, even if, as some members of Olivier's family insist, notably the actor's son Tarquin Olivier, the feeling was not reciprocated.

Ainley was married and divorced twice. He died in London and is buried in Kensal Green Cemeterymarker, London. He was also the father of Henrietta Riddle, with the novelist Bettina Riddle, later Baroness von Hutten zum Stolzenberg. Henrietta was briefly engaged to Alistair Cooke in 1932.


Henry Ainley made recordings for the Gramophone Company by the acoustic method, and also later for the same company (as HMV) by electric recordings. The early acoustics were as follows:
  • 1456 The Day (Chappell) (Ho1100/B393) 10"
  • 1457 The Kaiser and God (Pain). 1915. 10"
  • B393 The Charge of the Light Brigade (Tennyson). 10"
  • C490 Why Britain is at War. (coupled with GILBERT, Jhn Bull's budget song)
  • D177 Carillon 'Chantez, Belges, chantez!' (Sing, Belgians, sing!) poem by Emile Cammaerts, declamation with orchestral music composed by Edward Elgar. (two sides) 12". 1915.


  1. Jonathan Croall, Gielgud: A Theatrical Life 1904-2000, Continuum, 2001 pg 180

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