Angus Mackay: Much-loved character actor


Despite his Scottish name Angus Mackay was a most English performer. Usually bespectacled and always fastidious, he was forever popping up on television playing repressed and officious factotums, effete Etonians or kindly clergymen. Some of those little roles linger long in the memory, such as the amorous waterbed salesman in Steptoe and Son (1974). But Mackay's passion was the stage, where, in a 50-year career, he brought a piquant precision to everything from Stoppard to Shaw.

Born in 1926, the son of a Methodist minister, Mackay was raised in Bournemouth, and after National Service in Belfast read English at Cambridge. He was an indefatigable student actor: an adroit Heartfree in Vanburgh's The Provok'd Wife in 1949, and a "neat and polished" Antipholous in a Comedy of Errors staged as Victorian farce. It transferred to the Watergate Theatre in London in 1950, by which time he had been Warwick to Julian Slade's Dauphin in St Joan, a meeting that was to change his life.

Slade wrote an undergraduate musical for May Week, Lady May. Mackay proved both funny and melodious in the cast, and when Slade went on to study at Bristol Old Vic, he formed a writing partnership with actress Dorothy Reynolds as librettist. Mackay would go on to act in many of the pair's hits, (most notably as a comedy curate in the record-breaking Salad Days), and marry Dorothy.

Encouraged by a notice from Kenneth Tynan urging him to turn professional, Mackay left Cambridge with a parting shot of Jack in The Importance of Being Earnest. His career kicked off at the Bristol Hippodrome in JB Priestley's Treasure on Pelican (1951). Mackay was in good company from the off; Olivier cast him as a footman in The Sleeping Prince at the Phoenix in 1953 alongside Vivien Leigh. At Birmingham Rep he appeared in Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra with Albert Finney, and in 1958 he joined the Sheffield Playhouse for a season which began with Peter Ustinov's The Banbury Nose.

He and Dorothy had long associations with three theatres: the Bristol Old Vic, the Salisbury Arts and the Everyman Cheltenham. All three were under threat at various points and saved by campaigns the couple were active in. He played in Meet Me by Moonlight opposite his wife in Salisbury and at Cheltenham, where he was also a diffident Stephen Bent in Slade and Reynolds' Wildest Dreams (1960), and a dashing Mr Knightley to Helen Dorward's Emma in 1962. He and his wife loved Austen, and at the Salon in Ranger's House, Blackheath in summer 1967 the pair performed readings to mark the 150th anniversary of her death. England's Jane was then performed by them at the Purcell Rooms and around the country, beginning at Cheltenham and Salisbury, where they were always welcome.

It was hardly surprising that he would be kept busy for over 30 years with small roles for television: he was acute and meticulous, an actor of quietness and slightness. His most celebrated television performance was in Julian Bond's play Breakdown (1976), as the psychiatrist administering to a crumbling Jack Hedley.

Appearing in Wings of Song by CP Taylor for Granada three years later Mackay met the young actor Simon Callow. The two became great friends, and Mackay later scripted and performed in Nicolson Fights Croydon at the Offstage Downstairs at Chalk Farm in 1986, which Callow devised and directed, an intimate study of the patrician politician Harold Nicolson marooned in a drab hotel room during an election campaign as the England of 1949 is vividly evoked. Mackay adored the piece and won superb reviews. In James Mundy's Sinners and Saints at the Croydon Warehouse in 1986, by turns a grim and uplifting story of angels in dirty places, Mackay was described as "astonishing, Noel Coward crossed with Jean Genet".

In 1977 Dorothy died from motor neurone disease. The house at Manchuria Road in Clapham felt very empty, and so Mackay pinned up a notice at Rada offering lodgings to impoverished drama students. A young Kenneth Branagh saw the notice, and in his book Beginnings fondly remembers first entering the house which seemed to contain every edition of Plays and Players ever printed. Mackay was deeply versed in theatrical history, wrote copious diaries and kept thousands of press clippings. His archive was a paradise for a rising actor like Branagh and his devotion to theatre was an inspiration to all who came into contact with him. Simon Callow says in tribute to his friend: "I was enchanted to meet someone with such knowledge, and with such high standards which you wanted to live up to."

He left the business in 1993, regretfully feeling that what he had to offer was no longer required. He was quite wrong. The need for performers with immaculate manners, mellifluous voices, and, to use that very apt word again, "polish", lives on. And thanks to his archive, which there are plans to make accessible, and the wonders of videotape, so too does he.

Simon Farquhar

Angus Newton Mackay, actor: born Birmingham 15 July 1926; married Dorothy Reynolds (died 1977); died London 8 June 2013.