Frank Middlemass

Versatile character actor


Frank Middlemass, actor: born Eaglescliffe, Co Durham 28 May 1919; died Northwood, Middlesex 8 September 2006.

Although often seen as one of that company of character actors whose supporting roles can add credibility to screen drama, Frank Middlemass occasionally broke through to gain star billing, usually playing authority figures.

He was most memorable on television as the philosophical headmaster Algy Herries in To Serve Them All My Days, Andrew Davies's adaptation of R.F. Delderfield's public school novel, and as the wise Russian army supremo General Kutuzov in Jack Pulman's 20-part serialisation of Tolstoy's War and Peace. Then, in later years, he was familiar as the amorous pensioner Rocky Hardcastle in the BBC sitcom As Time Goes By.

For some, though, Middlemass will be remembered as the last actor to play Dan Archer in the long-running BBC radio serial The Archers, following Harry Oakes, Monty Crick and Edgar Harrison as the patriarch of rural Ambridge, by then well into retirement and almost put out to grass.

Like so many character actors, Middlemass was never a household name. "People are always coming up to me in the street and saying, 'I know the face. I just can't place the name'," he once said:

The most attention I've ever had was when I was appearing regularly as a judge in the daytime series Crown Court. Suddenly, waiters started showing me to the best tables in restaurants and taxi drivers were civil to me - it was amazing.

Born in Eaglescliffe, Co Durham, in 1919, Middlemass was brought up on Teesside and would never have gone into acting if his father had had his way. "I can't remember a time when I didn't want to be an actor," he said, "but my family were totally against it. My father was a naval architect and the acting profession was very much frowned upon."

Therefore, on leaving school, Middlemass applied to join the Navy but was rejected because of poor eyesight. Instead, he went into the Army at the start of the Second World War, reaching the rank of major and seeing time in Egypt after hostilities ended. Then, in 1948, he decided to pursue his acting ambitions and joined a repertory company in Penzance. He spent many years with Harry Hanson's companies and rep theatres in Oldham and Sheffield.

Eventually, he rose to the top of the ladder, enjoying his first successes with the Old Vic company in London and Bristol, notably playing Toby Belch to Vivien Leigh's Viola in Twelfth Night during a 1961 tour of Australia, New Zealand and South America, Polonius in Hamlet and Pompey in Measure for Measure (both at the City Center Theatre, New York, 1967) and the Fool in King Lear (Old Vic Theatre, 1970).

Joining the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1984, he again played Polonius in Hamlet, as well as Friar Laurence in Romeo and Juliet, Quince in A Midsummer Night's Dream and Holofernes in Love's Labour's Lost. His West End roles included Ulrik Brendel in Rosmersholm (Haymarket Theatre, 1977), Boss Mangan in Heartbreak House (Haymarket Theatre, 1983), Billy Rice in The Entertainer (Shaftesbury Theatre, 1986), Bartie in Over My Dead Body (Savoy Theatre, 1989) and the Director in Vaclav Havel's Temptation (Westminster Theatre, 1990).

He also took character roles in films - such as Sir Charles Lyndon in Barry Lyndon (1975), the director Stanley Kubrick's screen version of Thackeray's novel, with its hero, an 18th-century Irish rogue, played by Ryan O'Neal. However, two pictures in which Middlemass appeared as doctors alongside international stars turned out to be flops: Madame Sin (1971, with Bette Davis, although Middlemass's scene was edited out of the final version) and The Island (1980, with Michael Caine).

He fared better on television, having made his small-screen début in the 1950s as a tramp in Dixon of Dock Green. Later, in War and Peace (1972-73), Middlemass played the patient General Kutuzov, commander of the Russian army during the Napoleonic Wars. Then, in To Serve Them All My Days (1980-81), he was well cast as the benign headmaster of a minor public school in the West Country who employs a working-class, wounded First World War veteran as a history teacher.

