Sunday 26 February 2017

Michael Gough

Actor will be best remembered for playing Alfred the butler in the Batman films, says Robert Sellers

Like the character he played in four of the Batman movie blockbusters -- that of Bruce Wayne's faithful butler Alfred -- Michael Gough, who died on March 17, radiated quiet authority and avuncular charm; he could spin a theatrical tale like few others.

But despite Shakespearean training and extensive theatre, his name was made by slaving in cheap horror movies, though almost uniquely among his contemporaries Gough had the knack of being able to move effortlessly from the high brow to the low brow, equally at home in Ibsen on stage or as a sadistic killer in Z-features. And in a career that spanned over 60 years, he played everything from royalty to mad scientists.

He was born in 1917 in Malaya, where his father worked as a rubber planter. When he was six the family returned to England. It was supposed that Gough would follow in his father's wake and to that end he enrolled in agricultural college. But his dream was always to be an actor, ever since he was captivated as a schooboy by the stage presence of Rex Harrison. The fact that he'd failed all his examinations and was befuddled at how he was going to earn a living was further inducement to pursuing a theatrical career.

"You didn't have to pass exams to become an actor, you just said, 'I am an actor,' and you were one!"

Unfortunately, showbusiness wanted little to do with Gough, who washed dishes in Soho cafes to keep himself in food and cigarettes, while during lunch breaks he waited forlornly in the offices of theatrical agents. In 1936, his luck changed when he won a place at the Old Vic School and played numerous roles during the 1936-37 season. Talk about being thrown in at the deep end: his first professional stage appearance was with Laurence Olivier.

A trip to Broadway the following year ended in disaster when the show folded within days of opening, leaving him down and out in New York. Far from being despondent, he married one of the actresses, Diana Graves, a niece of the poet Robert Graves.

Gough's break in films came in 1947 with Blanche Fury, a torpid Victorian melodrama starring Stewart Granger. Better was to follow with roles in The Man in the White Suit (1951), Richard III (1955) and Reach for the Sky (1956). Then in 1958, he made the film that was to drastically alter his career path, Hammer's Dracula. It led to a succession of low-grade British horror pictures where he usually played the leading nasty, often giving colourful and broad performances that resulted in him being unfairly typed as a poor man's Peter Cushing.

Titles like Horrors of the Black Museum (1959); Dr Terror's House of Horrors (1965); and Konga (1960), a cut-price rival to King Kong, did Gough no favours artistically, but were there when he needed the money and fitted in with his own view of himself as a sort of acting tradesman who took on jobs as they came along, if they appealed, and just got on with it.

By the early 1970s, Gough had succeeded in shaking off his horror image and had pleasingly matured into a character actor of some distinction, one of that band of British performers whose faces are better known than their names.

On television, he was a fine Dr Livingstone in the BBC epic serial The Search for the Nile and a memorable dirty old man in Dennis Potter's controversial Blackeyes. On film, his performance in The Go-Between (1970) deservedly earned him a Bafta nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

But it was to be those past horror misdemeanours that landed Gough the role for which he will forever be best known to cinema-goers -- that of Alfred in the phenomenally successful Batman movies. Tim Burton, director and lover of bad horror films, cast Gough after watching him receive a Tony award for his performance in Bedroom Farce on Broadway. "That's the guy who's in all those terrible films," cried Burton. "He's our Alfred!"

Gough's regal voice and gothic features, so at home in his monster movies, also proved ideal for Burton's darkly subversive reworking of the Batman story. Gough played Alfred in three subsequent sequels, seeing Burton pass the directorial reins over to Joel Schumacher and Bruce Wayne evolve from Michael Keaton to Val Kilmer and finally George Clooney. In the ever-changing Batman universe, Gough remained the one constant.

For such a sedate and unassuming man, Gough's private life erred faintly on the side of turbulence. He was married four times, on three occasions to actresses. After separating from Diana Graves, he married Anne Leon and then Anneke Wills, a television actress; and finally Henrietta Lawrence.

He had four children -- two sons, Simon and Jasper; and two daughters, Emma, and Polly, who in 1982 was killed in a car crash at the age of 19. Late in life, Gough was heard to wearily ruminate that all in all he'd perhaps had too many wives and too many children. "I've been a hostage of fortune all my life."

Sunday Independent

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