Who needs glamour anyway?

Celebrity » The death of John Thaw is a reminder of the enduring appeal of crumpled, ageing actors.
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The celebrity industry depends for its success on maintaining an impossible distance between viewer and viewed. To press one's nose against the glass, lean over the velvet rope or turn the pages of Hello! is to conspire in an illusion of proximity.

This, of course, is how we are supposed to like it. The point about stars is that they occupy another realm. But perhaps there is a new process at work. Perhaps down-to-earth qualities are what really matter to us, and that we are beginning to value apparent ordinariness over inflated images and an excess of conventional beauty.

That, at any rate, was one conclusion to be drawn from the response to the death of the actor John Thaw last week.

From the way that "TV's best-loved cop" was mourned, it was clear that in his very lack of glamour, Thaw embodied something cherishable and rather British. If there is a school of such acting, then other leading members of it might be David Jason, Geoffrey Palmer and Jim Broadbent. They are all supreme technicians, but understated in their approach and conveying a humanity all the more poignant for their being men – and we are talking men here – who look as if they might be a next-door neighbour. The crumpled, ageing male is suddenly not so unattractive. "It's a salt-of-the-earth quality that these actors have," says the director Stephen Frears, who has worked with the cream of Britain's TV acting talent in the past 30 years. "People felt they could identify with Thaw. Apart from being a wonderful actor, he offered comfort and reassurance."

John Lahr, the critic and author of Automatic Vaudeville, an acclaimed series of essays on showbusiness, believes that Thaw's secret, especially in his role of Inspector Morse, lay in being relaxed. "He worked as hard as the next guy to learn his lines, but appeared to be completely unselfconscious. This illusion of nonchalance gives an actor the freedom he needs, and it's what really pulls in the audience. Thaw might not have appeared to be doing very much, but in fact he was doing a lot." And the small screen loves those nuances that would be lost in the theatre.

Audiences, says Lahr, like sharing what a character experiences. "It was precisely because Thaw as Morse didn't express much that he created a mystery around himself. Younger actors tend to tell you their meaning rather than let you find it for yourself."

A seemingly new style of acting could be seen in the recent, award-winning drama Bloody Sunday, featuring the Cold Feet star James Nesbitt. It was so transparent it hardly seemed like acting at all. The film's producer, Mark Redhead, shares Lahr's view that great acting is about not letting it show, and that this was what Thaw achieved. There was also Thaw's persona, which had its roots in a working-class upbringing. "The important thing about Thaw was that he wasn't posh," Redhead says. "You felt at eye-level with him."

Redhead thinks that American television provides a less sympathetic environment for actors like Thaw, because of "the tyranny of youth and beauty". But Lahr cites Gene Hackman as an actor in a similar mould, which is characterised not least by a robust heterosexuality. "That's actually quite refreshing," Lahr says. "One of Thaw's appeals was that he was really masculine."

The temptation at this point is to say that they don't make them like that any more. But if there's a new John Thaw out there, the audience will surely find him.