Denis Quilley

Energetic actor wedded to the company ideal
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The Independent Online

Denis Clifford Quilley, actor: born London 26 December 1927; OBE 2002; married 1949 Stella Chapman (one son, two daughters); died London 5 October 2003.

Tonight's West End opening of the National Theatre's lovingly joyous revival of Cole Porter's Anything Goes will be clouded by the news of the death of Denis Quilley, one of the National's most loyal and most loved actors; under its various directors he worked consistently for the National for over 30 years. He played the rantipole Elisha Whitney in Anything Goes at the South Bank but ill-health prevented his joining the Drury Lane cast.

Few theatrical careers have been as varied as Quilley's. He was a musical star from the days of the tinklingly gentle British musical of the 1950s through Leonard Bernstein and Noël Coward to his Stephen Sondheim triumphs in the title role of Sweeney Todd in the original UK production (Drury Lane, 1980) and as the tortured Judge in its National Theatre revival (1993). Commercial theatre work in the West End included revivals and new plays, while his classical appearances in his early years with the Old Vic and subsequently at the Chichester Festival Theatre and at the National Theatre covered an astonishing range.

Although his later work included starring roles in lavish West End musicals - including La Cage aux Folles (Palladium, 1986) - it was pleasingly fitting for an actor so strongly wedded to the company ideal that throughout the 1990s and into a new century his work should be predominantly company-based, first with Peter Hall at the Old Vic and then as a valued and versatile member of the ensemble formed by Trevor Nunn at the National Theatre in 1999-2000.

London-born, Quilley was passionate about the theatre from boyhood, playing truant from school to audition for the redoubtable Sir Barry Jackson, then running the Birmingham Rep. At 17, Quilley joined the company as a lowly assistant stage manager and understudy, but his timing was miraculous; Jackson was sympathetic to young talent and had just given early breaks to a new young director and an unusual young actor, Peter Brook (then 20) and Paul Scofield. Gradually, from tiny roles Quilley moved up, trusted with some stretching parts at Birmingham, including Lyngstand in Ibsen's The Lady from the Sea.

A first West End break came when he was cast to replace Richard Burton in John Gielgud's production of Christopher Fry's The Lady's Not for Burning (Globe, 1950). This much-admired performance, a useful showcase for both Quilley's strong physical presence and his richly timbred voice, took him to the Old Vic during the 1950/51 season where his parts were comparatively unrewarding - Fabian in a lacklustre Twelfth Night and Gratiano in The Merchant of Venice - but his work impressed and it looked as if he was set fair for a rewarding classically based career.

The next few years, however, saw Quilley begin to flex his muscles in musical theatre. At a time of costive restraint in the British musical, his communicable energy, ebullient high spirits and virile voice marked him out as something unusual then; he shone in a series of sentimentally anodyne trifles including Wild Thyme (Duke of York's, 1955), A Girl Called Jo (Piccadilly, 1955) alongside the long-running but somewhat arch revue Airs on a Shoestring (Royal Court, 1953). Somewhat more adventurously, he had a strong leading role in the Venice Film Festival-set Grab Me a Gondola (Lyric, Hammersmith and Lyric, Shaftesbury Avenue, 1956), another long-runner.

Musicals continued to claim him: he took the title role in Bernstein's Candide (Saville, 1959), a London flop as over-directed by Tyrone Guthrie, before replacing Keith Michell in Irma la Douce (Lyric, 1960) and also following Michell as the loveable and lovelorn Nestor-le-Fripe on Broadway (Plymouth Theatre, 1961). Determined to return to his classical roots, he turned down lavish sums to play a season at the Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park (of which he was always a committed supporter) playing an elegant, witty Benedick surprised by later-flowering love in Much Ado About Nothing. Returning to musical theatre, he was by far the best thing - as Antipholus of Ephesus - in a misbegotten and apparently hastily cobbled-together revival of Rodgers and Hart's The Boys from Syracuse (Drury Lane, 1963).

Another distinctly muddled musical production, an ill-advised musicalisation of Coward's Blithe Spirit as High Spirits (Savoy, 1964), starred Quilley as Charles Condomine (even less rewarding a part in the musical than in the play) opposite an embarrassingly over-mugging Cicely Courtneidge as Madame Arcati. There was a good deal of screaming and shouting, not to mention sackings and walk-outs, on this show; Coward bitchily described Quilley as having "all the animation of a billiard-table leg" (which Quilley loved gleefully to quote) but the fault lay more with the show, which unwisely "opened out" resolutely closed text.

For a few years thereafter Quilley's career was subject to the unpredictable ebbs and flows of the actor's life. He took himself off to Australia to play Robert Browning in the romantic musical Robert and Elizabeth (1966) and to regional theatre to tackle Laurence Olivier's old role of Archie Rice in a revival of The Entertainer (Nottingham Playhouse, 1969). He followed this with one of his very best performances, in a touching version of Marie Lloyd's story as Sing a Rude Song (Greenwich and Garrick, 1970). Opposite Barbara Windsor's feisty Marie - and despite the somewhat bizarre casting of the Bee Gee Maurice Gibb as one of Marie's husbands - Quilley gave a beautifully gauged performance as the musical director always secretly in love with the star (his singing of a ballad analysing his inarticulacy - "Haven't the Words" - was a high-spot of the show).

