Thursday, August 03, 2017

This Week's Obituaries: Robert Hardy And Hywel Bennett

This blogger really hates being of that age where, on occasions, it seems that every time he turns on the Interweb, he discovers that someone else he grew up watching (or, listening to) has left us. It's getting thoroughly monotonous.

Robert Hardy, who has died at the age of ninety one, was one of the most recognisable and authoritative actors of the past half-century on television, especially in the role of Winston Churchill - whom he played in at least eight incarnations - and as Siegfried Farnon, the senior vet in the long-running BBC Sunday evening drama series All Creatures Great & Small, based on the semi-autobiographical novels of James Herriot. His family said in a statement that Robert had 'a tremendous life' and 'a giant career in theatre, television and film spanning more than seventy years. Gruff, elegant, twinkly and always dignified, he is celebrated by all who knew him and loved him and everyone who enjoyed his work.' His children - Emma, Justine and Paul - added that their father was 'also remembered as a meticulous linguist, a fine artist, a lover of music and a champion of literature, as well a highly respected historian and a leading specialist on the longbow. He was an essential part of the team that raised the great Tudor warship The Mary Rose.'
His All Creatures Great & Small co-star Christopher Timothy remembered Robert on Thursday as 'a fascinating actor' who had been 'a joy to work with. He didn't suffer fools, so he was sometimes quite tricky,' Timothy told Radio 4's PM programme. 'But, I was most grateful for his experience, confidence, wit and style.' Timothy said that he had last seen Robert about eighteen months ago and found him 'frail, yet still sparkly and twinkly. He was a very clever fellow. I remember once on set he was talking about manure and his description of the smell was poetry.'
With his instantly recognisable voice and British bulldog manner, Robert Hardy enjoyed a distinguished acting career which spanned eight decades. By the time he endeared himself to television audiences, he had already carved out a reputation as one of Britain's most versatile actors. 'The great joy of acting,' he once said, 'is getting into the part, which is why I enjoy playing people who actually lived.' His patrician manner and gloriously disdainful bearing meant that he specialised in high-born politicians, diplomats and royalty: Prince Albert, Gordon of Khartoum, Mussolini, several Shakespearean kings and Robert Dudley the Earl of Leicester, all fell naturally within his compass.
He played the last of these, the doomed favourite of Glenda Jackson's austere Virgin Queen, in the 1971 BBC six-part series Elizabeth R. For a time, if there was a period drama series or classy TV movie to be made - An Age Of Kings, a decade earlier or Edward The Seventh (Hardy was consort to Annette Crosbie's Queen Victoria) in 1975 - Robert's very presence was a virtual guarantee of its quality.
But, his range was not confined to costume drama. He played in countless contemporary works on television, though he never gained a foothold in Hollywood. He was probably, at that time, too crusty - his voice had the distinctive, dry property of superior sandpaper. And, he was too rigidly clubbable and respectable for Hollywood's idea of a 'gentleman' in the raffish style of Rex Harrison or David Niven. Whilst his earlier career gave him a firm grounding in the theatre Robert's best known roles were in front of the camera - particularly in television, a medium he obviously enjoyed. He became something of a specialist in the role of Sir Winston Churchill, playing the Prime Minister on more than half-a-dozen occasions across the years as well as being in demand to reproduce the wartime leader's voice. Hardy's background defined a personality which, he admitted on Desert Island Discs in 2011 ('music is a constant in my life, my head is filled with it'), came with a spine of steel and a streak of ruthlessness. His choice of records included Beethoven, Poulenc, Berlioz, Sibelius and Pearl Bailey singing 'What Is a Friend For?' He was prickly to a fault and, by his own admission, 'difficult to live with.' There was always a sense of danger about his acting: he was once described as being 'like a corked bottle of combustible gas.'
Timothy Sydney Robert Hardy was born in Cheltenham in October 1925. He was the youngest of six children of Major Henry Harrison Hardy, headmaster of Cheltenham college and his wife, Edith and was educated, after prep school ('absolute hell' Robert recalled), at Rugby and Magdalen College, Oxford, where his tutors included two of Oxford's most eminent names, CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien. Still, his degree was, in his own words, 'shabby' and he pitched straight into the professional theatre in a spirit of rebellion, having split his time at Oxford – where he played Fortinbras in Kenneth Tynan's First Quarto Hamlet in 1948 – with a period of service in the RAF. It was while at Oxford that he struck up an enduring friendship with a fellow student, Richard Burton, both men finding their studies interrupted when they were called up and posted to an RAF station in Norfolk. Unlike Burton, Hardy returned to Oxford after his war service and gained a BA (Hons) in English. He had always been fascinated by Hollywood films and had determined to become an actor, joining the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in 1949. He was once asked what was needed to be successful in such a competitive profession. 'A certain amount of talent, luck, a spine of steel, a ruthlessness of mind that does not jib at murder and patience,' he replied.
His early career as a leading light at both Stratford-upon-Avon and The Old Vic, though, suggested he might follow his friend Burton to even greater glory. He was the first David Copperfield on BBC TV (in 1956) and a fiery Prince Hal at The Old Vic - in this role he developed what became a lifelong interest in the history of the longbow - and one could suggest that he spent the rest of his life adapting his golden boy pre-eminence to lesser, and then older, character parts. He was much in demand as a stage actor during the 1950s mainly playing Shakespearean roles - his TV debut came in a 1955 BBC adaptation of Othello - although he did make his first foray into cinema in 1958 playing a naval officer in the Glenn Ford film Torpedo Run. He turned down Sir Peter Hall's offer of a contract with the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1960, complaining that it was for middle-of-the-roadish parts. 'I stormed at him one day and I behaved extremely badly,' Robert said. He was reunited with Burton in the classic 1965 John Le Carre adaptation, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, where he played the part of Dick Carlton. The same year he got his first major recurring TV role as the ruthless businessman Alex Stewart in the BBC's, The Troubleshooters (1965 to 1972), a hugely popular drama series based on the fictitious oil company, Mogul.
In 1978, Robert was cast as the irascible but good-natured Siegfried Farnon in All Creatures Great & Small, the long-running BBC series based on James Herriot's best-selling books (Anthony Hopkins had previously played the role in the 1975 big screen adaptation). As the senior vet of the small Yorkshire Dales practice, Robert became one of the best-known faces on British television. Full of animals, nostalgia and rural scenery, the show was a massive hit, attracting audiences of up to twenty million at its peak. The original run ended in 1981 but the series was revived a few years later after the BBC obtained permission to write new storylines, having exhausted the original Herriot books. But, the new scripts often failed to meet with Hardy's approval and he rewrote large parts of his own dialogue. 'All they did was make Siegfried explode and be bad-tempered. I kept changing things.' Hardy cornered the market in the role of blustering aristocrat, often dressed in tweed. He appeared in The Far Pavilions, The Cleopatras, Twelfth Night and Bramwell and, on the big screen, in The Shooting Party and Sense & Sensibility.
He explained: 'When you've lived a goodish span as I have, it's a case of roaming round the attic and borrowing a few characters.' Despite this range, Robert Hardy's own volatility and ability to express his wrath were channelled most successfully into his many portrayals of Britain's most famous Prime Minister.
Other TV roles included Arthur Brooke in Middlemarch in 1994 and Tite Barnacle in Little Dorrit in 2008 as well as appearances in the likes of Inspector Morse (in which he was brilliant as a Robert Maxwell-style businessman with a shady past in the episode Twilight Of The Gods), Lewis, Margaret (as Willie Whitelaw), [spooks], Foyle's War, The Falklands Play, Shackleton, the cult comedy series Hot Metal, Jenny's War, Raffles, Bill Brand, Terry Nation's one-off 1972 pilot The Incredible Robert Baldick, The Stalls Of Barchester, Manhunt, The Saint, Dennis Potter's Son Of Man (as Pontius Pilate), The Morecambe & Wise Show (proving how effortlessly good he could be at comedy), The Spread Of The Eagle and The Dark Island.
