Anton Rodgers: Versatile actor best known for his middle-class heroes in the sitcoms 'Fresh Fields' and 'May to December'


Anton Rodgers, actor and director: born Wisbech, Cambridgeshire 10 January 1933; married first Morna Watson (one son, one daughter), second Elizabeth Garvie (three sons); died Reading 1 December 2007.

From an early career as a boy actor, Anton Rodgers developed into one of the most genuinely versatile actors of his generation. Perhaps best known for comedy not least for his popularity in television sitcom he also demonstrated considerable flair as a director, as popular and respected by actors in that capacity as he was much loved as a fellow cast member.

Born in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, Rodgers was educated at Westminster; an early interest in music and the theatre was further encouraged by his schoolboy appearance on the Royal Opera House stage in the chorus of Carmen (1947), followed by further juvenile work, on tour, as Pip in Great Expectations (1948) and as the eponymous falsely accused naval cadet of Terence Rattigan's The Winslow Boy (1949).

After extensive experience in the then-thriving world of regional theatre and a period at Lamda, Rodgers made his London dbut in 1957 as a replacement in Sandy Wilson's long-running musical The Boy Friend (Wyndham's).

For a period thereafter, Rodgers was continuously busy in the worlds of musicals and intimate revue, still in the pre-Beyond the Fringe days a flourishing West End genre. He made a considerable impact as the flashy Fingers in the musical The Crooked Mile (Cambridge, 1959) and also impressed in the revues Another Thing (Fortune, 1960) and Twists (Arts, 1962), the latter one of the quirkiest, most original of the revues of its era.

By now marked down widely as a fast-rising talent, Rodgers was cast in John Osborne's subversive double bill Plays for England (Royal Court, 1962), particularly striking at the fetishistic Tim, the incestuous brother in Under Plain Cover, directed by Jonathan Miller. In marked contrast, returning to the musical stage, he was a delightfully engaging Jingle opposite Harry Secombe's title character in Pickwick (Saville, 1962, and 46th Street Theater, NY, 1964); Rodgers had a fund of wicked stories of the production's chequered US fortunes at the hands of its monstre sacr producer David ("The Abominable Showman") Merrick.

With some film successes also behind him by now, Rodgers proved a West End star in the Broadway import The Owl and the Pussycat (Criterion, 1966) as the nebbish Felix opposite Diana Sands as a colourfully ebullient prostitute; within the limits of the piece's calculated crowd-pleasing, Rogers's was a performance both wildly funny and ruefully touching. His range was a major feature in the 1967 Chichester Festival season when his work included a stylish Archer in The Beaux' Stratagem, his elegantly detached Randall Utterword part of a glittering cast including Irene Worth in Heartbreak House and an explosively inventive performance of fizzing farcical energy in Labiche's An Italian Straw Hat.

Peter Nichols provided Rodgers with one of his best parts in the narrator figure Frank of Forget-me-not Lane (Greenwich and Apollo, 1971), his superb memory play of claustrophobic family life in which Rodgers had a splendidly wry relationship with his past and his father (Rodgers and Michael Bates made an outstanding pairing). Opposite Claire Bloom's Nora he was on mesmerising form as the death-stalked Dr Rank in A Doll's House (Criterion, 1973); he returned to that theatre for a similarly magnetic Manningham, playing mind-games of sadistic and sinister power with his bewildered wife (Nicola Pagett) in a revival of Patrick Hamilton's Gaslight (Criterion, 1976).

After a considerable absence from the musical stage, Rodgers's Narrator led the cast of Songbook (Globe, 1981), a ruthless spoof of the new compilation-musical genre, its targets for gleeful parody including Busby Berkeley and Charles Trenet.

Again by way of striking contrast, Rodgers returned to drama in another strong Peter Nichols role; in Passion Play for the RSC (Aldwych, 1981), a searing marital drama using alter egos for its central couple, Rodgers as the private persona of an adulterous picture restorer was at his very best alongside Eileen Atkins, Billie Whitelaw and Benjamin Whitrow, a redoubtable quartet.

