John Horsley: Character actor whose comedic talent brought him fame as Doc Morrissey in 'The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin'

 

A gentleman player assured at both touching sincerity and twinkling comedy, John Horsley was a charming actor with plenty of strings to his bow, who played an adroit second fiddle throughout his 60-year career. A household face on television, he will best be remembered as Doc Morrissey, the quack severely in need of a doctor in The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin (1975), who showed enthusiasm for his work only when faced with secretaries who were feeling a touch chesty, and who prescribed "two aspirin" for anything and everything.

When Reggie (Leonard Rossiter), a victim of severe Seventies suburban malaise, appeals to him for help, Morrissey skilfully guesses his symptoms. "Do you find you can't finish the crossword like you used to, nasty taste in the mouth in the mornings, can't stop thinking about sex, can't start doing anything about sex, wake up in a sweat, keep falling asleep during Play for Today?" When a momentarily hopeful Reggie jumps in with "it's extraordinary Doctor, that's exactly how I'm feeling!" Horsley retorts with digital-watch timing: "Me too, wonder what it is..." The interplay between the pair was a comedy masterclass, Rossiter the neurotic clown and Horsley the lovable dodderer.

Before becoming a gentleman player, John Horsley had been a gentleman soldier. The son of a doctor and an opera singer, he was born in Westcliff-on-Sea in 1920 and served with the Devon Yeomanry in Italy before being struck down with hepatitis. Once recovered, he joined the Play Unit of the Army Bureau of Current Affairs, which was set up in 1941 to provide education to British troops on political and social issues, and which within a year had developed a dramatic arm. A key writer for them was Ted Willis, creator of Dixon of Dock Green, whose Where Do We Go From Here? addressed the prospect of demobilisation, and even had a Civvy Street showing at the Arts Theatre in 1945, in which Horsley was much commended for his performance.

When peace broke out Horsley joined the resident company of the Salisbury Arts Theatre, touring all over Wessex in Eden's End alongside the actress June Marshall, who he married in 1948, the same year he was "a natural David", the mother-smothered son, in Salisbury's production of Sidney Howard's The Silver Cord. He moved to Birmingham Rep, shoulder to shoulder with Donald Pleasance and John Neville, but his time there was cut short by a further illness. He made his film debut in Highly Dangerous (1950), a potboiler thriller starring Margaret Lockwood, and after a few coughs and spits, his proper television debut in The Crimson Ramblers (1956), a live seven-part crime saga set against the unusual backdrop of a British concert party playing a seaside resort.

He first got to stretch his comedy limbs in NF Simpson's cuckoo One Way Pendulum at the Royal Court in 1957, quite rightly contributing an "unexaggerated suburbanity" amid the lunacy of a young man filling his home with "speak your weight" machines. In 1970 he took an even more daring path when he joined the Stables Theatre in Manchester.

Granada Television had converted the stables of the Liverpool Road station from a builder's yard into a theatre the previous year, and fabulous work was done there. Horsley's debut was in Trevor Griffiths' first stage play, Occupations, as Valletta, the capitalist facing a worker's revolt. He and Richard Wilson worked there even after Granada pulled their support, the last subsidised production being The Cherry Orchard, and slogged on defiantly with the iconoclastic "black pantomime" The Second Mr Joplin (1971), which Wilson directed.

At the Nottingham Playhouse he frequently starred beside another gentlemanly actor, Robin Bailey, on one occasion in What the Butler Saw (1972), which saw Bailey as Dr Prentice and Horsley as the visiting doctor who "scoops up armfuls of diagnosis and moulds the facts to fit", a brilliant pupillage for playing Doc Morrissey a few years later.

As the small screen swallowed him up he gradually drifted from the theatre, although one wishes there was a record of his turn in Ustinov's Half Way Up A Tree (1973), in which he played a general who catches a whiff of the Sixties off the younger generation around him and whose "entry in a hippy dress wheeling a gaily painted pram was one of the shows funniest moments", according to one critic.

Though significant roles in films were rare, on television he never seemed to stop working. He garnished many series, from No Hiding Place (1960) to The Box of Delights (1984), but his light touch and heavily burdened demeanour was particularly well-used in Dennis Potter's Schmoedipus (1974), especially when he wistfully asks fellow commuter John Carson, after a smiling nostalgic chat about train sets, "have you ever noticed how women don't want to be little girls again the way that men seem to want to be little boys?" A great part of Horsley's charm was that despite his always being the ageing gentleman, that little boy was never far below the surface.

SIMON FARQUHAR

John L Horsley, actor: born 21 July 1920; married 1948 June Marshall (deceased; two daughters); died Denville Hall, Northolt 12 January 2014.

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