There was something grand, large, embracing about the actor Joss Ackland, who has died aged 95. He was a fixture in British films for several decades and a stalwart of the Old Vic, the Royal Shakespeare Company – he played Falstaff in the opening RSC production of Henry IV, Parts One and Two, in the new Barbican Centre in 1982 – and the West End stage.
He appeared in more than 100 films, and countless TV plays and series, usually, in later years, white-haired and bearded, but always with energy and force, whether as the cuckolded husband, Jock Delves Broughton, in Michael Radford’s White Mischief (1987) with Greta Scacchi and Charles Dance, or as the drug-running heavy in Lethal Weapon 2 (1989) with Mel Gibson and Danny Glover.
At the Old Vic in 1958-59, Ackland played Toby Belch, Caliban, Falstaff in The Merry Wives, and Pistol, in a company that included Maggie Smith, Moyra Fraser, John Moffatt, Barbara Jefford and Alec McCowen; for all of them, this season was a highlight and a turning point in their separate careers.
Ackland went on to play leading roles for Bernard Miles at the Mermaid, where he was an associate director, and the titular cockney hunting enthusiast in the musical Jorrocks (1966) by Beverley Cross and David Heneker at the New theatre (now the Noël Coward). His later London stage roles encompassed a tragic, powerful Mitch in the 1974 revival of Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire, with Claire Bloom, a brilliant, almost spooky Frederick Egerman in Hal Prince’s 1975 London premiere of Sondheim’s A Little Night Music (with Jean Simmons and Hermione Gingold) and a monumental Perón in Prince’s Brechtian production of Evita by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber in 1978.
It is interesting that he never felt happy, or at home, in any of these performances. Ackland was what is sometimes known as a “difficult” actor; he felt at odds with new ideas, hating the rehearsal process of Trevor Nunn at the RSC, or even the concept that his Captain Shotover in Nunn’s magnificent Chichester festival production of Shaw’s Heartbreak House in 2000 might be a valid “political” interpretation. He remained a proud, old-fashioned maverick, a middle-range, supporting actor of considerable weight.
He was born in north London, the son of Norman Ackland, an Irish journalist, and his wife, Ruth (nee Izod), and was educated at Dame Alice Owen’s school in Islington, though he left aged 15 determined to become an actor. He worked in a brewery, and in a dairy, in Bedford, before a chance meeting with his father’s cousin, the playwright Rodney Ackland, propelled him towards the Central School of Speech and Drama.
He made a London debut in The Hasty Heart at the Aldwych in 1945 and played minor roles at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1947 alongside Donald Sinden and Paul Scofield, followed by seven years in rep at Croydon, Wimbledon, Chesterfield and Coventry.
He met his future wife, Rosemary Kirkcaldy, born in Nyasaland (now Malawi) and also an actor, when he appeared with her in JM Barrie’s Mary Rose in Pitlochry in 1951, and they married at the end of the year. Still with no real breakthrough, the couple decided to try their luck in South Africa in 1954, where Joss worked as a field assistant on a tea plantation in Beira, Mozambique, before moving to Cape Town for two years, and spending six months in Johannesburg, where he appeared in plays by Terence Rattigan and Coward with Moira Lister and Dulcie Gray.
The Acklands returned to Britain in 1957 with a growing family – they would have seven children – and Ackland was suddenly in demand, first at the Oxford Playhouse with the director Frank Hauser, then at the Old Vic and the Mermaid, where between 1962 and 1964 his major roles included Bluntschli in Shaw’s Arms and the Man, the suicidal Kirilov in Dostoevsky’s The Possessed and the title role in Brecht’s Galileo. His lightness of touch in contemporary plays benefited John Osborne’s blistering Hotel in Amsterdam (1968) at the Royal Court and Duke of York’s, and John Mortimer’s comedy bill of short plays, Come As You Are (1970), with Glynis Johns, Pauline Collins and Denholm Elliott at the Duchess.
His first television impact was made as the narrator of 26 episodes of Rudyard Kiplings’s Indian tales in the early 1960s, but he solidified that public standing, and indeed affection, with his Joe Gargery in the BBC’s 1974 Great Expectations (Michael York as Pip, Margaret Leighton as Miss Havisham) and as CS Lewis in the award-winning television film of William Nicholson’s Shadowlands in 1988.
In between, apart from opening the Barbican with the RSC – following his gargantuan Falstaff with a tremendous Captain Hook in Nunn and John Caird’s re-imagining (designed by John Napier) of Peter Pan – Ackland was a touching Gaev in The Cherry Orchard at Chichester opposite Bloom in 1981 and an imposing “heavy” at the National in Harley Granville-Barker’s The Madras House in 1977 (with Scofield) and in Jean Seberg, a disastrous 1983 Marvin Hamlisch musical directed by Peter Hall.
He endured the chastening experience, in 1982, of playing “Sir” in Ronald Harwood’s The Dresser to empty houses on tour with Kenneth Haigh, but always hoped that, one day, he might play King Lear in the afternoon and Sir in the evening; he never did.
And while his films included such contrasting oddities as One of Our Dinosaurs Is Missing (1975) with Peter Ustinov and Helen Hayes and Peter Greenaway’s A Zed and Two Noughts (1985), he became a more familiar face on television in 70s series such as The Barretts of Wimpole Street and Great Expectations (the cast also included Sarah Miles and James Mason) and an all-star 1987 version of Priestley’s When We Are Married (he played the bibulous photographer), with Timothy West and Prunella Scales as one of three couples who are not married after all.
Punctuating film and television appearances in the 90s, there were applauded theatrical emanations at Chichester as the target of Lauren Bacall’s revenge in The Visit in 1995, as Shaw’s underwear millionaire John Tarleton in Misalliance in 1997, and as that tremendous Captain Shotover, the best since Colin Blakely’s at the National. His last stage appearance, in 2012, was as a surprisingly authoritative, goatee-bearded King George V in The King’s Speech at the Wyndham’s theatre.
In his 1989 autobiography, I Must Be in There Somewhere (the phrase is that of an old actor rummaging for his identity in a cigar box of nose putty, sticks of greasepaint and spirit gum), Ackland described some offstage dramas, such as a fire at his home in Putney, south-west London, in 1963; Rosemary, then pregnant with their sixth child, survived the disaster despite breaking her back. She was told she would never walk again, but did so 18 months later, leaving Stoke Mandeville hospital in callipers.
The couple’s elder son, Paul, died in 1982 and, in 2000, Rosemary was diagnosed with motor neurone disease. She died two years later in 2002. She had recounted her side of the story in the diaries that she kept for more than 50 years, which Ackland edited and wrote around in his second book, My Better Half and Me (2009).
Ackland, appointed CBE in 2001, is survived by his son Toby and five daughters, Melanie, Antonia, Penelope, Samantha and Kirsty – and by 34 grandchildren and 30 great-grandchildren.
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