Obituary: James Ottaway

OVER FOUR decades from the Thirties, James Ottaway was a regular on the West End stage, but his talents as a character actor were not fully realised on television until the Sixties.

He followed roles in such classic productions as Laurence Olivier's Macbeth at the Old Vic Theatre in 1937 with dozens of guest-starring appearances on television, including a regular part as Jill Gascoine's screen father in The Gentle Touch. In later years, he was usually seen switching between the extremities of upper-class and lower-class old men, displaying his wide range.

Ottaway caught the acting bug as a child, influenced by his father, William, an amateur actor with the St Pancras People's Theatre. Although he graduated from Imperial College, London, in 1929 and became a teacher, he gained stage experience with that company and eventually trained at the Central School of Speech and Drama. He left in 1937 and quickly made his professonal debut as the Club Waiter in The Island at the Q Theatre, a role he repeated at the Comedy Theatre the following year.

In between, Tyrone Guthrie, the celebrated director of the Old Vic Theatre, had cast Ottaway as a Messenger alongside Laurence Olivier in Macbeth (1937). Ottaway subsequently toured with the Old Vic company (1940-41), before joining the Army for the war effort.

After being demobbed in 1947, Ottaway resumed his stage career and became familiar to West End theatregoers. He played Joseph Taft in Four Hours to Kill (Saville Theatre, 1948), Mr Wingate in Top of the Ladder (St James's Theatre, 1950), Dr Jadin in The Madwoman of Chaillot (St James's Theatre, 1951), Forshaw in His House in Order (New Theatre, 1951), Dr Welling in Kill Two Birds (St Martin's Theatre, 1962), The Gentleman in The Devil May Care (Strand Theatre, 1963), Murchison in The Waiting Game (Arts Theatre, 1966), and Chaucer in Canterbury Tales (Phoenix Theatre, 1968).

In 1951 he returned for four years to Tyrone Guthrie and the Old Vic company, which had experienced a revival in the Forties, and took part in tours of South Africa (1952) and Australia (1955).

During several seasons at the Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park, he played Quince in A Midsummer Night's Dream (1962, 1967), Sir Nathaniel in Love's Labour's Lost (1962), Verges in Much Ado About Nothing (1963) and Ragueneau in Cyrano de Bergerac (1967). Later on Ottaway took four parts in A Voyage Round My Father at Greenwich Theatre (1970), acted Kemp in Entertaining Mr Sloane at the Royal Court Theatre, which transferred to the Duke of York's (both 1975), and - a role he much enjoyed - played Polonius in Hamlet at the Thorndike Theatre, Leatherhead (1970).

Although he made his television debut in 1937, in the fledgling days of the BBC at Alexandra Palace, Ottaway did not become a regular on the small screen until the late Fifties. Over 40 years, he guest-starred in dozens of programmes, including Boyd QC, No Hiding Place, Dixon of Dock Green, Dad's Army, Softly Softly, Z Cars, The Fellows, The Sweeney, All Creatures Great and Small, The Invisible Man, Hi-de-Hi!, Angels, Minder, Auf Wiedersehen Pet, Shine on Harvey Moon, Casualty, Boon, Keeping Up Appearances, Jeeves and Wooster, Pie in the Sky, A Touch of Frost, As Time Goes By and The Bill.

For Hancock's Half-Hour, Ottaway played the small part of a second doctor in The Blood Donor (1961), for many Tony Hancock's greatest moment. His other television roles included Maxie in the 1975 BBC series The Changes, and Arthur in the serial Quatermass, the writer Nigel Kneale's final story in the science-fiction saga. This time it was set in the near future and later it was re-edited for the cinema as Quatermass Conclusion (1980). He also played George Taylor throughout all four series of The Gentle Touch (1980- 84), featuring Jill Gascoine as Detective Inspector Maggie Forbes.

Ottaway also acted in films, playing Grandad in That'll Be the Day (1973), a commissionaire in The Long Good Friday (1979) and a Catholic priest in Absolution (1978, unreleased until 1981), as well as appearing in Room 43 (1958), The Man Who Liked Funerals (1959) and The Man Who Finally Died (1962).

James Ottaway first met his future wife when both performed with the St Pancras People's Theatre, but they did not marry until middle age after meeting again years later. One nephew, Richard Ottaway, is the Conservative MP for Croydon South, while another, Mark Ottaway, is chief travel writer on the Sunday Times.

James Ottaway, actor: born Chertsey, Surrey 25 July 1908; married 1965 Anne Pichon; died London 16 June 1999.

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