Obituary: Robin Bailey
Monday 18 January 1999
In situation comedy, he played the old misogynist Uncle Mort, shuffling round in muffler and flat cap, in I Didn't Know You Cared, took over from Arthur Lowe in Potter as the retired busybody of the title, and acted one of the two cricket-loving old buffers in the whodunit Charters and Caldicott. More seriously, Bailey took the parts of Sir Charles Weyburn in The Edwardians, Neville Chamberlain in The Gathering Storm, Mr Justice Graves in Rumpole of the Bailey and Uncle Alfred in Dance to the Music of Time.
Although upper-crust roles seemed to come naturally to the actor, he was born in the more humble surroundings of Hucknall, the Nottinghamshire mining village where his father sold china and glass. After working for the Post Office for a while in the second half of the 1930s, he was employed at the War Office and became interested in amateur dramatics. "I've always taken note of how people look and how they speak," Bailey once said. "I watch and I listen and all the information goes into the bank."
He made his stage debut with the Court Players as George in The Barretts of Wimpole Street at the Theatre Royal, Nottingham, in 1938, and continued to play small roles with that company over the next year. Repertory experience followed in Newcastle upon Tyne, before the war intervened and Bailey served in the Army (1940-44). However, he returned to the stage at the Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, during the last year of the war and further repertory work followed.
Shakespearean roles on an English Arts Theatre tour of Europe (1946-47) provided him with a grounding in the classics, before he made his West End debut as Ludovico in Othello at the Piccadilly Theatre in 1947. In more than 20 West End productions, his parts included Faulkland in The Rivals (St James's Theatre, 1948, winning him the Clarence Derwent Award), Professor Henry Higgins in Pygmalion (Embassy Theatre, 1951), Lord Basingstoke in No Sign of the Dove (Savoy Theatre, 1953), both Theseus and Oberon in A Midsummer Night's Dream (Saville Theatre, 1967) and King Pellinore in Camelot (Apollo Theatre, 1982).
He played Henry Higgins again in My Fair Lady in Melbourne (1959) and Sydney (1960), and appeared on Broadway as both Christopher Lawrence Cromwell in Jennie (Majestic Theatre, 1963) and Martin Lynch-Gibbon in A Severed Head (Royale Theatre, 1964), a role he previously performed at the Criterion Theatre, London, in the same year.
With the National Theatre Company at the Olivier Theatre, he played Sir Jasper Fidget in The Country Wife (1977), Firs in The Cherry Orchard (1978) and Banquo in Macbeth (1978). He also took the role of Colonel Pickering in Pygmalion at the Olivier Theatre (1992).
Bailey's earliest film roles were military ones. He made his debut as a billeting officer in School for Secrets (1946), directed by Peter Ustinov, and followed it with parts in pictures such as Private Angelo (1949), Glory at Sea (1952) and Sailor of the King (1953). He went on to appear as the assistant manager of the road haulage firm featured in the gritty drama Hell Drivers (1957), the MI5 Commander in Galton and Simpson's farce The Spy with a Cold Nose (1966), a psychiatrist in Bryan Forbes's melodrama The Whisperers (1966) and Colonel Eustace in the swashbuckler The Four Feathers (1978).
But television proved to be the best showcase for Bailey's acting skills. His first appearances were in Gentle Gunman, Jonah (both 1950) and Markheim (1952), Tony Richardson's production of Robert Louis Stevenson's eerie short story set in a curio shop.
He gained more attention as Sir Bertram in an episode of the early ITV series The Adventures of Robin Hood (1955), starring Richard Greene as the outlaw and featuring scripts by Hollywood writers blacklisted during the McCarthy era. Bailey also took over from compere Jerry Esmonde for a while to present the Fifties quiz show The 64,000 Question.
Notable acting roles that followed included Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, in the series Kenilworth (1957) and Sir Charles Weyburn in The Edwardians' story "Olive Latimer's Husband" (1965). American television recognised Bailey's quintessential Englishness by casting him as Neville Chamberlain in The Gathering Storm (1974) and Mr Hale in Mrs Gaskell's North and South (1975). Guest appearances in the British period dramas Upstairs Downstairs and The Pallisers bolstered Bailey's reputation for playing upper-crust roles.
But the actor was in his element in television comedy. "I have to admit that I really prefer comedy," he said, "because it's where I can most easily share the attitude of the writer. Irony is my normal state of mind."
He first made his mark in situation comedy by playing the seedy Uncle Mort in four series of I Didn't Know You Cared (1975-79), Peter Tinniswood's tale of war between the sexes in a Northern household in a funereal atmosphere that Uncle Mort seemed to relish.
In 1983, Bailey took over the role of Redvers Potter in the situation comedy Potter, which Arthur Lowe had played for two series before his death. The character had retired after spending his entire working life with the family firm, Potter's Mints, but insisted on minding everyone else's business. "Potter sees himself as the voice of the beleaguered minority and he speaks up for people," said Bailey. "But most notable is his self-importance." The actor added loud check clothing and a bow- tie to Potter's wardrobe, as well as sporting a small moustache that suggested a mini-Hitler streak.
Further comedy success came with the role of Charters, one of the two lovable eccentrics, in the whodunit serial Charters and Caldicot (1985), with Michael Aldridge playing the other amateur sleuth. The characters, played by Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne, had originally appeared in Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat's 1938 Hitchcock film The Lady Vanishes and the sequels Night Train to Munich and Crooks' Tour (both 1940). Keith Waterhouse updated the duo for television.
Robin Bailey's other notable television roles included Sir Leicester Dedlock in Bleak House (1985), Judge Gerald Graves in Rumpole of the Bailey (1988, 1991, 1992) and Uncle Alfred in Dance to the Music of Time (1997). He disliked being pointed at or stared at in the street, but did not mind recognition. "What I'm really proud of," Bailey once said, "is that a bus conductor refused my fare the other day. I don't think I could bear to be any more famous than that."
Robin Bailey, actor: born Hucknall, Nottinghamshire 5 October 1919; married Patricia Weekes (deceased; three sons); died London 14 January 1999.
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