Day 266 in the Corona House: Would the real Darth Vader please stand up

A short but heartfelt posting on day 266 and memories of someone I was lucky enough to meet (once) at drama school who died earlier today.

It was only when I looked back on his career and read the glowing tributes, (not Hollywood lovie glowing but genuinely sincere obituaries and commentary) that I realised David (Dave) Prowse had every right to be bitter over his career. However, in line with the touching words uttered by the likes of Mark Hamyll and Star Wars technical crew he chose not to be and in doing so won the heart of his fan. I hope he may also spur a few thoughts about how under-rated he has been in his portrayal of perhaps the quintessential cinema villain.

I must admit when I was sitting in a voice class taken by my tutor Anya Pronk, I wasn’t expecting to be visited in class by the six foot seven Green Cross Code man. He had taught those of us of a certain age to cross the road in the 1970’s. However, that’s what happened as in bowled one Mr Prowse casually dressed smiling warmly and acknowledged those in the room with ‘Afernoon’

Being a West Country boy myself, and with family roots in Somerset I recognised his burr as Bristolian and southern Bristol at that, not full Totterdown but certainly Bedminster. A man of his stature certainly dominated the room but when he spoke, he immediately seemed somehow less imposing. That turned out to be the story of his acting career and the reason he was attending – to encourage us to listen to our voice coaches lest we should suffer his experience.

Dave Prowse was a UK Champion weightlifter and had been the green cross code man since the mid seventies. Indeed a few years after when he was cast as Darth Vader in a little known film in production, the UK Government thought it might be so bad for his image he was nearly sacked from his road safety persona.

He maintained, at least in the version recounted to our class that he had no idea George Lucas would re-dub his role, though I must admit that may reflect some naivety on his part as a light tenor Vader really wasn’t threatening despite his imposing stature. Indeed, I understand members of the technical crew and later the wider crew referred to him as Darth Farmer because of his local yocal accent. It is hard to imagine George Lucas not having formed the intention to over-dub his evil dark Lord pretty early. Perhaps his true Bristolian shines through on the original version in the line “If this is a diplomatic mission, where is the ambassador?” Just the slightest suggestions of it turning into ambassadol brought a smile to my face when I first heard it on an outtakes clip and every time I mentally replay it since.

Dave Prowse as the Green Cross Code man in 1976 – interestingly also with an over-dubbed voice

There was also the earlier instances of two adverts both of which predate Star Wars that were also over-dubbed to give more authority and gravitas to the champion of the Highway Code. I don’t seek to defend him not being told (if that was the case) that his voice wouldn’t make the final cut, but somehow I doubt it could have been quite the surprise it was described to us as being.

The face behind the Vader mask

Of course, dubbing a voice over another felt inappropriate for a role isn’t new. Perhaps most famously to the character of Lena Lamont in Singing in the Rain and the main premise of the plot of that film. Similarly, the singing voices of both Audrey Hepburn and Jeremy Brett were over-dubbed as neither of them were quite the song-birds the part called for.

However, I can’t help but feel sorry for Dave Prowse who was overlooked not once, but twice. It strikes me as a missed opportunity and expression of thanks to have passed him over for the great reveal of Vader in Return of the Jedi. It seems he was felt inappropriate as the voice of Vader and also as his face two films later.

Yet despite that, when you look at the film and feel the imposing nature of the Sith Lord or watch his ‘stillness; or reaction to other actors, it is clear he was a competent actor who commanded the attention of the camera as a physical force on the screen. So though the voice and face belonged to others, the presence, the physical acting skills and the timing were all very much Dave Prowse who must surely have triggered the imagination of countless thousands of children since the film was made. He was certainly a strong part of my childhood and early teenage memories and a reminder of quite how much we judge people by the trivial without ever seeing or knowing the person beneath the various masks we all wear at one time or another.

The third of the Green Cross Code adverts, this time with the actors own voice.

For those of you who want to hear the real voice of Darth Vader and the real voice of Dave Prowse, the third Green Cross Code road safety advert in 1976 (apparently during the filming of Star Wars) you’ll hear his Bristolian twang as it really was.

Thank you Dave Prowse for some amazing memories and childhood imaginings. May the force be with you – always.


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