Throughout the 1970s - a Quilley golden age - he was genuinely a pillar of the National Theatre during Olivier's regime, his roles including Aufidius in the Brechtian Coriolanus (1971), a beefily watchful Bolingbroke in Richard II (1972), a cheerfully tattling Crabtree (finding his way into the character, hugely helped by the director Jonathan Miller's suggestion of Ned Sherrin as a template) in The School for Scandal (1972), Lopakhin in the heavily elegiac Michael Blakemore production of The Cherry Orchard (1973) and Luigi in Franco Zeffirelli's exuberant take on Eduardo de Filippo in Saturday, Sunday, Monday (1973).

Unforgettably Quilley was a key cast member of two National productions deservedly described as legendary. His Hildy Johnson in The Front Page (1972), hands restlessly fidgeting as if always searching for the nearest typewriter, and full of fizzing, high-octane energy, was as memorable as his Jamie, the elder brother corroded by self-loathing in Blakemore's magisterial production of Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night (1971), alongside Olivier and Constance Cummings and Ronald Pickup as the other haunted Tyrones.

His loyalty to the National concept continued into Peter Hall's regime when he was a genially ruddy, opportunistic Claudius to Albert Finney's Prince in Hamlet (1976), Bajazeth in Hall's sweeping, barbaric scrutiny of Tamburlaine (1976), also with Finney, and a very human, riven Hector in Troilus and Cressida (1976).

Crossing the river to join the RSC, Quilley's début with the company gave him perhaps his richest - certainly his most enjoyable - role when he played the outrageous Captain Terry Dennis in Peter Nichols's Privates on Parade (RSC and Piccadilly, 1977). Fully inhabiting all the majestic camp of the role ("That Bernadette Shaw - what a chatterbox!") and, of course, handling all of Denis King's pastiche songs (Coward, Dietrich et al) with insouciant aplomb, he found too a core of genuine pathos inside this rouged exquisite but constantly charged the evening with an unexpectedly moving ruefulness.

Privates certainly helped establish Quilley as a commercial star; he appeared as Morrell in a Candida revival opposite Deborah Kerr (Albery, 1977), as the deviously manipulative author in Ira Levin's thriller Deathtrap (Garrick, 1978) and then, in another magnificent musical performance, as the demonic barber at the dark heart of Sondheim's Sweeney Todd (Drury Lane, 1980).

After seasons at Chichester - including an oddly unsatisfactory Antony and Cleopatra (1985) with Diana Rigg and a less than convincing revival of Fry's Venus Observed (1992) - Quilley returned to the National, initially once more in Sweeney Todd (1993), this time as the Judge in Declan Donnellan's pared-down version, poles apart from the florid Harold Prince West End production, and then as a wonderfully self- deluding Falstaff in Terry Hands's realistically detailed version of The Merry Wives of Windsor (1996).

Company work continued to draw him. For Peter Hall at the Old Vic he was luxury casting as a formidably cruel Pozzo in Waiting for Godot, Horsham in Granville-Barker's Waste and a fallen oak of a Gloucester in an undervalued King Lear with Alan Howard (all 1997).

Another Quilley annus mirabilis saw him as part of the Nunn company back at the National during 1999 and 2000. Demonstrating his mastery of even the most daunting spaces, his vigorous Nestor in Troilus and Cressida (there was much fuss about Nunn's miking of the Olivier Auditorium - quite unnecessary in Quilley's case) was refreshingly free from the usual old greybeard pedantry. He also played the Baron in his second appearance in Candide (considerably reworked since the Guthrie production) and Sir John Vesey, a slyly etched performance in Edward Bulwer-Lytton's Money.

He returned to the South Bank to give a superb performance as Diana Rigg's coarse-grained lover - complete with a memorable prosthetic penis - in Charlotte Jones's Humble Boy, which transferred to the West End (Gielgud, 2001). It was particularly apposite that his final appearance on the stage should be for the National, when last winter he played the wheezy but sprightly Elisha Whitney in Anything Goes.

Films never gave Quilley particularly rewarding chances - although he had showy parts in two all-star Agatha Christie adaptations, Murder on the Orient Express (1974) and Evil Under the Sun (1982) - and it was a disappointment that the movie version of Privates on Parade (1982), even with a cast including John Cleese, failed to transfer happily to the screen.

Quilley's career was inevitably studied with television work ranging from the heights of T.S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral to the kind of journeyman series most actors prefer to forget. But he was especially pleased to be part of the series Time Slip (1970) - playing Commander Charles Traynor, an apparently urbanely charming scientist who emerges as ruthless in his quest for progress - which introduced him to a whole new generation of viewers.

His profoundly happy marriage to Stella Chapman - equally at home in musical theatre (as a director) as her husband and just as enthusiastic - was famous in the theatrical world for both its longevity and its transparent radiance.

Alan Strachan