Obituary: Nigel Davenport, character actor sought by directors in all mediums for nearly half a century

 

A stalwart of the stage and screen for almost half a century, Nigel Davenport never quite found A-list stardom, but his moustache, piercing gaze, thick eyebrows and scowling expression made him a character actor sought by directors in all mediums.

He was in the supporting cast of many cinema and television dramas, playing heroes, villains, drunkards and weaklings. One of his most memorable film roles was in Chariots of Fire (1981), as Lord Birkenhead, a member of the British Olympic Committee counselling its athletes at the 1924 Games, in Paris.

On television, he will be best remembered as the cold, calculating, wealthy business executive Sir Edward Frere (1987-90) in Howards' Way. The soap-style nautical drama was set among the "gin and Jag" sailing set on the South Coast, and starred Maurice Colbourne as the boatyard boss Tom Howard. Tony Anholt acted the scheming property tycoon and rival entrepreneur Charles Frere, whose father was played by Davenport, brought in for the third series to rival his own son's marina development plans.

Howards' Way was at its peak during these cut-throat business machinations and Davenport brought with him the findings of his own research into tycoons. "They are not generally very cheerful people," he said. "They also tend to dress soberly and conventionally. They may go for the trappings of rich living, but they are rarely flash or even seem to enjoy their money. What I think they do enjoy is the fight, the competition."

In the final run of the serial, Sir Edward married Polly, a social-climber, but died shortly after a failed attempt to mend fences with his son.

Davenport was born in Cambridgeshire, the son of a bursar of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. His "dodgy" eyes, as he called them, were the result of a childhood squint and an operation to correct them as an adult was to have little effect. He attended St Peter's School, Seaford, East Sussex, and Cheltenham College, before beginning a degree in philosophy, politics and economics at Trinity College, Oxford. Then, on the advice of his moral tutor, who recognised Davenport's acting talents, he switched to English.

His roles for Oxford University Dramatic Society included Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream. During National Service in Germany with the Royal Army Service Corps, he was a disc jockey on the British Forces Network.

On graduating from Oxford with an MA, Davenport went straight into the West End to play the Hon Peter Ingleton in the Noël Coward play Relative Values (Savoy Theatre, 1952). A year later, he spent a season at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, before two years (1954-5) with the repertory company at the Chesterfield Civic Theatre.

With this experience behind him, Davenport became a founding member of the English Stage Company. In its first season at the Royal Court Theatre (1956), his roles included Captain Walcott in The Mulberry Bush, Thomas Putnam in The Crucible and Quack in The Country Wife. Staying with the company, at the advent of the "new wave" in British theatre, he acted Barney Evans in the John Osborne play Epitaph for George Dillon (1958) and Mr Marango in Arnold Wesker's The Kitchen (1959).

He drew wider notices as Peter - wealthy boyfriend of the single mother - in Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop production of the groundbreaking play A Taste of Honey (Theatre Royal, Stratford, transferring to Wyndham's and Criterion theatres, 1959). The play added its writer, Shelagh Delaney, to the list of Angry Young Men transforming the arts. Davenport was the only cast member to reprise his role on Broadway (Booth and Lyceum theatres, 1960-61).

Although his role in the film version of A Taste of Honey went to Robert Stephens, Davenport found screen roles beginning to come his way. Bit parts in Look Back in Anger (1959) and The Entertainer (1960), adaptations of John Osborne classics, preceded bigger roles. The first significant one was the Duke of Norfolk in A Man for All Seasons (1966), alongside Paul Scofield as Thomas More in Fred Zinnemann's handsome production.

He was busiest on television, playing villains, police officers, doctors and lawyers in popular series. There were as Rodolphe in Madame Bovary (1964), the gentleman farmer Robert Carne, who falls in love with the idealistic, young head teacher, in South Riding (1974), the oil company operations area manager Jim Fraser in Oil Strike North (1975), George III in Prince Regent (1979), Charles Bridgnorth in Bird of Prey (1982) and the yacht-building company owner Jack Hoxton in Don't Rock the Boat (1982-3).

Later, Davenport became the only regular Howards' Way cast member to switch to its producer Gerard Glaister's drama Trainer, appearing in the first series (1991) as the racing stables owner James Brant. He was a keen horseman and reader of Dick Francis thrillers.

His other film roles included Captain Cyril Leech in Play Dirty (1968) Sergeant Driscoll in The Virgin Soldiers (1969) and Stand Up, Virgin Soldiers (1977), Lord Bothwell in Mary, Queen of Scots (1971), George Adamson in Living Free (1972), Colonel Hamilton-Brown in Zulu Dawn (1979) and Major Jack Downing in Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984).

An active member of Equity, Davenport, whose  politics went from the left to Thatcherism, the SDP and back to Labour, was the actors' union's president from 1986 to 1992.

He is survived by his children, Hugo, a writer and Laura, an actress from his first marriage, and Jack, an actor, from his second marriage, to the actress and director Maria Aitken. Both marriages ended in divorce.

Arthur Nigel Davenport, actor: born Great Shelford, Cambridgeshire, 23 May 1928; married 1951 Helena White (divorced 1960; one son, one daughter), 1972 Maria Aitken (divorced  1981; one son); died 25 October 2013.

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