Obituary: Andrew Keir
Tuesday 07 October 1997
A large, often bearded actor who specialised in bluff, sometimes taciturn figures of authority, the Scottish-born Andrew Keir had a long and distinguished career in theatre, film and television.
He worked in the theatre for many years with the prominent director Tyrone Guthrie and made films with such notable figures of British cinema as John Grierson and Alexander Mackendrick. His film roles ranged from Hammer horror to Ealing comedy, notable parts including Professor Quatermass in Quatermass and the Pit (1967), and recently the Duke of Argyll in Rob Roy (1995).
Born into a mining family in Lanarkshire in 1926, he worked as a lad in the Lanarkshire coalfields. "Those were the days," he later said, "when you left school at 14 and followed your father "doon the pit". A friend introduced him to the local amateur dramatic society, where he was persuaded to take on a small role as a farmer and found he loved the experience.
He joined the Unity Theatre Group as a teenager, and was spotted story- book fashion by the renowned director Tyrone Guthrie, who asked him to join the Glasgow Citizen's Theatre Company, where he remained for over nine years. "I soaked it up like a sponge," he recalled recently, "cutting my teeth on four new plays per year. Novices don't have that sort of opportunity nowadays."
He made his film debut in a B-movie starring Hy Hazell, The Lady Craved Excitement (1950), but his second film was more distinguished. The producers John Grierson, one of Britain's great pioneers of documentary, and John Baxter selected Keir to play a key role in their taut dramatisation of a real-life mine disaster, The Brave Don't Cry (1952). Directed by Philip Leacock, its suspenseful tale of 118 men trapped below ground featured Keir as a humorously optimistic miner who places a bet on a horse from the underground phone.
The following year he was in Alexander Mackendrick's charming Ealing comedy about a broken-down steamboat in Western Scotland, The Maggie. Many film roles followed, including Agrippa in Joseph Mankiewicz's Cleopatra (1962), Father Sandor, the shotgun- carrying monk who helped to defeat the monster in Terence Fisher's Dracula - Prince of Darkness (1966) and a similar role as an eccentric savant in the director Seth Holt's last film Blood from the Mummy's Tomb (1971), battling a monster whose philosophy is that "the meek shan't inherit the earth, they wouldn't know what to do with it".
In Etienne Perrier's Zeppelin (1971), a First World War spy adventure which was poorly received on release but has become a perennial on television, he was commander of the airship which the Germans plan to land in Scotland to make off with such national treasures as the Magna Carta. But Keir's best film role was as Professor Quatermass in the screen version of the classic television serial Quatermass and the Pit. In this, by far the best of the Quatermass series, Keir's mixture of gruff determination, intelligence and quirkiness made him the definitive professor.
Keir's work in the theatre included Lionel Bart's musical Maggie May (1964) and a principal role as Thomas Cromwell in the original production of Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons (1960). He was prolific on television, receiving a Scottish Bafta Best Actor nomination for his comedy performance in the BBC's Workhorses.
Other parts included the title role of a Church of Scotland minister in Granada's Adam Smith series, the ongoing role of Macrae of Balbuie in Strathblair, Lord Chief Justice Lane in The Birmingham Six Appeal, a tour de force solo role in Stations (one of the BBC's Play for One monologue series), and as an undertaker in an episode of the popular series Hamish MacBeth specially written for him by Daniel Boyle and produced for BBC Scotland by Keir's daughter Deidre.
Keir also played in such classic adaptations as Ivanhoe, Kidnapped and Macbeth and in countless series including Taggart, Danger Man, Dr Finlay's Casebook, The Avengers and Z Cars. His most recent films were as Angus McGowan in Ted Nicolai's Dragonworld (and its sequel) and finally as the Duke of Argyll in Michael Caton-Jones's Rob Roy. This part took its place alongside Quatermass as a favourite film role of Keir's, who was in total sympathy with the drector's view of his subject.
Extremely proud of his heritage, Andrew Keir was held in deep affection by the Scottish theatrical community for his total lack of affectation and for his work to promote community theatre.
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