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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: 3rd Line Virtualisation, Windows & Server Engineer

£40000 - £47000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A 3rd Line Virtualisation / Sto...

Recruitment Genius: Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Service Engineer

£26000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A successful national service f...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive / Sales - OTE £25,000

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Fixed Term Contract

£17500 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We currently require an experie...

Day In a Page

Syria civil war: Meet the military commander who says his soldiers will not rest until every inch of their war torn country is free of Islamist 'terrorists'

‘We won’t stop until Syria is back to normal’

Near the front lines with Islamist-controlled towns where Assad’s troops were besieged just last month, Robert Fisk meets a commander confidently preparing his soldiers for battle
Fifa corruption: Strip Qatar of the World Cup? Not likely

Strip Qatar of the World Cup? Not likely

But if a real smoking gun is found, that might change things, says Tom Peck
Twenty two years later Jurassic Park series faces questions over accuracy of the fictional dinosaurs in it

Tyrannosaurus wrecked?

Twenty two years on, Jurassic Park faces questions over accuracy
The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation may undermine Hillary's chances

The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation...

... and how it may undermine Hillary's chances in 2016
Genes greatly influence when and how many babies a woman will have, study finds

Mother’s genes play key role in decision to start a family

Study's findings suggest that human fertility is still evolving
12 best olive oils

Extra-virgin, cold-press, early-harvest, ultra-premium: 12 best olive oils

Choosing an olive oil is a surprising minefield. Save yourself the hassle with our handy guide
Rafa Benitez Real Madrid unveiling: New manager full of emotion at Bernabeu homecoming

Benitez full of emotion at Bernabeu homecoming

There were tears in the former Liverpool manager’s eyes as he was unveiled as Real Madrid coach. But the Spaniard knows he must make tough decisions if he is to succeed
England can win the Ashes – and Elvis Presley will present the urn

England can win the Ashes – and Elvis will present the urn

In their last five Test, they have lost two and drawn two and defeated an India side last summer who thought that turning up was competing, says Stephen Brenkley
Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)