James Grout: Character actor who played Inspector Morse's boss

 

The high production values given to Inspector Morse, the television crime drama starring John Thaw as the opera-loving detective of Colin Dexter's novels, included an impressive array of supporting cast and guest stars with a strong theatrical pedigree.

The perennial of that illustrious group was James Grout, whose long career as a character actor enabled him to portray with total believability the mixed emotions displayed by Morse's boss, Chief Superintendent Strange, who was often baffled by the detective's methods and sometimes reprimanded him, but ultimately showed him respect throughout the programme's run (1987-2000).

The first televised story, "The Dead of Jericho", established the senior officer's relationship with the Oxford sleuth. "You're a clever sod, but you don't say the right things to the right people – you never will," says Strange as he tells Morse why he has been turned down for promotion.

As one who learned his craft in the theatre for more than 10 years before TV appearances became more regular, Grout was adept at switching from drama to comedy with the smoothest gear change and will be remembered by radio listeners for his long runs in two sitcoms. In all 10 series of King Street Junior (1985-98), he played the headmaster Harry Beeston and, in the first four runs (1995-2001) of Old Harry's Game, he was the Professor, Hell's main human character, constantly arguing with the world-weary Satan portrayed by the programme's creator, Andy Hamilton.

Grout's stage career soared after his appearance as the unsuccessful actor Harry Chitterlow, alongside Tommy Steele, in the musical Half a Sixpence (Cambridge Theatre, 1963), a role he reprised in the Broadway production (Broadhurst Theatre, 1965-66), which earned him a Tony nomination.

Supporting roles suited his temperament. "If you star in a play, that's it for that year," he once said. "You have to wait for another time when you start again. It's great. We have more of a private life. You can disguise oneself and play different sorts of parts."

Born in London in 1927, Grout attended Trinity County Grammar School, Wood Green. His father, who owned shoe shops, was killed while working as a special police officer during the Second World War. At school, said Grout, he was a bit of a show-off and encouraged to act by his English teacher, Miss Monday. After performing with Incognitos, an amateur company, Grout successfully auditioned to attend Rada.

But his training was interrupted by National Service (1946-48) as a radar mechanic with the RAF in Wiltshire, at Yatesbury, Lyneham and Clyffe Pypard. Nevertheless, he and a group of fellow service personnel established an amateur company performing plays and revues at various camps in the county.

At his Rada graduation ceremony, Grout recited from Don Marquis's play The Dark Hours, about the trial and crucifixion of Jesus, resulting in an outstanding appreciation of his vocal talents from the celebrated critic Harold Hobson. This resulted in an offer from the company at the Old Vic Theatre to play Valentine in Twelfth Night (1950), the first production at the renovated venue following its wartime bombing. (He had previously appeared with the company among the uncredited soldiers and sailors in Hamlet, at the New Theatre, earlier that year.) Other roles at the Old Vic included Warwick in Henry V (1951).

Grout gained further experience in the classics during three seasons with the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre Company in Stratford-upon-Avon (1953-55), when his roles included Lennox in Macbeth. After taking over as the guest-house owner Giles Ralston in Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap (Ambassadors Theatre, 1959-60), the West End became a regular home for Grout's talents until the mid-1980s.

Almost 20 parts there included the title role in Keith Dewhurst's Rafferty's Chant (Mermaid Theatre, 1967), Inspector Hounslow in David Mercer's Flint (Criterion Theatre, 1970), Inspector Craddock in Agatha Christie's A Murder is Announced (Vaudeville Theatre, 1977), Henry Windscape in Simon Gray's Quartermaine's Terms (Queen's Theatre, 1981), Boss Finley in Tennessee Williams's Sweet Bird of Youth (Theatre Royal, Haymarket, 1984-85) and Alderman Helliwell in JB Priestley's When We Are Married (Whitehall Theatre, 1985-86).

In between these stage appearances, Grout built up a television career in which he developed a stock-in-trade of authority figures, from police officers to doctors and professors. He played Colonel McEwan, with jurisdiction over John Thaw's military police sergeant, in an episode of Redcap (1963) and, similarly, Chief Inspector Prescott to Jack Warner's police constable in Dixon of Dock Green (1969-71) and Divisional Superintendent Albert Hallam to Stephanie Turner's uniformed inspector in Juliet Bravo (1981). Inspector Morse gave Grout a much longer run – and higher public profile – as a character actor taking the role of a superior to the programme's star.

He also made a single appearance as the chief whip, Geoffrey Winfield, in the sitcom Yes Minister (1984) and played Professor George Bunn in the second series of the writer Andrew Davies's university-set comedy-drama A Very Peculiar Practice (1988).

In the roster of judges of various traits encountered by John Mortimer's shrewd but exasperating barrister in Rumpole of the Bailey, Grout smoothly fitted into the role of the kindly, common-sensical Mr Justice Ollie Oliphant (1991-92). He also directed stage productions, in both the West End and the regions.

In 2002, two years after Inspector Morse ended, Grout retired. He spent his remaining years in Malmesbury, the Wiltshire market town to which he and his wife, Noreen – who did not have children – had moved in 1977.

"When you have got two artificial knees, you find it difficult to walk the stage," he said. "You have to be in London to work, especially on TV, but it's grey and I hate it. It has been a great life, but I am glad the chasing of work is over. I am just getting old. I just want to have the time and enjoy life."

James David Grout, actor and director: born London 22 October 1927; married 1950 Noreen Fowler; died Purton, Wiltshire 24 June 2012.

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