Tuesday 23 January 2018

Nigel Davenport

Magnetic actor in theatre, TV and film who had roles in 'A Man for All Seasons' and 'Chariots of Fire'

Nigel Davenport, the actor, who has died aged 85, will be best remembered for playing dark, strong, rakish toffs, aggressive heroes, scowling villains – and for what he himself called his "dodgy" eyes.

Whether in films, plays or television, his power largely derived, some thought, from his expressive gaze.

Whether he glanced or glared, grinned or grimaced, Davenport had an unusual magnetism. He also had a kind of rasp in his voice which some called gravelly and others abrasive, and altogether added to his authority.

One of the most versatile and busy of British character actors, after a strong theatrical start Davenport alternated between films and plays for nearly five decades. On the small screen he might be a red-hot titled lover in Howard's Way; an aggressive boss on a North Sea oil-rig; a moody Yorkshire squire in pre-war England (South Riding); an interfering working-class racehorse owner (Trainer); or King George III in Prince Regent.

He appeared in more than 40 feature films, ranging from a detective in Peeping Tom via a tough guy among conscripts in The Virgin Soldiers to a resourceful psychopath who (in Play Dirty) wipes out a whole army encampment on the grounds that "I didn't like the tea". He was also the game warden in Living Free and Lord Birkenhead in Chariots of Fire.

Something of a political magpie, Davenport started out on the Left before becoming an early supporter of Margaret Thatcher. He switched allegiance to the SDP before returning to Labour and then declaring himself a "Radical", declining to vote at all.

He was always, however, a staunch believer in the rights of his fellow workers, and for six years from 1986 was president of British Actors' Equity Association. It was a role in which he didn't mince his words. At the TUC Congress in 1988, for example, he was cheered when he described Rupert Murdoch as a "toxic waste dispenser with his global collection of refuse tips in the media and television". Deregulation would lead, he said (to further applause), to "tabloid television" and "pathetic drivel".

Arthur Nigel Davenport was born in Shelford, Cambridge, on May 5, 1928, the son of a Cambridge bursar awarded an MC after serving for four years in the Royal Engineers during World War I. Nigel's great-uncle, Major Matthew Fontaine Maury Meiklejohn, won a VC during the Second Boer War.

Davenport was educated at Cheltenham College before reading English at Trinity College, Oxford, where he acted with the OUDS.

While on military service with the RASC he worked as an army radio disc jockey in Hamburg. His first professional acting job was as an understudy in a Noel Coward play, Relative Values (Savoy, 1952).

His supposedly "dodgy" eyes derived from a strong squint caused by a lazy eye, of which he was always conscious.

He went on to act with the Shakespeare Memorial Company at Stratford, Chesterfield Civic Theatre and Ipswich rep before becoming one of the first members of the English Stage Company at the Royal Court.

He was John Osborne's choice for Cliff in Look Back in Anger (1956). In Joan Littlewood's original Theatre Workshop production of A Taste of Honey (Theatre Royal, Stratford, 1959), Davenport played Peter, a used-car salesman and lover of the heroine's indifferent mother, transferring with the play to the West End, and to LA and New York.

By then Davenport had appeared in his first feature films, Look Back in Anger and Peeping Tom, and from 1961 on television. His first major feature film was A High Wind in Jamaica. In A Man For All Seasons he played the Duke of Norfolk and, between films, took various TV roles.

Having moved to a farmhouse in Suffolk in the 1970s, he spent the last years of his life in Gloucestershire.

Nigel Davenport married, in 1951, Helena White, who died in 1979; and secondly, in 1972, the actress Maria Aitken; that marriage was dissolved. By his first marriage he had a son, the journalist Hugo Davenport, and a daughter, Laura. With Maria Aitken he had another son, the actor Jack Davenport. Nigel Davenport died on October 25.

Sunday Independent

Promoted Links

Entertainment Newsletter

Going out? Staying in? From great gigs to film reviews and listings, entertainment has you covered.

Promoted Links

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment