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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: SAGE Bookkeeper & PA to Directors

£18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity has ari...

Recruitment Genius: Online Sales and Customer Services Executive

£15000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An On-line Sales & Customer Ser...

Recruitment Genius: Accounts Assistant - Fixed Term Contract - 6 Months

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the largest hospitality companies...

Recruitment Genius: Electricians - Fixed Wire Testing

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As a result of significant cont...

Day In a Page

Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most
Katy Perry prevented from buying California convent for $14.5m after nuns sell to local businesswoman instead

No grace of God for Katy Perry as sisters act to stop her buying convent

Archdiocese sues nuns who turned down star’s $14.5m because they don’t approve of her
Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
Michael Fassbender in 'Macbeth': The Scottish play on film, from Welles to Cheggers

Something wicked?

Films of Macbeth don’t always end well - just ask Orson Welles... and Keith Chegwin
10 best sun creams for body

10 best sun creams for body

Make sure you’re protected from head to toe in the heatwave
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon files

Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games
Women's World Cup 2015: How England's semi-final success could do wonders for both sexes

There is more than a shiny trophy to be won by England’s World Cup women

The success of the decidedly non-famous females wearing the Three Lions could do wonders for a ‘man’s game’ riddled with cynicism and greed
How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map