Born on 16 July 1939, he was educated at Westminster School and King’s College, Cambridge, where he took a first class degree in English. He was a university contemporary of Ian McKellen, Derek Jacobi and Trevor Nunn but spent more of his early days in the profession working for the Trotskyite Workers Revolutionary Party than cultivating his career. At the last general election, he and Vanessa launched Peace and Progress, a new human rights party, which opposed the Iraq war and the Bush-Blair war on terror as a whole.
He did join the RSC in 1970 for Nunn’s Roman play sequence, but his temperament fitted him better for a range of misfits and outsiders, which he played to perfection: Roger Casement, the Irish nationalist spy; Anthony Blunt, the treacherous Master of the Queen’s Pictures (he wrote the radio play in which he appeared); and an unlikely but deeply compelling Duke of Windsor in Snoo Wilson’s stage play about the 1936 abdication, HRH.
At the National, during the Nunn reign, he played a monstrous prison warder in the “lost” Tennessee Williams play Not About Nightingales, and a wonderful duet with John Wood in Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land. Wood said he could mesmerise the audience like a snake; he also had a rare, enigmatic quality that stamped him decisively as he grew older.
In 2004 he played Olivier’s great role, Archie Rice, in a revival of John Osborne’s The Entertainer at the Liverpool Playhouse and then re-joined the RSC to play King Lear, as well as the critic Kenneth Tynan in a monodrama based on Tynan’s diaries; with his dandy-ish hairstyle, impeccable socks and cruel sneer, he cut an imposing tragic figure. Following a heart attack in 2005, he bravely and successfully returned to the stage in Trumbo at the Jermyn Street Theatre last year.
He’d certainly come into his kingdom, even though he always remained underrated by critics and public alike.
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