Thursday 19 September 2019

Obituary: Peter Vaughan

Menacing star of stage and screen most famous for 'Porridge' and 'Game of Thrones'

Peter Vaughan as 'Grouty', in Porridge.
Peter Vaughan as 'Grouty', in Porridge.

Peter Vaughan, the actor, who has died aged 93, was a masterly exponent of menace on stage, screen and television for half a century.

His best-known television roles were that of "genial" Harry Grout ("Grouty"), the fearsome tobacco baron, in Porridge; the doting father of Wolfie Smith's girlfriend in Citizen Smith; Tulkinghorn in the BBC's 1985 adaptation of Charles Dickens's Bleak House; and latterly he reached a vast new international audience as Aemon Targaryen, the blind Maester to the Night's Watch in Game of Thrones.

Tall, burly, quietly spoken with a strong chin, weak lips and small, staring eyes set close and deep in a large head, Vaughan on stage had an arresting theatrical presence which never stooped to charm an audience, but usually made it nervous.

Poise was the key to much of his success: a studied stillness to which he added a streak of the sinister. Hence his ability in certain dramas to drum up tension at a glance.

He created not only a gallery of marginal characters whose nervous hold on the audience was unrelenting, if not chilling, but also a sense of mystery with his quiet, reserved manner. If he ever smiled, it seemed to veil a threat. His timing and his movements took their cue from a faith in the art of pacing; he acted through pauses and silences and a kind of slow scowl which, in profile, when he frowned, resembled an eerie Mr Punch.

Among Vaughan's more memorably innocuous characters were Gladstone to Dorothy Tutin's Queen Victoria in Portrait of a Queen (Bristol Old Vic and Vaudeville, 1965); and, nearly 30 years later, the silent, aged parent (Mr Stevens Senior) to Anthony Hopkins's dedicated manservant in the film The Remains of the Day (1993).

More typically unattractive of his stage portraits was his poisonously racist American juror (No 10) in Harold Pinter's West End production of Reginald Rose's Twelve Angry Men (Comedy, 1996); but the part with which made Vaughan's name in the London theatre was that of the oily, over-dressed Ed in Entertaining Mr Sloane (Arts and Wyndham's, 1964).

A familiar face on television in scores of plays and series, his later credits included Fox, The Choir, Fatherland, Winston Greeves in Mistress of Suspense and Marek in Lovejoy. His performance as Felix Hutchinson, the embittered trade unionist afflicted by Alzheimer's, in Our Friends in the North, won him wide acclaim.

Among his film credits were Christopher Hampton's The Secret Agent and the role of Giles Corey in Arthur Miller's The Crucible.

The son of a Potteries banker, Peter Ewart Ohm was born at Wem, Shropshire, on April 4, 1923, and brought up in Uttoxeter, Staffordshire.

From Uttoxeter Grammar School, he went into repertory at the Grand, Wolverhampton, as an assistant stage manager.

Between spells at other reps before and after army service in World War II, Vaughan queued for his dole with the actor Donald Pleasance before starting to get parts in films and in the West End, mainly, at first, in translated plays from the Continent.

After stealing most of the notices in Entertaining Mr Sloane and striking an authoritative note as Gladstone in Portrait of a Queen, Vaughan's West End credits went on to include numerous detectives and policemen, including Sgt Rough in the thriller Gaslight (Criterion), and such new plays as Travelling North (Lyric, Hammersmith), Ayckbourn's Season's Greetings (Ambassadors) and The Overgrown Path (Royal Court).

In Ben Jonson's The Devil Is An Ass (Edinburgh Festival and National Theatre) he played Fitzdottrel; and in the cinema Vaughan's credits included The Punch and Judy Man, The Devil's Agent, The Horse Without a Head, The Victors, Smokescreen, Fanatic, Rotten to the Core, The Man Outside, The Naked Runner, A Twist of Sand, Straw Dogs (as a notably vile Cornish yokel), Savage Messiah, Madigan, The Blockhouse, The Seaweed Children, 11 Harrowhouse, Valentino, Porridge, Zulu Dawn, Time Bandits, The French Lieutenant's Woman, The Missionary, The Razor's Edge and Brazil.

In his late 80s Vaughan added gravitas to the sumptuous HBO television fantasy series Game of Thrones when he appeared as the wise old man Maester Aemon, of the royal house of Targaryen.

A keen cricketer as a young man, he gave up the game "because I got a split nose and a cracked jawbone, which can be expensive for an actor".

A lifelong supporter of left-wing politics, he lived for many years in a rambling, centuries-old farmhouse near Crawley, Sussex.

Peter Vaughan was twice married: first, in 1952, to the actress Billie Whitelaw (dissolved 1964), by whom he had a son, and secondly, in 1966, to the actress Lillias Walker.

© Telegraph

Sunday Independent

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment

Back to top