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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
Written protest: Julia Donaldson, author of The Gruffalo, has sent an open letter to the Culture Secretary
books
Arts and Entertainment
The teaser trailer has provoked more questions than answers
filmBut what is Bond's 'secret' that Moneypenny is talking about?
Sport
Lewis Hamilton secured his second straight pole of the season
f1Vettel beats Rosberg into third after thunderstorm delays qualifying
News
Johnny Depp is perhaps best known for his role as Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean
peopleBut how did he break it?
Sport
footballDoes Hodgson's England team have an identity yet?
Travel
travel Dreamland Margate, Britain’s oldest amusement park, is set to reopen
News
news
News
Founders James Brown and Tim Southwell with a mock-up of the first ever ‘Loaded’ magazine in 1994
media
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped commission: SThree: Does earning a 6 figu...

Recruitment Genius: SEO Executive

£18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: New Lift Sales Executive - Lift and Elevators

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A challenging opportunity for a...

Day In a Page

The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss