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Wednesday 21 August 2019

Obituary: Keith Michell

Australian actor and theatre director lauded for his many performances on stage, TV and film as Henry VIII

THRONE: Michell and Jane Asher in Henry VIII and His Six Wives
THRONE: Michell and Jane Asher in Henry VIII and His Six Wives

Keith Michell, the Australian-born actor and director who has died aged 89, was celebrated for his many imposing stage and screen performances as Henry VIII.

Michell came to monopolise one of British history's favourite subjects for dramatisation. Such was the charm of this burly, sturdy, square-set, square-jawed, mellifluous upstart from the Antipodes that when he revived Shakespeare's King Henry VIII at the Chichester Festival in 1991, he could with justice claim to have made the part of the much-married English monarch his own for a quarter of a century.

Even recent high-profile performances by Damian Lewis, in Wolf Hall, and Jonathan Rhys Meyers in The Tudors, have failed to dispossess him of the character entirely.

Michell's first Henry appeared in a West End comedy imported from Paris, Jean Canolle's The King's Mare (Garrick, 1966). The famous BBC television series, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, followed in 1972, and later that year its feature film spin-off Henry VIII and His Six Wives (played by Frances Cuka, Charlotte Rampling, Jane Asher, Jenny Bos, Lynne Frederick and Barbara Leigh-Hunt). Some two decades later he revived Shakespeare's play. And in 1996 he played Henry a final time in the television film The Prince and the Pauper (he was, by this time, 67).Often visually reminiscent of Holbein's portrait and always aurally imposing, Michell's Henry did not please all tastes. Rarely a subtle player, Michell could seem on the screen both mannered and larger than life, though on television the close-ups of the costumes and the air of historical authenticity counted as much as the acting.

Nevertheless the bluffness and the bluster of the screen performances did not wholly obscure the human being beneath the surface. Michell was, however, a more effective performer on the stage for which his Old Vic and Stratford-on-Avon training fitted him. In fact, he possessed the rare theatrical attribute of being as accomplished in classical tragedy as in musical comedy.

When he was appointed artistic director of the Chichester Festival in the mid- seventies in succession to men like Laurence Olivier who, as its founding-director, had prepared his new National Theatre Company at the Sussex theatre, and John Clements, an actor-manager of long experience, there were murmurs of doubt.

In the event, Michell acquitted himself well, not only as an administrator but also as an innovator. He introduced the startled playgoers of southern England to the ancient Greeks and the French neo-Romantics. He even brought forward Topol, the popular Israeli from the Broadway musical comedy Fiddler on the Roof, to play Shakespeare's Othello, with himself as Iago. The policy did Michell great credit. For he proved his dramatic point by raising the festival's sights.

Keith Joseph Michell was born on December 1, 1926 ,in Adelaide, Australia, and educated at Port Pirie High School, Adelaide Teachers' College, Adelaide School of Arts and Crafts and Adelaide University. He taught art before he took up acting professionally.

He made his first theatrical appearance at the Playbox Theatre, Adelaide, in Lover's Leap in 1947. Then he sailed for England for stage training at the Old Vic Theatre School.

After a stint with the Young Vic Theatre Company, as Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice, he appeared in the West End as Charles II in the musical And So To Bed (New Theatre, 1951). He joined the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre Company, under Anthony Quayle, for its 1952-53 Australian tour. He then returned to Stratford-on-Avon for the next three seasons.

In the West End, in 1964, he had a long run as Robert Browning in the musical comedy Robert and Elizabeth (Lyric). After Henry VIII in The King's Mare, he played Don Quixote in Man of La Mancha (Piccadilly, 1968); and after appearing in Abelard and Heloise in the West End and New York, he took on Hamlet for Sam Wanamaker at the Globe. During his tenure as Chichester's artistic director (1974-77), he also directed and acted in many of his own productions. In London, his many well-remembered appearances include playing opposite Geraldine McEwan in Jerome Kilty's Dear Love (Comedy, 1973), playing Sherlock Holmes in The Crucifer of Blood (Haymarket, 1979), and enjoying musical parts in On the Twentieth Century (Her Majesty's, 1980) and The Captain Beaky Christmas Show (Lyric, 1981-82). In 1980, his version of Jeremy Lloyd's song Captain Beaky reached No 5 in the UK charts.

Apart from Henry VIII, his other television credits included My Brother Tom (1986) and Captain James Cook (1988); his film appearances included Dangerous Exile (1958), The Hellfire Club (1961), Seven Seas to Calais (1962), House of Cards (1968) and The Executioner (1970).

Keith Michell, who died on November 20, married, in 1957, the Czech-born actress Jeannette Sterke. She survives him along with their son and daughter.

© Telegraph


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