Middlemass's stage background and versatility enabled him to switch from roles such as the Fool in Jonathan Miller's television versions of King Lear (1975, 1982) to Basil Arkroyd in Emmerdale Farm (1977) and two Dickens characters, Mr Brownlow in Oliver Twist (1985) and Uncle Pumblechook in Great Expectations (1989).

His Pickwickian looks suited Dickens, but his solid build also rendered him perfect in the part of the Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev in Squaring the Circle (1984), Tom Stoppard's most notable film for television, about the history of Poland's Solidarity movement. He was also totally believable as the Edwardian dandy George Brett, the grandfather telling everyone of his past stage exploits, in The Bretts (1987), an ITV series about a 1920s theatrical family.

Middlemass was impervious to such failures and not ashamed to accept some television roles simply because the rewards would enable him to spend time in stage plays that paid relatively little. After playing an Arab king in the American mini-series Lace (1984), he said:

It was a bit of fluff, but I had a marvellous time. They flew me out to Grenada first-class and put me up in a top hotel for a few weeks, and it was the kind of part that paid enough to allow me to do the things I really want to do.

In his seventies, Middlemass acted the country GP Dr Alex Ferrenby in the first three series of Heartbeat (1992-93), the police drama set in rural Yorkshire. He was seen as a mentor to PC Nick Rowan's doctor wife, Kate, although his sexism and conservative views caused them to clash. Dr Ferrenby eventually died in a fishing accident.

The actor then took the long-running role of Rocky Hardcastle, who woos and marries Madge Darbley (Joan Sims), in As Time Goes By (1993-2005), the writer Bob Larbey's gentle sitcom about Rocky's divorced son, Lionel (Geoffrey Palmer), rekindling the flames with his widowed former lover, Jean, four decades after their original romance. Middlemass appeared in the programme from its second series. During its run, he played Edgar Deacon in Channel 4's lavish drama series A Dance to the Music of Time (1997).

When, in 1982, he had become the fourth and final actor to play Dan Archer in The Archers, following the death of Edgar Harrison after 13 of the serial's 31 years on radio, Middlemass characteristically showed no pretension to stamping his own, indelible mark on the character. "I shall try to adopt a voice similar to Edgar Harrison's because listeners have become so used to him," he declared. At 85, the fictional Dan was, he added, "more of a peripheral character now" in a programme that regularly attracted three million listeners. He continued in the role until Dan died of a heart attack in 1986.

Anthony Hayward

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
Carol O'Brien, whose son Rob suffered many years of depression
healthOne mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
Life and Style
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
News
Rob Merrick's Lobby Journalists were playing Ed Balls' Labour Party MPs. The match is an annual event which takes place ahead of the opening of the party conference
newsRob Merrick insistes 'Ed will be hurting much more than me'
Voices
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
News
Liam Payne has attacked the media for reporting his tweet of support to Willie Robertson and the subsequent backlash from fans
peopleBut One Direction star insists he is not homophobic
Life and Style
healthFor Pure-O OCD sufferers this is a reality they live in
Life and Style
Sexual health charities have campaigned for the kits to be regulated
healthAmerican woman who did tells parents there is 'nothing to be afraid of'
Life and Style
fashion
Arts and Entertainment
The John Peel Lecture has previously been given by Pete Townshend of The Who, Billy Bragg and Charlotte Church
musicGodfather of punk will speak on 'free music in a capitalist society'
News
peopleAt least it's for a worthwhile cause
News
Shoppers in Covent Garden, London, celebrate after they were the first to buy the iPhone 6, released yesterday
tech
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

Pharmaceutical Computer System Validation Specialist

£300 - £350 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Pharmaceutical Computer ...

High Level Teaching Assistant (HTLA)

£70 - £90 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Higher Level Teaching Assist...

Teaching Assistant

£50 - £80 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Randstad Education is the UK...

Senior Java Developer - API's / Webservices - XML, XSLT

£400 - £450 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is currently ...

Day In a Page

A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments