Robert Hardy obituary
Actor who starred on TV in All Creatures Great and Small and became associated with the role of Winston Churchill
Thursday 3 August 2017 18.01 BST Last modified on Thursday 3 August 2017 22.00 BST
Robert Hardy, who has died aged 91, was one of the most instantly 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 series All Creatures Great and Small, based on the semi-autobiographical novels of James Herriot.
Leading actors have often become associated with living characters – Michael Sheen with Tony Blair, for instance, or Meryl Streep with Margaret Thatcher – but Hardy relished the challenge of playing a historical figment, someone already lodged in his own mythology, though he did happen to know, and became a personal friend of, Herriot’s veterinary colleague, the eccentric Donald Sinclair, the acknowledged basis and inspiration of Farnon’s character.
“The great joy of acting,” he 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, 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 great 1971 BBC six-part series Elizabeth R. For a time, if there was a “class” series or TV film to be made – An Age of Kings, a decade earlier; Edward the Seventh (starring Timothy West; Hardy was consort to Annette Crosbie’s Queen Victoria) in 1975 – Hardy’s very presence was 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, which stung as much as it sang, 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.
His early career as a leading light at both Stratford-upon-Avon and the Old Vic, though, suggested he might follow his great friend Richard Burton to even greater glory. He was the first David Copperfield on BBC TV (in 1956), and a fiery Prince Hal and Henry V at the Old Vic – in this role he developed what became a lifelong interest in the history of the longbow – and you could say that he spent the rest of his life adapting his golden boy pre-eminence to lesser, and then older, character parts.
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 in his acting: he was like a corked bottle of combustible gas.
Born in Cheltenham, he was the youngest of six children of Major Henry Harrison Hardy, headmaster of Cheltenham college, and his wife, Edith (nee Dugdale), and was educated, after prep school (“absolute hell”), at Rugby and Magdalen College, Oxford, where his tutors were CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien. Still, his degree was “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.
He made his professional debut at the Memorial theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1949, touring to Australia as Banquo in Macbeth, and making his first London mark as Claudio in John Gielgud’s revival of Much Ado About Nothing at the Phoenix in 1952. His star rose at the Old Vic in three seasons, 1953-56, when he played Laertes to Richard Burton’s Hamlet and Claire Bloom’s Ophelia; Ariel in the Tempest; Dumaine in Love’s Labour’s Lost; and a dashing Prince Hal to Paul Rogers’s Falstaff.
After West End stints in The Caine Mutiny Court Martial, and as Lord Byron in Tennessee Williams’s Camino Real, he returned to Stratford in 1959, playing a highly rated, viciously evil Edmund to Charles Laughton’s King Lear; the King of France in All’s Well That Ends Well; and a devious tribune alongside Laurence Olivier’s Coriolanus.
Thus established, he launched his notable television career alongside seasons at the Bristol Old Vic and in the West End, playing the Count in Jean Anouilh’s The Rehearsal and, in 1963, the adulterous wine merchant in Iris Murdoch’s A Severed Head at the Criterion. One of his most glittering performances came in 1967, as Sir Harry Wildair in the George Farquhar Restoration comedy The Constant Couple at the New (now the Noël Coward) theatre.
For five years in the late 1960s, he appeared as a thrusting oil-company executive in the BBC’s groundbreaking The Troubleshooters, a series that started in black and white and ended in colour. This was an immensely popular programme, with gripping plotlines of global espionage, free-market enterprise, middle-aged testosterone, internal politics and dangers on the North Sea oil rigs.
After that, Hardy did not expect All Creatures Great and Small to be a success; he thought it would “bore the town and annoy the country”. Instead, it played in all for 90 episodes between 1978 and 1990. He also fitted in eight episodes of The Wilderness Years in 1981; his portrait of Churchill between the wars, reclaiming his “lost” career before going to the Admiralty in 1939, remains a highlight of TV acting, vigorous, peppery, lovable and bullish, but not remotely an “impersonation”, honoured with a Bafta award.
That portrait hardened into something more like mimicry in a feeble musical, Winnie, at the Victoria Palace in 1988; Hardy did little more than intone highlights from the great speeches as part of a wartime cabaret in bombed-out Potsdam to launch the 1945 general election campaign. His other Churchills included an appearance in the television abdication drama The Woman He Loved (1988), and the miniseries War and Remembrance (also 1988), starring Robert Mitchum as a second world war naval officer. He played Churchill in French, in Paris, in a play called Celui Qui A Dit Non (1999). His last, seriously ailing Churchill was in Marion Milne’s TV movie Churchill: 100 Days That Saved Britain (2015), with Phil Davis as his physician, Charles McMoran Wilson, and Jemma Redgrave as Clementine.