On the big screen he was seen in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Paris By Night, An Ideal Husband, Ten Rillington Place, How I Won The War, Hammer's Demons Of The Mind and the 1971 schlock horror classic Pyschomania. He played Winston Churchill many times, even once in French on stage in Paris, but most memorably in the 1981 mini-series The Wilderness Years for which he won a BAFTA. He portrayed the wartime Prime Minister for preview performances of The Audience, alongside Dame Helen Mirren, in 2013 before withdrawing from the role. Most recently, he took the lead role in Winston Churchill: One Hundred Days That Saved Britain in 2015. Hardy said, of his complete immersion into the character, 'my family complained, loudly, about my behaviour while I was playing [Churchill].' He also played FDR in the TV movie Bertie & Elizabeth.
In 1995, he gave up his long-time home in Oxfordshire, to become laird of a Scottish mansion, a Thirteenth Century miniature castle situated near Edinburgh, complete with a walled garden and fifty-foot tower. The actor had visited the place as a child and always sworn to return, following in the footsteps of a previous visitor, Sir Walter Scott, one of Hardy's personal heroes. In later years he suffered from cancer of the colon, but recovered to resume as busy a career as ever. Although he failed to make the lasting impact on Hollywood enjoyed by some British actors, his face became known the world over when he appeared as the Minister of Magic, Cornelius Fudge, in several of the Harry Potter films. He was dropped from the role after the studio balked at paying a one million pounds life insurance premium which was demanded because of his advancing age.
Off-screen, he became an authority on the English longbow, his interest having been stimulated when, as a child, he found two of the weapons in the family attic and later revived when he played Henry V in the BBC drama serial An Age Of Kings. He wrote two highly regarded books on the history of the weapon - Longbow: A Social & Military History and The Great Warbow: From Hastings To The Mary Rose (co-written with Matthew Strickland). He also wrote and presented an acclaimed 1963 BBC docudrama on the Battle of Agincourt, The Picardy Affair as well as appearing in several other documentaries about medieval weaponry. His role as a member of the Mary Rose Trust was highlighted in the 1982 Chronicle documentary The Wreck Of The Mary Rose. 
Hardy's on-screen temper was matched by a famously short fuse away from the camera and he admitted that, as an actor, he belonged to a set of 'difficult people.' He once reflected: 'The ego may be essential for survival in the wilderness of acting, but it's something that requires a great deal of control if you're going to make a success of life.' Hardy believed that actors were born rather than made, telling Desert Island Discs that his ambitions were formed when he appeared as a page boy at a wedding. 'I walked down the aisle with my head held high and as I went, every eye was turned towards me and something inside me said, "that's it, get every eye on you."'
Robert was made a CBE in 1981 for his services to acting. His first marriage, in 1952, was to Elizabeth Fox, the daughter of Sir Lionel Fox. Together they had a son, Paul. Following a divorce, in 1961, Robert married Sally Pearson, the daughter of the baronet Sir Neville Pearson and Dame Gladys Cooper as well as a sister-in-law of Robert Morley. They had two children, Justine, a journalist and psychotherapist who founded Healing Kashmir and Emma, a photographer. Robert died at Denville Hall, a retirement home for actors in London where he had been cared for during his final weeks.
And, another of this blogger's favourite actors, Hywel Bennett, known for his roles in Shelley and EastEnders, died on 25 July aged seventy three, his agent has confirmed. A strikingly handsome figure as a young man, Hywel excelled equally on stage, TV and film and in comedy as much as he did in the darker and more psychological roles.
The Carmathenshire-born actor's roles included 1960s movies the Boulting Brothers' The Family Way (with Hayley and John Mills), the psychological thriller Twisted Nerve, Endless Night and The Virgin Soldiers. He started out in films as a working-class pretty boy on the make, much in the mould of his contemporary and friend David Hemmings.
Fair-haired and slight of build, Hywel excelled at playing loners and outsiders, ranging from awkward types who refused to fit in to the - frankly - disturbed (most notably in Twisted Nerve, a once crticially vilified chiller, also featuring Hayley Mills and Billie Whitelaw, which has now developed something of a cult following). He was also much in demand for voice-over work, British Rail using his cosy tones in the 1980s to insist: 'We're getting there.' As drink and an over-active thyroid took their toll on his appearance – making him look, as one critic put it, 'increasingly like a sketch for a Francis Bacon pope' – he specialised in booze-raddled thugs and gangsters.
Following a period in repertory at Salisbury and Leatherhead in the mid-Sixties one of his earliest television appearances was as the Aridian Rynian in an episode of the 1965 Doctor Who story The Chase.
In The Virgin Soldiers (1969), based on the novel by Leslie Thomas, Bennett starred as Private Brigg alongside Lynn Redgrave as the Regimental Sergeant Major's daughter. Bennett's own account of the film in an interview that year described it as 'the story of a young soldier's love affair with a Chinese prostitute. And his fear in combat. One day he runs the wrong way and accidentally becomes a hero.' For a period he seemed to specialise in that curiously British strain of risque comedies of the early 1970s like the under-rated film adaptation of Joe Orton's black farce, Loot and Percy, about a man who becomes the world's first penis transplant. He supplemented that with often show-stealing guest appearances in major TV dramas like The Sweeney, Play For Today and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (where he was superb as the jaded spy Ricki Tarr).
Already a well-established movie actor, it was in the title role of the long-running ITV sitcom Shelley that he made his name on television. The series ran from 1979 to 1984. Very much a product of the early, harsh years of Thatcher's Britain, as 'a professional freelance layabout,' the titular James Shelley was always ready to offer an opinion on any topical issue or a solution to any problem but he remained unwilling to do anything as dreadful as actually get himself a job. 'Has he got a problem in bed?' his long-suffering partner, Fran (Belinda Sinclair), is asked by her doctor. 'Yes, he can't get out of it!' she replies. Hywel later reprised the role in The Return Of Shelley, which wasn't quite as good as the original - its targets being less focused and, importantly, less political - but, nevertheless, ran a further four series from 1988 to 1992. It should be noted, however, that the first episode of The Return Of Shelley does include one of this blogger's favourite ever TV sequences; returning to the UK after five years in America, Shelley has suffered a frustrating day of lost lugagge and dealing with jobsworth mentality. Finally, reunited with his luggage he settles down in his flat to watch some television. There is the familiar sound of Boots Randolph's 'Yakerty Sax' coming from the TV and Shelley's face is aghast as he exclaims, 'is Benny Hill still doing that?'
He joined EastEnders in 2003 as Jack Dalton, a gangland boss who ended up being killed in an act of revenge.
Hywel was born in Garnant in 1944, and grew up in London. He trained as an actor at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. His first stage appearance was in 1959, playing Ophelia in a National Youth Theatre production of Hamlet. It was traditional for teenage boys to play female roles in Shakespeare's time and, at fifteen, Hywel's voice hadn't yet broken. His first film appearance was as Leonardo in the 1966 Italian black comedy it, directed by Pasquale Festa Campanile in which a young wife carefully plans to murder her husband, who is forty years her senior, to marry a beatnik.
Hywel's other TV roles included parts in Alan Plater's The Consultant, Boon, Frontiers, Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere, Artemis 81, The Other Side Of Paradise, Malice Aforethought, Last Of The Summer Wine, the 2001 remake of Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased), the 1966 Dennis Potter play Where The Buffalo Roam and Potter's subsequent series' Karaoke, Cold Lazarus and Pennies From Heaven. He played Peter Baxter in The Bill for five years and appeared in an episode of Jam & Jerusalem as well as the movies Misery Harbour, Vatel and One For The Road. His final role was as Reggie Conway in The Last Detective in 2007 before he retired from acting due to a persistent ill-health. In retirement, he lived in Deal in Kent. Hywel appeared in the 1986 music video of 'Loving You's A Dirty Job But Somebody's Gotta Do It' by Bonnie Tyler and Todd Rundgren. He was godfather to Crispian Mills, the son of Hywel's former Family Way, Twisted Nerve and Endless Night co-star Hayley Miles and the lead singer of the rock and/or roll band Kula Shaker. Hywel was married to the former Ready Steady Go! presenter Cathy McGowan from 1970 to 1988 and to Sandra Layne Fulford from 1998. He is survived by his daughter, Emma and his brother, the actor Alun Lewis.