John Neville: Shakespearean actor and director who became a theatrical force in Canada - Obituaries - News - The Independent

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.

John Travolta is a qualified airline captain and employed the pilot with his company, Alto
people'That was the lowest I’d ever felt'
peopleThe report and photo dedicated to the actress’s decolletage has, unsurprisingly, provoked anger
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
filmsDaniel Craig believed to be donning skies as 007 for first time
footballThe latest scores and news from Dortmund vs Arsenal and Liverpool vs Ludogorets
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Yes supporters gather outside the Usher Hall, which is hosting a Night for Scotland in Edinburgh
voicesBen Judah: Is there a third option for England and Scotland that keeps everyone happy?
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape
Life and Style
techCriminals now targeting e-readers
Life and Style
Life and Style
tech... and together they're worth at least £100 million
Life and Style
healthIt isn’t greasy. It doesn’t smell. And moreover, it costs nothing
Life and Style
news This video may make you think twice about ever taking the Tube again
Life and Style
A spider is seen in its web on September 16, 2014 in Hohen Meissner, Germany.
tech The 'Spider in Da House' app has been developed by scientists to tackle arachnophobia
Life and Style
fashionIncredibly, it hasn't been branded ''
A plane flies close to the eruption of the Icelandic volcano
newsAnd yes, it's quite something
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

Senior QA Engineer - Agile, SCRUM

£35000 - £50000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior QA Engineer (Agil...

Marketing Executive - West Midlands - £28,000

£26000 - £28000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Digital Marketing Executive (SEO, PP...

Retail Business Analyst

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our retail client ...

Senior C++ Developer

£400 - £450 Per Annum possibly more for the right candidate: Clearwater People...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week