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So Long, Leonard Fenton

February 1, 2022
by Gillian Tindall

Contributing Writer Gillian Tindall remembers the popular and much-loved actor, Leonard Fenton, from Stepney Green who died last weekend aged ninety-five

Leonard Fenton as Dr Legg in East Enders

When Dr Legg, the GP in East Enders, finally ‘retired’ in 1997, there was universal regret among viewers – even though they could see he was already older than any real-life GP would be. Afterwards, he continued to be referred to as an off-stage presence, like a benign Scarlet Pimpernel, and he made occasional informal reappearances – most notably for the stage-funeral of Mark Fowler in 2004, with whom he had once had ferocious doctorly words about heroin addiction and, in 2010, to counsel Dot Branning about a supposed Romanian foundling.

In real life, Dr Legg was the actor Leonard Fenton. Although his East Enders‘ role was the one for which he was widely celebrated (and even accosted in the street and the Underground by people so convinced of the reality of soaps that they asked for friendly medical advice) he had a life-time of other roles to his credit. One of those actors who never quite reached the very top of the theatrical tree but was nearly always in work and much esteemed by other professionals, Len did seasons with the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company, worked with Orson Welles, with Jonathan Miller and Samuel Beckett – who personally chose him in 1979 to play opposite Billie Whitelaw in Happy Days at the Royal Court.

His last stage roles were the Duke in The Merchant of Venice at Stratford-on-Avon in 2008 and the demanding part of Vincentio in The Taming of the Shrew at the Aldwych Theatre in London in 2009. By then Len was eighty-three years old, but you would never have guessed it. He went on for several more years specialising  in ‘old rabbis’ and only took to retirement in the actors’ home at Denville Hall, the home for aged actors on the northern rim of London, because his diabetes needed more careful management than he could give it alone.

The kindly GP in East Enders was obviously Jewish and the early lives of the doctor and the actor paralleled each other. Dr Legg was supposed to have been born in the East End, a bright boy who got a scholarship to a Grammar School and then to medical school, but had preferred to remain close to his roots in the fictional East London district of ‘Walford’ rather than moving out to a polite suburb.

Similarly, Len Fenton was born (during the General Strike of 1926) in little house in Duckett St, Stepney Green, that his parents and elder sister shared with relatives. When he was eleven, he won a Junior County scholarship to Raines School for Boys in Arbour Sq.  A surviving school report, under the name Leonard Feinstein, describes him as “A quiet intelligent pupil. Gives no trouble and works well.” The same report shows that he was particularly good at drawing, singing and languages, but as he showed an aptitude for maths too, plus ‘satisfactory’ work at Chemistry and Physics, the headmaster urged him towards engineering – a destiny that took Len some years and quite a bit of enterprise to escape.

The heart of the Jewish East End in the twenties and thirties was in Whitechapel and Spitalfields. Half a mile away, in Duckett St there was only one other Jewish household besides Len’s family, although Len recalls a big block of flats on Stepney Green itself that was “full of our lot. I would rather liked to have lived there.” Possibly it was the presence of this block that drew Mosleys’ Blackshirts down to Stepney Green for a series of threatening marches that were to culminate in the Battle of Cable Street. As a small boy, Len remembered his mother standing in the upstairs window of their house with a baby – one of Len’s younger sisters – in her arms, watching Mosley giving a speech at the corner about how all Jews had substantial bank balances. At this point, she yelled down at him “Sir Oswald, would you like to see my fucking bank balance?” Her husband worked in the garment trade and, like most people in their position, they lived hand to mouth. Various neighbours, who were inclined to side with Mosley in those uncertain times, hastily cried “No, no, Fanny, we don’t mean you!”

Len’s mother had arrived in London as a baby, circuitously, via New York, at the beginning of the twentieth century. She was working in a box factory when she met her husband. Both sets of grandparents were immigrants from Eastern Europe, mother’s from Riga and father’s from Lithuania, and all that generation spoke Yiddish as their household tongue. The family name was originally, Len thinks, something like Resnik, a  Russian-Yiddish term to do with tailoring, but it just happened that the neighbour who helped Len’s grandfather to register in London when he arrived in the 1890s suggested ‘Feinstein’ as a suitable name and it was accepted. The change to Fenton happened during the Second World War, when Len’s elder sister Sylvie convinced their father that it would be a good idea. However, the cousins living on the ground floor of the same house, including little Arnold who was six months younger than Len and his constant playmate, did not change their name. Arnold Feinstein, another scholarship boy, grew up to be a distinguished academic scientist and the husband of Elaine Feinstein, the poet. There were many routes out of the ghetto, but the Fenton-Feinstein families always remained close.

Grandparents and uncles were important too. Len’s mother’s mother, who had been widowed in New York with the baby, come to London and remarried, lived at Bow. Neighbours of theirs organised a synagogue in their front room where the family foregathered on Saturdays. It was from here that an uncle took Len, then aged ten or eleven, on a trip to Watford to hear Thomas Beecham conducting Bizet’s First Symphony in C – for Len, a revelatory experience about what music could be. But, sadly, this thoughtful relative later became known to Len and his sisters as ‘bad uncle’ because he tried to convince Len that he could neither draw and paint, nor sing well enough to envisage it as a career – both of which no-doubt-well-intentioned judgements were untrue.

Len was thirteen in 1939, at the point when the whole Jewish East End began to be swept away, first by war and then by the social changes that war brought. Raines School was evacuated to various places near the south coast: hardly the ideal location in view of the threat of invasion, but such a hasty re-location was common in those times. By the time Len returned to battered and blitzed Stepney towards the end of the war, he was a tall and handsome seventeen-year-old – and his feisty mother, with whom he had not lived since he was a child, was suffering with tuberculosis and possibly diabetes as well. There was no NHS yet but, even if there had been, not a great deal could have been done for her. She died in 1945 and it was the eldest sister Sylvie who took on the maternal role for their father, for Len, his younger brother Cyril (who also died young) and the two pretty and ambitious younger sisters, Corinne and Annie.

National Service loomed at eighteen for all young men of Len’s generation yet, instead of joining the Army as a squaddie, Len was sent, on his head-master’s recommendation and Government approval, to do a two-year degree in Engineering at Kings’ College. He did not relish it at all, but it meant that, when the Army finally claimed him at age twenty, he was given a commission in the Royal Engineers – a new world for him. “I really enjoyed myself,” he recalled, “As an officer I could just oversee things and sign off the paper, while the NCOs did all the work!”

Len’s Army experience led to five years in a civil engineering job in Westminster. This was still unsatisfying for Len, even though the firm in question seems to have been extraordinarily tolerant of their amiable but undevoted employee. Len found that he could take long, dreamy lunch hours walking round the London parks. By then he was living in Clapton and discovered, while changing from tube to bus at Aldgate on his evening commute, that Toynbee Hall ran courses in art and music. He started spending his evenings there, as many other aspirant East Enders had done before him – and a new life began. A starring role singing in a Christmas performance led to the offer of a place at the Webber-Douglas theatrel school, and the boy from Stepney was re-born as an actor and never looked back.

“I was older than most people at drama school,” he explained, “That was useful and I soon learnt to age myself up – I loved making-up.” A Spotlight award in his final year set Len off on a career playing character roles – fulfilling even if he never achieved a minor ambition to take the part of Baron Hard-Up in pantomime. “Trouble is, people don’t associate Dr Legg with slapstick,” he confessed.

Did becoming a celebrity in such a long-running soap affect his chances of other roles? Len felt that it might have kept him out of the theatre, but one would hardly think so given the stage successes of his last years in the profession. Oddly, Dr Legg was almost the only role in Len’s career which was not a character part. “The character wasn’t written to any great depth,” says Len, “so inevitably what came over on TV was a lot of me. I sometimes used to slip in words of my own that weren’t in the script! I think they should have given me a proper wife, though, not just a dead one.” (Mrs Legg was supposed to have been a nurse, killed long ago by a land-mine).

In real life Len married, aged almost forty, to a professional cellist, Madeline Thorner, considerably younger than him. Three sons and a daughter arrived in quick time, in their house in Hampstead Garden Suburb that was a far cry from Duckett St. Although the marriage eventually foundered, Len and Madeline remained friends and it was she who managed to get him into Denville Hall.

