Obituary: David Swift
Drop the Dead Donkey star left a job in textiles to tread the stages of the West End
Published 01/05/2016 | 02:30
David Swift, who has died aged 85, swapped a lucrative career in business for a £10-a-week job as an actor.
His film credits included Travels with My Aunt (1972), The Day of the Jackal (1973) and Jack and Sarah (1995) and in 1972 he was Napoleon in the BBC's 20-episode adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's epic novel War and Peace.
He became most familiar, however, as the boozily cantankerous Henry Davenport, the womanising news-reader struggling with a mid-life crisis, in Drop The Dead Donkey. The sitcom, written by Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin, ran for six series and 64 episodes on Channel 4, from 1990 to 1998, and collected a total of 17 awards.
Set in the studios of Globelink, a fictional rolling television news station owned by a media tycoon who prizes ratings and sensationalism above responsible journalism, the series was filmed very close to transmission to ensure the jokes were as topical as possible. But for many fans it was the office politics rather than the satire that made the show so unmissable, as put-upon editor George Dent (Jeff Rawle) struggled to keep his staff and bosses happy.
Each episode was produced in just five days with the script changing right up to the last moment to incorporate breaking news.
Swift recalled the rehearsal process as "a bit like having open heart surgery without anaesthetic".
To make his character convincing, he invented his own back story: "He lives in a flat in Albany in St James's, London, close to actor Terence Stamp. He drives a drophead Bentley and goes off to his house in Wiltshire at the weekends."
It was, he admitted, "an enviable lifestyle, particularly as I only drive an old Honda."
The balding Swift wanted his character to wear an undetectable wig but, as he recalled, "they gave me a hairpiece that looked as obvious as the one Reginald Bosanquet wore. You could spot it moving."
Swift made Davenport's misery so compelling, he won the audience's sympathy.
David Bernard Swift was born in Liverpool on April 3 1931 to Jewish parents who owned a hire purchase furniture business in Bootle.
He was educated at Clifton College and Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, where he read Law. After graduation he embarked on a business career with JP Jacobs, whose company supplied elastic to Marks & Spencer.
In 1953 he married Jacobs's daughter, the actress Paula Jacobs. His younger brother Clive (best known as Hyacinth Bucket's husband, Richard, in Keeping up Appearances) had also become an actor and eventually Swift decided to join them.
During the 1970s and 1980s Swift had small roles in many TV series, including Going Straight, Bloomers, and Rising Damp, while on the West End stage he appeared in the Royal Shakespeare Company's Henry VI, Part 1 and as Frank Doel in 84, Charing Cross Road.
On the big screen his parts included Montclair in The Day of the Jackal (1973). Swift also took the title role in CBBC's Oscar Charlie (2001) and guest starred in Holby City (2002).
As well as acting, Swift became involved in television production, including co-founding, in 1969, Tempest Films. The company became the first to involve the radical journalist John Pilger in television and made Pilger's first television documentary The Quiet Mutiny (1970), for Granada's World in Action series, which brought protests from the US ambassador Walter Annenberg by shedding light on the increasingly mutinous atmosphere within the American Army in Vietnam.
David Swift, who died on April 8, is survived by his wife and by their son and daughter