Sunday 22 October 2017

Obituary: Tim Pigott-Smith

British actor who gained fame as the villain Ronald Merrick in the hit 1980s TV series 'The Jewel in the Crown'

Monster performance: Tim Pigott-Smith (right) as Merrick, with Nicholas Farrell as Teddy Bingham, in Granada TV's 'The Jewel in the Crown' Photo: ITV/REX/Shutterstock
Monster performance: Tim Pigott-Smith (right) as Merrick, with Nicholas Farrell as Teddy Bingham, in Granada TV's 'The Jewel in the Crown' Photo: ITV/REX/Shutterstock

Tim Piggott-Smith, who has died aged 70, was a seasoned Shakespearean stage actor before he achieved television stardom as the sadistic police superintendent turned Army colonel Ronald Merrick in The Jewel in the Crown (ITV, 1984).

Beginning with a rape and ending with a massacre, Granada Television's 13-hour filmed serialisation of The Raj Quartet novels by Paul Scott was set in the final years of British rule in India between 1942 and 1947 and was judged the most impressive appointment-to-view television drama since Brideshead Revisited three years earlier.

As the villain of the piece, bristling with all the imperial arrogance of the vainglorious British, Pigott-Smith turned in what one reviewer judged "a monster of a performance" playing Merrick with "impeccably sinister intensity". In the words of one critic "Merrick personifies all that's worst about the British Raj. He is a bigot, a liar, a pederast and a sadomasochist, and yet the only thing deemed objectionable about him by the father of the woman he wants to marry is that 'he's not quite our class'."

Because viewers could see, and above all hear, Pigott-Smith as Merrick, agreed the historian Gordon Brook-Shepherd in The Sunday Telegraph, "you realise how the British conquerors in India were divided by class just as hopelessly as their conquered subjects were split by caste". The role earned Pigott-Smith the Bafta best actor award.

Much of the series was shot on location in picturesque Udaipur with its granite and marble palace set in a lake, interior scenes being filmed back at Granada at a warehouse in Manchester that had been converted into a studio. In India the production had been dogged by mishaps, and as soon as filming ended in January 1983 fire swept through the Manchester warehouse destroying all the costumes and props, including a prosthetic arm worn by Pigott-Smith. The Roehampton limb centre quickly supplied a replacement.

Pigott-Smith revisited colonial India when he returned to the live stage in his one-man show Bengal Lancer (Leicester Haymarket, 1985), in which he played no fewer than 16 characters, emerging, as one critic noted, as infinitely more versatile than might be expected from his portrayal of Ronald Merrick in The Jewel in the Crown. It was a production in which he drew on his long experience of playing Shakespearean roles, starting as Laertes to Ian McKellen's Hamlet with the Actors' Company in 1970.

Moving to the National Theatre, he continued to impress in productions of Shakespeare, appearing as Posthumus in John Barton's 1974 production of Cymbeline for the Royal Shakespeare Company, Octavius in Antony and Cleopatra, and Leontes, Iachimo and Trimculo in Peter Hall's Late Shakespeare touring season. In 2011 he took the title role in King Lear at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds.

Having played several historical crowned heads in some of literature's greatest plays, in 2015 Pigott-Smith took the title role in Mike Bartlett's satire King Charles III, written in blank verse, which imagines Prince Charles's accession to the throne.

It was a critical and commercial hit in London, where Pigott-Smith led the cast at both the Almeida and later Wyndham's Theatres, although he missed five weeks of performances after breaking seven ribs and a collarbone in a motorcycle accident. In 2016 it transferred to New York, winning that year's Olivier Award for best new play; in The New York Times Ben Brantley called it "the most engrossing, entertaining and insightful new history play in decades".

The director Rupert Goold, who cast Pigott-Smith as Ken Lay in the hit London production of Enron in 2009, admired his "extraordinary technical confidence", but noted at his kernel "a little shard of uncertainty, and he uses that".

The son of a journalist, Timothy Peter Pigott-Smith was born on May 13, 1946 in Rugby. He was educated at Wyggeston Boys' School, Leicester, and King Edward VI School, Stratford-upon-Avon, where he regularly attended productions by the Royal Shakespeare Company. His mother was an amateur actress. He studied at Bristol University before training as an actor at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School.

After a makeweight early career in smaller roles, including a couple of television appearances on Doctor Who, Pigott-Smith got his big break with the leading role of Merrick in The Jewel in the Crown.

The series was hugely popular in the United States, and could have set Pigott-Smith on the road to stardom there. But, although he was offered a television show pilot in Los Angeles, he balked at the prospect of a five-year commitment and decided to remain in Britain.

"People wrote about me and started calling me a star, and I just hated it," he said, recalling his high profile in the mid-1980s. "I just hated the exposure, and most of all I hated the responsibility it placed on me in my work. I had to turn up and be something special all the time, and I couldn't bear it."

Instead he opted to develop his career as a character actor, taking the occasional leading part, including the title role in the crime drama series The Chief (1990-93), a recurring role in the ITV drama The Vice, and a role in the feature film Bloody Sunday (2002).

In the mid-1980s Pigott-Smith joined Sir Anthony Quayle as joint artistic director of Compass, the touring company Quayle had founded in 1984.

He directed Peter Shaffer's The Royal Hunt of the Sun and, as an actor, appeared as Brutus in a production of Julius Caesar. He co-starred in the television film Life Story (1987), about the discovery of DNA, playing Francis Crick to Jeff Goldblum's James Watson.

On stage, as well as his success in King Charles III, Pigott-Smith had made two earlier appearances on Broadway, playing Dr Watson in a revival of Sherlock Holmes in 1974, and Larry Slade in a 1999 revival of The Iceman Cometh. On the first night of Sherlock Holmes the wardrobe mistress gave him what he believed was a lucky personalised towel, which he used to lay out his stage make-up thereafter.

Pigott-Smith's film career included the 2004 film Alexander; The Remains of the Day (1993); The Four Feathers and Gangs of New York (both 2002); Johnny English (2003) and V for Vendetta (2005). He also made an appearance in the 2008 James Bond film Quantum of Solace.

Shortly before his death Pigott-Smith had enjoyed a hilarious outing in the BBC's three-part television dramatisation of Evelyn Waugh's novel Decline and Fall, as Mr Sniggs, the Junior Dean at Scone College who engineers the sending-down of the hapless theology student Paul Pennyfeather (Jack Whitehall), after his "debagging" by rowdy members of the Bollinger Club.

Later this month he was due to star as Willy Loman in a touring production of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman.

Tim Pigott-Smith, who died on April 7, married, in 1972, the actress Pamela Miles, with whom he had a son Tom, a professional violinist.

By a strange coincidence the director of The Jewel in the Crown, Christopher Morahan died, aged 87, on the same day as Tim Pigott-Smith.

Telegraph.co.uk

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