Obituary: Bernard Hepton
Actor and producer who was best-known for a string of acclaimed TV appearances in the 1970s and 1980s
Bernard Hepton, the actor and producer, who has died aged 92, played crucial roles in some of the most memorable BBC television series of the 1970s and 1980s, notably as the scrupulous Kommandant in Colditz, the resistance worker Albert in Secret Army and the Hungarian-born intelligence officer Toby Esterhase in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
He once described himself as "specialising in rather dodgy foreigners", but was unable to account for his exotic casting since he was in fact a Yorkshireman. As an actor he was a blank canvas, his reserved exterior hinting at inner struggles. "I never had a recognisable face," he said. "People never stopped me in the supermarket. I remained incognito, and that was my trump."
He was content, by and large, to appear second or third on the bill, and worked consistently for more than 40 years. In a career which included a nine-year stint as director of productions at Birmingham Repertory Theatre, he remained essentially an actor rather than a producer.
The son of an electrician, he was born Francis Bernard Heptonstall on October 19, 1925 and brought up in Bradford. His early hopes of becoming a pilot faded when he was turned down by the RAF in 1943 because of poor eyesight.
"It was a bitter blow," he remembered. "I wanted to fight for my country. I think it's an experience nobody should miss. It was very unpleasant having to explain why I wasn't away fighting with everyone else." Hepton's myopia was so severe that he was rejected by all branches of the services and was forced to accept a job in an electronics factory.
During the war he was a teenage firewatcher, and to relieve the boredom he became involved in amateur dramatics. Before long his talent was spotted and he was pointed in the direction of the local amateur group, the Bradford Civic Playhouse.
Determined to become an actor, he persuaded his parents to let him accept a scholarship with a new drama school at the theatre set up by the actress and director Esme Church.
"With hindsight I realise what a sacrifice my parents made for me," he later recalled. "They could ill afford to have me leave my job, but they backed me totally."
Hepton studied for two years, then spent two years with York Rep. After a period out of work in London he came to the Birmingham Repertory Theatre in 1952 as one of the last proteges of the theatrical entrepreneur Sir Barry Jackson. There he specialised in classical roles, appearing as John of Gaunt in Richard II and Britannus in Caesar and Cleopatra. He made his directing debut in 1955 with a production of The Long Sunset.
In 1957 he became director of productions at Birmingham Rep. Despite a shaky start with a disappointing production of Fratricide Punished at the Edinburgh Festival, Hepton's directorship was extremely successful. In 1960 he produced a particularly well-received version of A Bastard Country, directed by Barry Jackson, and was offered the post of production director at Liverpool Playhouse.
Hepton later described the move as "a terrible mistake". He put on a production of The Fire Raisers by Max Frisch which, by his own account, "emptied the theatre". He resigned before the end of the season. "I suffered terribly over that decision," he recalled, "but it had to be done."
From Liverpool he moved to Malvern, where he became artistic director of the Malvern Theatre Festival. With the arrival of BBC2 in 1964 he became a television producer for a time, producing episodes of Compact, a serial set in a magazine publisher's office, and several thrillers, before deciding, in 1967, that "what I wanted to do was act". Now in his forties, with thinning hair, he was "ready to be a character actor" and "didn't have to go through all the years in between".
He endured a period of drought ("Everyone thought I was joking - nobody remembered what I'd done in the past. I literally had to start from the bottom again") but from 1969 he worked almost without interruption. That year he played Caiaphas to Colin Blakely's Christ and Robert Hardy's Pontius Pilate in Dennis Potter's acclaimed television play Son of Man, and the scheming villain Chauvelin in The Elusive Pimpernel.
The next year he made his mark as Archbishop Cranmer in the BBC series The Six Wives of Henry VIII. Writing in The Observer, George Melly praised Hepton for a performance that was "full of subtle contradictions, a redeemable if corrupt soul".
In 1971 he featured on film as the gangster Thorpey in Get Carter with Michael Caine; and on stage as Swingler the detective in William Trevor's play The Old Boys starring Michael Redgrave. After appearing on television in an episode of The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes in 1973, he was offered the role of the mean-spirited husband in A Pin to See the Peepshow, a 1920s murder mystery.
He gained national recognition for his performance as the Kommandant in Colditz (1972-74). He recalled that he had wanted to play the part "not as the usual heartless German, but as somebody who was human". His portrayal won the approval of the survivors of the camp, who remembered the Kommandant as a fair man.
Hepton later revealed that he had based the character on a German tourist he had seen while on holiday. "He was always incredibly neatly turned out," he remembered, "and was always marshalling his family to the breakfast table or the pool."
When Colditz ended, Hepton began to carve out a niche in comedy. In There'll Almost Always Be an England (1974), a play by Jack Rosenthal for ITV, he played a frustrated officer-type dealing with a village emergency in the mould of Captain Mainwaring.
He scored popular hits playing two downtrodden and neurotic suburbanites, first in Sadie It's Cold Outside (1975), and then in The Squirrels, written by Eric Chappell, in which he was a cravat-wearing office boss.
Although The Squirrels was popular, Hepton returned to more familiar ground with a performance in the wartime drama Secret Army, playing Albert Foiret, the owner of a Belgian cafe which is also the headquarters of a secret network that smuggles downed Allied airmen to freedom.
After a season of Shakespeare at St George's Theatre, Hepton returned to television to appear as Toby Esterhase in the BBC dramatisation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Initially he decided to play Esterhase, a morally ambiguous master of covert surveillance, as an ultra-English character.
"I imagined he would be the sort of man to eradicate any accent completely," Hepton recalled.
He reprised the role in the second series, Smiley's People, by which time the spy, now out of work, has set up as an art dealer.
"I'm sure he would have thought a slight accent good for business," Hepton said. "I increased it a bit and grew my hair longer."
After completing both series, Hepton accepted the role of George Smiley in the Radio 4 dramatisation of both novels at the end of the 1980s.
Among a string of other television roles he was a brooding detective in Saturday Night Thriller (ITV, 1982), Sir Thomas Bertram in Mansfield Park (1983), the evil Mr Krook in Bleak House (1985), a lonely estate agent in The Charmer (1987), Malcolm Cellan-Davies in The Old Devils (1992) and Mr Woodhouse in Emma (BBC, 1996).
He returned to the theatre in The Lady's Not for Burning (1988), The Contract (1988) and No One Writes to the Colonel (1991).
Bernard Hepton, who died on July 27, was twice married. His first wife, Nancie (nee Jackson), died in 1977. He married, secondly, Hilary Liddell; she died in 2013.