Obituary: David King

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The Independent Online
DAVID KING was a big ebullient man, an actor who played character parts, making his mark quickly in every role and with a dominating stage presence. He was moreover extremely versatile: one night he could be playing a haggard tramp - with his dog Dougal - in Z Cars, and the next a robust country squire in Trollope. In 1996 he appeared in a fine scene with Sir John Gielgud in the acclaimed film Shine.

Perhaps "Badger" in 13 memorable West End productions of Toad of Toad Hall from the mid-Sixties, was his triumph. Badgers became a fascination; his Barnsbury house was filled with pictures, books, ornaments and memorabilia, and on the hall wall was a photograph of himself making up for the part.

"Last of all, the eyes / Made larger, white encircled . . . / And there, powerful, mysterious, / The complete mask, / Badger."

He may have gained a taste for performing when, as a small boy, he impersonated Carmen Miranda on his parents' kitchen table. Later, as a plump, lonely schoolboy, his toy theatre became all-absorbing.

At Cambridge he read English under F.L. Lucas and George Rylands, and Music under Boris Ord, and began acting seriously, playing Othello. His career took off quickly. In the early 1950s came seasons at Stratford- upon-Avon with Peggy Ashcroft, Michael Redgrave and Laurence Olivier, followed by a stint at Bristol Old Vic playing Pozzo in Waiting For Godot and Claudius to Peter O'Toole's Hamlet.

Seasons at the Old Vic in London led to a Russian tour in 1961. King taught himself Russian in advance, and when, in 1987, he and I presented Agreeable Friends, an anthology of animal writing, he spoke movingly Esyenin's "To Jim: an actor's dog" to his own dog, Brock, on stage.

Dougal was his first dog, brought in to the Haymarket Theatre one day in the mid- Sixties while King was playing in The Rivals, often covering for Ralph Richardson as Sir Anthony Absolute. Dougal and King became inseparable, and he was known as "the actor with the dog". A glossy black charmer, Dougal played alongside his master's pantomime dame, in A Midsummer Night's Dream, and on television in Jackanory.

Among King's most impressive roles were his immense - in every sense - drag act, Dame Clara; his virtuoso playing of the Peggy Mount role in Sailor Beware (directed as an all-male army show); Sir in The Dresser; the Headmaster in Forty Years On; Daddy Warboys in Annie; and a favourite, his namesake David King in Christopher Fry's A Sleep of Prisoners.

In the early 1980s, he performed in A Patriot For Me, which progressed from Chichester to London to Los Angeles, this last an experience he utterly loathed, venting his wrath in poetry and a vitriolic journal. Numerous television appearances ranged from the classics to soaps, including the consultant surgeon Mr Bailey in Emergency Ward 10.

After Dougal died, Brick was rescued from the Animal Welfare Trust. Less manageable, smellier, a large, bounding, loveable mongrel, he too was a theatre dog, family, someone to offer devotion at a time when the profession treated his master less kindly.

David King was a vulnerable, sensitive man beneath his big, outgoing exterior. In recent years he found new directions, and turned out some strong performances in fringe theatre and in frequent broadcasting for the BBC Drama Repertory Company. One of his poems, "I Hate Greens", has become a children's anthology favourite.

When he died he was researching the life of Arthur Conan Doyle to follow his popular portrayals of Henry VIII, Handel, Gladstone and Chesterton at the National Portrait Gallery, and he was about to take part in a recording of Coriolanus for Riverrun Productions - a recording now dedicated to his memory.

David King, actor and poet: born Rochester, Kent 23 August 1930; died London 3 March 1998.