John Neville: Shakespearean actor and director who became a theatrical force in Canada

 

Tipped to be the new John Gielgud after his towering performances at the Old Vic Theatre in the 1950s, the actor John Neville turned his back on the London stage.

He headed for the provinces as artistic director at the Nottingham Playhouse before emigrating to Canada and becoming a leading light in that country's theatre.

On joining the Old Vic company in 1953, Neville quickly emerged as a Shakespearean performer with a striking presence, playing Richard II (1954-55 and 1955-56), Romeo (1955-56) and Hamlet (1957-58, opposite Judi Dench's Ophelia), as well as alternating with Richard Burton in the roles of Othello and Iago in Othello (1955-56). Earlier, he had shown off an impressive baritone voice at the Bristol Old Vic, where he had quickly established himself as a leading man. He starred in his first West End musical in 1959, taking over the role of Nestor in Irma La Douce (Lyric Theatre) from Keith Michell.

But he left London in 1961 to join the Nottingham Playhouse, giving up weekly West End rates of £200 for no more than £50. After a brief return to London for a run in the title role of Alfie (Mermaid and Duchess Theatres, 1963) – taken by Michael Caine in the film version – Neville rejoined the Nottingham company for one of the most exciting post-war events in regional theatre, the opening of its new building.

Attracting big names was part of a strategy to make the company the National Theatre of the provinces. In its first production, Coriolanus (1963), Neville played the title role and Tyrone Guthrie directed, to instant approval. "By the end of the last act I was swearing that this was the most marvellous Coriolanus in every conceivable way that I should ever hope to see," wrote TC Worsley in the Financial Times.

Neville became joint artistic director with Frank Dunlop and Peter Ustinov and stayed until 1967, when he resigned following the Arts Council's decision to freeze its grant for the second consecutive year. In 1972 he moved to Canada, where he carved out a new theatrical career. He enjoyed his time as artistic director of the Citadel Theatre, Edmonton (1973-78), and the Neptune Theatre, Halifax (1978-83), before facing the challenge of running a company facing financial crisis. At the Stratford Shakespeare Festival (1985-99), he turned a large deficit into a profit with his astute but sometimes controversial programming, which included using the main stage for populist musicals.

Television and the cinema showed little interest in Neville until his stand-out performance in the title role of Terry Gilliam's 1988 film The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, leading a gang of misfits on fantastical adventures. "Neville exudes quixotic – and world-weary – charm as the old hero pursuing final glory," wrote one critic. This led to many screen appearances, including that of the besuited Well-Manicured Man, from Somerset, a member of the American governmental organisation The Syndicate in episodes of The X Files (1995-98). He was seen assisting Special Agents Mulder and Scully until being killed off in a car-bomb explosion in the 1998 film spin-off.

Born in the north London suburb of Willesden, the son of a lorry driver, Neville worked as a stores clerk in a garage and served as a signalman in the Royal Navy during the Second World War before training at Rada. He made his London début with a walk-on role in Richard II at the New Theatre (1947) and followed it in other Shakespearean classics at the Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park, the following year.

After rep work in Lowestoft (1948) and Birmingham (1949-50), Neville spent three seasons with the Bristol Old Vic, where he won acclaim for playing Marlow in She Stoops to Conquer, the Duke in Measure for Measure, the title role in Henry V and PC Tom Blenkinsop in the actor's first stage musical, Christmas in King Street.

His star continued to rise at the Old Vic in London, where his other roles included Bertram in All's Well That Ends Well, Ferdinand in The Tempest (both 1953-54), Marc Antony in Julius Caesar, Troilus in Troilus and Cressida (both 1955-56) and Angelo in Measure for Measure (1957-58). With the same company, he played Romeo on Broadway (Winter Garden Theatre, 1956) and directed Henry V in London (1959-60).

After his departure from Nottingham, Neville – despite his own fine performance – had a disastrous return to the London stage opposite Honor Blackman in Mr and Mrs (Palace Theatre, 1968-69), John Taylor's musical of Noël Coward's one-act plays, which received a mauling from the critics.

There were later appearances on the British stage – as Sir Peter Teazle in a revival of The School for Scandal (National, 1989-90), the Captain in The Dance of Death (Almeida Theatre, 1994-95) and the vain music critic in Peter Ustinov's play Beethoven's Tenth (Chichester Festival Theatre, 1996) – but none was significant enough to signal a more permanent return. In Canada, Neville's roles at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival included Don Armado in Love's Labour's Lost (1983), Shylock in The Merchant of Venice (1984) and Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady (1988). He also directed Mother Courage, Othello (both 1987) and The Three Sisters (1989).

His rare television roles in Britain included Robert Browning in The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1961) and the Duke of Marlborough in The First Churchills (1969). He was more prolific on Canadian and American TVguest-starring in series such as Road to Avonlea (1992), Star Trek: The Next Generation (1993) and Queer as Folk USA (2002); he played Uncle Malcolm (1998-89) in the children's series Emily of New Moon.

His film roles included Sherlock Holmes in A Study in Terror (1965, with Donald Houston as Dr Watson), Marmeladov in Crime & Punishment (2002) and a boarding-house resident who befriends Ralph Fiennes' title character, just released from a mental institution, in David Cronenberg's thriller Spider (2002). During his final years Neville suffered from Alzheimer's disease.

John Reginald Neville, actor and director: born London 2 May 1925; OBE 1965, CM 2006; married 1949 Caroline Hooper (three sons, three daughters); died Toronto 19 November 2011.

Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace in Summer's Supermarket Secrets
tv All of this year's 15 contestants have now been named
Arts and Entertainment
Inside the gallery at Frederick Bremer School in Walthamstow
tvSimon Usborne goes behind-the-scenes to watch the latest series
Life and Style
A picture taken on January 12, 2011 shows sex shops at the Paris district of Pigalle.
newsThe industry's trade body issued the moratorium on Friday
News
Winchester College Football (universally known as Winkies) is designed to make athletic skill all but irrelevant
Life...arcane public school games explained
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment
Could we see Iain back in the Bake Off tent next week?
tv Contestant teased Newsnight viewers on potential reappearance
Life and Style
Silvia says of her famous creation: 'I never stopped wearing it. Because I like to wear things when they are off the radar'
fashionThe fashion house celebrated fifteen years of the punchy pouch with a weighty tome
News
i100(and it's got nothing to do with the Great British Bake Off)
News
Angelina Jolie with her father Jon Voight
peopleAsked whether he was upset not to be invited, he responded by saying he was busy with the Emmy Awards
News
Bill Kerr has died aged 92
peopleBill Kerr appeared in Hancock’s Half Hour and later worked alongside Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers
News
news It's not just the world that's a mess at the moment...
Sport
footballPremiership preview: All the talking points ahead of this weekend's matches
News
Keira Knightley poses topless for a special September The Photographer's issue of Interview Magazine, out now
people
Voices
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
News
i100
Sport
Mario Balotelli pictured in his Liverpool shirt for the first time
football
Life and Style
tech
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

C# Algo-Developer (BDD/TDD, ASP.NET, JavaScript, RX)

£45000 - £69999 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Algo-Develo...

Senior Data Scientist (Data Mining, Apache Mahout, Python,R,AI)

£60000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Senior Data Sc...

Data Scientist (SQL,Data mining, data modelling, PHD, AI)

£50000 - £80000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: Data Sci...

Java Developer - 1 year contract

£350 - £400 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Cent...

Day In a Page

Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone