Jeffry Wickham: Character actor in the theatre and on television whose patrician bearing made him ideal to play elder statesmen

 

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In spite of claiming to be "hopeless at auditions", Jeffry Wickham was a constantly busy actor for over half a century. A tall man with a patrician bearing, he had fine, swept-back hair and a lower lip that sometimes pursed in comic indignation.

His speciality was the elder statesman; he instantly conveyed authority, even when, as in Alan Bennett's The Madness Of George III (Lyttleton, National Theatre, 1993), the part was not large. Seemingly confirming his Establishment credentials, he was educated at Eton, and at Balliol College, Oxford, where he read Modern Languages; his second line in playing Russian apparatchiks derived from his mastery of their language. Having been President of the Oxford University Dramatic Society, he fulfilled the same function for the actors' union, Equity.

The first of his authority figures came early, when his nanny had him play the King in a children's play for his seventh birthday. During National Service as a midshipman in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve he performed Pasternak's Russian translation of Hamlet. Subsequently averring that becoming President of the OUDS was "an hereditary Balliol perk", he played the title role in Euripides' Hippolytus (1955), "twice nightly in the Divinity School" the first time a play had been staged there.

Jack Good, the future television pop music pioneer, also took part, and it was co-directed by Michael Elliott and Caspar Wrede, all of whom Wickham would later work with. He made his radio debut when the play was broadcast on the BBC Third Programme. He played Shylock in The Merchant of Venice for the OUDS in 1956, and would do so again at Dundee Rep in 1962, with Lynn Redgrave as Portia; and, replacing an indisposed Bernard Hepton, at the Yvonne Arnaud, Guildford in 1975.

He trained at Lamda, who in 1988 presented his translation of Maxim Gorky's Vassa. At Dundee Rep, where colleagues included Nicol Williamson, Edward Fox and Steven Berkoff, he met the actress Clare Stewart, whom he married in Cupar at the end of the season. His television debut came in 1960 in the BBC's Shakespearean cycle An Age Of Kings.

Ronald Harwood's Private Potter (ATV, 1961), directed by Wrede, had Tom Courtenay supported by Wickham and the American-born James Maxwell. Elliott, Wrede, Maxwell and the director Braham Murray, who ran the Century Theatre Company based at Manchester University Theatre, frequently called on Wickham; later in Manchester they founded the Royal Exchange Theatre.

For them, Wickham did Playboy of the Western World (1967), as well as Hamlet at the 1968 Edinburgh Festival, both starring Courtenay; TS Eliot's The Family Reunion (1973); and A Man For All Seasons (1975) at Manchester Cathedral. Intriguingly, as the unfeeling Grandcourt in Daniel Deronda (1969), Wickham played opposite a future political opponent, Vanessa Redgrave, as Gwendolen.

Braham Murray was startled at seeing Wickham "calmly knitting" amid the outlandish rehearsals for Catch My Soul (1970), Jack Good's rock opera based on Othello; the actor would play Brabantio in a more faithful rendition of the play, with his son Rupert as Iago, at the Bridewell Theatre in 1995.

The first of Wickham's screen Russians was in the anthology series Espionage (ATV, 1963-64), as an architect perturbed by his sister's relationship with an American musician. In an unintentionally hilarious episode of Jason King (1971), he was one of a trio of Soviet detectives overawed by Peter Wyngarde's ostentatious hero; he then supported Wyngarde on a tour of Present Laughter in 1975. His umbrella-carrying Secret Service major in The Sweeney (1975) blowing kisses at secretaries and ending conversations with "Thanks awfully... toodle-pip" was as much of a sore thumb as Regan or Carter might have been in The Avengers.

In Equity's Council elections of 1976, Wickham stood as a candidate representing Act For Equity, formed that year. Defining themselves as moderates, and (repeatedly) stating that they were not affiliated to any political party, Act For Equity were generally seen as representing the conservative viewpoint, opposing the branch and delegate system and strikes in breach of contract. Wickham was elected a councillor in 1978, and in 1992, while opening in An Ideal Husband at the Royal Exchange, president.

His RSC debut was in The Marrying of Ann Leete (Aldwych, 1975), with Mia Farrow. At the National in 1984 he supported Frances de la Tour (emphatically not an Act For Equity supporter) as Saint Joan. He also found himself in two Jeffrey Archer potboilers, Beyond Reasonable Doubt (Queen's, 1987) as a prosecutor, and Exclusive (Strand, 1989), starring Paul Scofield, Eileen Atkins and Alec McCowen; he summed up the latter as "three heroes in one copper-bottomed disaster".

At the Fortune in 1994 he did The Woman In White, which he termed "the surest of two-handed chillers", and was replaced as Equity president the same year, Act For Equity eventually disbanding in 2002. In a piquant bit of casting he played Michael Heseltine in a Dispatches reconstruction of the Scott Inquiry, "Scott of the Arms Antics" (Channel 4, 1994). Supporting another of his children in his profession, he was in Clarissa (BBC, 1991), in which his daughter Saskia played the title role.

Wickham also served on the executive council of the Actors' Benevolent Fund. He once mused on an unrealised ambition to play Captain Hook, "a fellow product of Eton and Balliol", in Peter Pan.

GAVIN GAUGHAN

Jeffry Wickham, actor and trade unionist: born Bishops Lydeard, Somerset 5 August 1933; married 1962 Clare Stewart (two sons, one daughter); died London 17 June 2014.

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