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

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