Hardy’s West End adieu had been in Roy Kendall’s Body and Soul (1992), an old-fashioned problem play – the “problem” being the ordination of women into the Church of England – in which he bristled with charm and alertness as an astonished bishop whose vicar, Christopher, has returned to the parish after a sex change.
Before then, he popped up on film in Alan Bridges’ The Shooting Party (1985), with a deluxe cast of James Mason, Edward Fox, Dorothy Tutin and Gielgud, and in David Hare’s Paris by Night (1988), a political thriller led by Charlotte Rampling and Michael Gambon. His Indian summer in British-based movies continued in Kenneth Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994), Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility (1995), Mrs Dalloway (1997) with Vanessa Redgrave, The Tichborne Claimant (1998) and Oliver Parker’s An Ideal Husband (1999), lining up alongside Cate Blanchett, Minnie Driver, Rupert Everett and John Wood.
No surprise at all, then, that he joined in the Harry Potter film franchise, appearing in four of the series, starting with the second, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002), as Cornelius Fudge, the Minister of Magic.
Hardy’s book about his passion, The Longbow (1976), is a standard work on the subject, and he co-authored another volume, The Great Warbow, in 2004. He served as a trustee of the board of the Royal Armouries, chairman of Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Naturalists’ Trust Appeal and as a member of the Woodmen of Arden. He held several honorary degrees and was made CBE in 1981.
He was twice married, first to Elizabeth Fox, and second to Sally Pearson, both marriages ending in divorce. He is survived by a son, Paul, from the first and two daughters, Emma and Justine, from the second.
• Timothy Sydney Robert Hardy, actor, born 29 October 1925; died 3 August 2017
Robert Hardy, Harry Potter actor, dies at 91
Star’s 70-year career included roles as Cornelius Fudge, Churchill, and Siegfried Farnon in All Creatures Great and Small
Mark Brown Arts correspondent
Thursday 3 August 2017 16.42 BST First published on Thursday 3 August 2017 16.32 BST
The Harry Potter actor Robert Hardy has died at the age of 91, his family has said.
They paid tribute to an actor whose theatre, film and television career spanned 70 years.
His children – Emma, Justine and Paul – said: “Gruff, elegant, twinkly, and always dignified, he is celebrated by all who knew him and loved him, and everyone who enjoyed his work.
“We are immensely grateful to the team at Denville Hall [a London retirement home for actors] for the tender care they gave during his last weeks.”
Hardy was also known for his many portrayals of Winston Churchill and as the irascible vet Siegfried Farnon in All Creatures Great and Small.
His early years as an actor were at the Shakespeare Memorial theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon where, while playing Henry V, he developed what became a lifelong interest in the longbow, later publishing two books on the subject.
In his later career, Hardy played Cornelius Fudge, in the Harry Potter movies about the boy wizard, but he came to national attention in 1977 when he was offered the role of the mercurial, cantankerous Siegfried in All Creatures Great and Small, based on the memoirs of the Yorkshire vet Alf Wright who used the pseudonym James Herriot. The stories and chemistry between the actors helped it become one of the BBC’s most successful and popular family evening dramas.
His co-star Christopher Timothy paid tribute to Hardy saying: “He has left an unbelievable legacy of fantastic work for many generations to enjoy and appreciate. A fascinating man, he didn’t suffer fools I can tell you, but he was a good fellow.”
JK Rowling also shared her memories of working with Hardy on the film adaptations of her Harry Potter books. She wrote: “So very sad to hear about Robert Hardy. He was such a talented actor and everybody who worked with him on Potter loved him.”
Hardy played Churchill on numerous occasions, notably in the 1981 ITV series Winston Churchill: The Wilderness Years for which he won a Bafta.
In 2015 Hardy, writing in the Daily Mail, said portraying the wartime leader had “undoubtedly been the greatest challenge of my acting career … To prepare I spent nine months listening - morning, afternoon and evening – to 24 double-sided long playing records of all the speeches he’d made. By the end of those nine months I could tell which of the recordings Churchill had made before lunch, and which he’d made after!”
Hardy had been due to play Churchill once again in the stage production of The Audience, with Helen Mirren as Elizabeth II, but, at the age of 87, was forced to pull out because of injury.
His family said Hardy was a “meticulous linguist, a fine artist, a lover of music and a champion of literature, as well as a highly respected historian. He was an essential part of the team that raised the great Tudor warship the Mary Rose”.