In the undervalued Windy City (Victoria Palace, 1982), an exuberant musical by Dick Vosburgh and Tony Macauly which caught all the crackling, cynical pace of the original (The Front Page); their big number together, "I Can Just Imagine It", was a barnstorming show-stopper.

Later stage work covered a wide variety, from a silkily devious Warwick in a sadly plodding production of Saint Joan (National Theatre, 1983) to the giddy farce of Ray Cooney's Whitehall-set Two into One (Shaftesbury, 1985). On tour (1999) in Alan Ayckbourn's How the Other Half Loves he gave a magnificently blundering performance as Frank, the well-intentioned boss interfering in all the supposed adulteries around him while serenely oblivious to his own cuckolding, and he enjoyed a long run in the lavish musical Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (Palladium, 2003). His final stage engagement was in the touring production of Alan Bennett's The History Boys last year; sadly, ill health forced his withdrawal.

Rodgers made an impressive early impact in British films, particularly with a virtuoso multi-role turn in a clever and refreshingly irreverent comedy Rotten to the Core (1965). He rarely had such rich opportunities subsequently on screen, but nevertheless his movie career saw good work in such films as The Day of the Jackal (1973), The Fourth Protocol (1987) and, more recently, in Michael Radford's version of The Merchant of Venice (2004).

On television Rodgers made countless appearances in work ranging from classic serials and single plays to the frothiest of light comedy. He was especially fine in the classic serial of The Old Curiosity Shop (1962) and in a sparkling version of the Pinero comedy The Gay Lord Quex (1983). More recently he had some scene-stealing moments as a canny Willie Whitelaw in Longford (2006).

Undoubtedly, however, Rodgers's most enduring television work was in the series May to December (1989-94) as Alec, a conventional solicitor with an unconventional passion for musicals and, even more successfully, his partnership with Julia McKenzie in Fresh Fields (1984-86) and its successor, French Fields (1989-91). As another classic middle-class sitcom hero, constantly agitated by his wife's search for self-improvement, Rodgers had a beguiling warmth; he and McKenzie played beautifully together, on occasion illuminating some less-than-sparkling material with adroit, understated skill.

As a director, Rodgers proved effective across a similar range. He staged a delectable version of the off-Broadway hit The Fantasticks (Hampstead, 1970) and his production of Death of a Salesman (Oxford and tour, 1975) was scrupulously faithful to Arthur Miller, while drawing excellent performances from Mark Kingston and an unusually cast Judy Campbell.

His most impressive directorial achievement was his laser-beam precise, meticulous production of Are You Now or Have You Ever Been . . . ? (Bush, 1977), Eric Bentley's dramatisation of the Huac investigations into supposed Hollywood subversion. Aided by some effective closed-circuit video, Rodgers masterfully recreated the claustrophobic courtroom atmosphere, artfully highlighting the absurdity of the proceedings much enlivened by the testimony of Lionel Stander, demanding that the cameras be turned off ("I only appear on television for entertainment or philanthropy, and this is neither") and turned what could have been merely docudrama into an enthralling and powerful evening.

Alan Strachan

News
Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
Sport
Arsenal supporters gather for a recent ‘fan party’ in New Jersey
football
News
i100
Sport
sportDidier Drogba returns to Chelsea on one-year deal
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
film
Life and Style
Balmain's autumn/winter 2014 campaign, shot by Mario Sorrenti and featuring Binx Walton, Cara Delevingne, Jourdan Dunn, Ysaunny Brito, Issa Lish and Kayla Scott
fashionHow Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
News
people
News
BBC broadcaster and presenter Evan Davis, who will be taking over from Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight
peopleForget Paxman - what will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Life and Style
fashionCustomer complained about the visibly protruding ribs
News
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Arts and Entertainment
Jo Brand says she's mellowed a lot
tvJo Brand says shows encourage people to laugh at the vulnerable
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
life
News
Tovey says of homeless charity the Pillion Trust : 'If it weren't for them and the park attendant I wouldn't be here today.'
people
Sport
Rhys Williams
commonwealth games
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Employment Solicitor

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: MANCHESTER - Senior Employment Solici...

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Commercial Litigation Associate

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

£65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

Day In a Page

Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little