Any regrets? “Well, if I’d know how well my voice would last,” he admitted, “I’d have been a singer.” Len still sang beautifully, even in his ninth decade, and possessed an extraordinary ability to imitate dogs and cats well enough to fool the animals themselves. His ability to paint and aptitude for drawing that his headmaster and uncle dismissed long ago came to the fore during Len’s years as Dr Legg, and he continued to paint. The aura of cheerful interest in life, that stood him in such good stead as a small boy in Stepney, still surrounded Len even in his final years.

In 2018, when happily settled in Denville Hall, Len was pleased but also amused to be invited back onto East Enders. He was given only a few lines, mainly interchanges with Dot Cotton with whom he had supposedly come to stay. As Len confided to me, his ability to learn a part quickly and retain it had now deserted him, and he could only manage brief passages. “I really haven’t got my head round what’s going on in the plot”, he remarked cheerfully, “but that doesn’t matter.”  Essentially, he had been summoned back to be shown dying peacefully.

“Does that feel a little odd?” I asked, knowing how near he must be to the real thing.

“Oh no, darling – quite in the usual line. I’ve died so often on stage, you see!”

Leonard Fenton

Leonard’s mother and father with his elder sister Sylvie as a baby

Leonard and his sister Sylvie with their Uncle

Leonard Fenton’s publicity shot as a young actor

Leonard playing older than his years in the seventies

Leonard’s publicity shot in the eighties

Leonard in the West End

Leonard’s sketch of Samuel Beckett, done while rehearsing Happy Days at the Royal Court in 1979

Gillian Tindall’s The Tunnel Through Time, A New Route For An Old London Journey is published by Chatto & Windus

You may also like to read about

Harry Landis, Actor

Morris Goldstein, the Lost Whitechapel Boy

Charlie Chaplin in the East End

Bud Flanagan in Spitalfields

David Garrick at Goodman’s Fields Theatre

12 Responses leave one →
  1. sus permalink
    February 1, 2022

    Thanks for a wonderful life story.

  2. Andy Strowman permalink
    February 1, 2022

    A lovely article. Touching.

  3. Paul loften permalink
    February 1, 2022

    Farewell Leonard Fenton. His generation had so much to be proud of . It’s a difficult act to follow

  4. Marcia Howard permalink
    February 1, 2022

    What a moving tribute and a very interesting story, Leonard’s family beginnings, his career, and his many talents. I always thought what a lovely kind face Leonard had too. Thank you for this write-up Gentle Author

  5. February 1, 2022

    Mr Leonard Fenton — R.I.P.

    My father’s generation (born 1926, died 2021) is slowly making its way completely …

    Love & Peace

  6. Jillian Foley permalink
    February 1, 2022

    What a lovely man. May he Rest in Peace.

  7. Adele Lester permalink
    February 1, 2022

    Goodbye to yet another EastEnder who made good. Had no idea he was originally from Duckett St. And when to Raines! He’ll be missed.

  8. Richard Raymond permalink
    February 1, 2022

    Thank you for this beautiful piece. I had the honor of directing Leonard in a 2005 short film called The Bridge, which we shot at Shepperton Studios. I was just a kid starting out. He beloved in me. He was generous and loving and so, so passionate about acting & really supported me on my 1st film. His love was infectious. I’m grateful for the time with Len. My love and condolences to his family. He was a beautiful artist.

  9. Ros permalink
    February 1, 2022

    When I heard of Leonard’s death, it was this article I remembered. More than worth re-reading. Thank you Gillian Tindall.

  10. Cherub permalink
    February 2, 2022

    A lovely piece, what an interesting life Leonard Fenton led.

  11. David Lawson permalink
    February 6, 2022

    I would have treasured a long talk with Leonard about his childhood. My father was born in Spitalfields but the family moved along with many Jews out to Stepney Green in the Twenties and Thirties. I knew nothing of this, as my father died more than 50 years ago without ever discussing his childhood. Many parents rarely talked to their children in those days. If he had lived until I was an adult, maybe I would have learned more about what life was like for a teenager in those pre-war years.

  12. October 24, 2023

    I am related to Leonard through the maternal side of my family.Sadly I never got to know him as my mother left London at the start of WW2.I have enjoyed reading his life story as I feel it connects me a little bit with my roots

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