Edward Hardwicke: Actor best known as Dr Watson and as the 'Colditz' escape officer

The actor Edward Hardwicke will be best remembered for his television portrayals of two legends – one real life, the other from classic fiction.

In the BBC series Colditz (1972, 1974), his character, the mild-mannered, level-headed Captain Pat Grant, was based on the escape officer Pat Reid, one of the few to escape from the notorious German POW camp. The attempts of the cliffside castle's inmates to break out of the fortress provided the tension in a drama notable for presenting three-dimensional characters rather than black-and-white caricatures.

As Grant, Hardwicke was often seen acting as the arbiter between his fellow Allied prisoners, who exhibited great enthusiasm for their daring escape plans, and the senior British officer, the reserved, stiff-upper-lipped Colonel Preston (Jack Hedley).

Later, Hardwicke would portray Dr Watson to Jeremy Brett's Sherlock Holmes in Granada's immaculately produced dramas for ITV based on Arthur Conan Doyle's novels – widely considered to be the definitive screen works featuring the Victorian detective, eclipsing the 14 American films starring Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Watson. Brett's flamboyant performance was a tour de force, beginning with two series of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1984-85), in which the original producer, Michael Cox, returned to the early Strand magazine stories to ensure the most faithful adaptation ever, in both character and production-design detail.

David Burke acted Watson for those 13 episodes, then announced he was leaving to spend more time with his wife and young son. Hardwicke was cast in the role, which was a far cry from that of the dozy, bumbling medical practitioner seen in previous screen versions. "I don't think Watson is stupid," he said. "After all, you have to be fairly bright to be a doctor. He is quite a humorous character and adds a lot of banter to the working relationship. I like to think Watson always had a slight smile, in contrast to the emotionless Holmes. But Watson knows his place – he recognises that, in Holmes, he is in the presence of an expert."

Hardwicke played the role for the remaining 28 of Granada's 41 stories, in the series The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1986, 1988), The Case-book of Sherlock Holmes (1991) and The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (1994), as well as five one-off specials, including The Hound of the Baskervilles (1988).

Born in London in 1932, Hardwicke was the son of the actors Cedric Hardwicke and Helena Pickard. With his father acting in Hollywood films, he had the chance to appear, uncredited, in the wartime drama A Guy Named Joe (1943), alongside Spencer Tracy, when he was 10. On returning home he attended Stowe School, was a pilot in the RAF during National Service (1951-52) and trained at Rada before making his stage début in The Impresario of Smyrna (Arts Theatre, 1954).

He gained repertory experience with the Bristol Old Vic (1954-7), Old Vic, London (1957-58), and Oxford Playhouse (1959-60) companies. In those days, Hardwicke regarded his father's success as a noose around his own neck, later saying: "When you got a job, you always had the feeling everybody was saying, 'Oh, he's only here because his father's Cedric Hardwicke.' And that used to be a big, big burden to me, actually. I got over it eventually."

Hardwicke's first West End appearance was as Mr Muffle in Wildest Dreams (Vaudeville Theatre, 1961). Three years later, he joined Laurence Olivier's company at the National Theatre (1964-70), where his notable roles included Montano in Othello (1964), Camille Chandebise in A Flea in Her Ear (1966), Ben in Love for Love (1966) and Rosencrantz in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1968).

Although Hardwicke acted in films such as Hell Below Zero (1954), The Men of Sherwood Forest (1954), Othello (1965, as Montano again, alongside Olivier), Otley (1968) and The Black Windmill (1974), most of his screen career was spent on TV, as a character actor. His small-screen début was in Peter van Greenaway's play The Advocate (1959) and he later acted the Prince of Wales in The Pallisers (1974), Lord Rosebery in Edward the Seventh (1975), the pathologist in The Biko Inquest (1984) and Mr Wickfield in David Copperfield (2000).

There were occasionally regular roles. In the sitcom My Old Man (1974-75), Hardwicke played the grumpy Arthur, whose life with his wife Doris (Priscilla Morgan) was turned upside down by the arrival of her destitute, cantankerous father, Sam (Clive Dunn). In more serious vein, he acted Donald Sanders in the big-business drama Tycoon (1978) and the Nobel Prize-winning, Italian-American physicist Enrico Fermi, who helped to develop the atom bomb, in Oppenheimer (1980).

Later film roles included Warnie Lewis in Shadowlands (1993), Lord Stanley in Richard III (1995), Governor John Bellingham in The Scarlet Letter (1995), the Earl of Arundel in Elizabeth (1998), the grandfather of the widowed Liam Neeson's stepson in Love Actually (2003) and Mr Brownlow in Oliver Twist (2005). He also acted Dr Watson, alongside Brett as Holmes, in Jeremy Paul's West End play The Secret of Sherlock Holmes (Wyndham's Theatre, 1988-9).

Anthony Hayward

Edward Cedric Hardwicke, actor: born London 7 August 1932; married 1957 Anne Iddon (marriage dissolved; two daughters), 1994 Prim Cotton; died Chichester, West Sussex 16 May 2011.

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