Obituary: Richard Vernon
Saturday 13 December 1997
In an acting career spanning over 40 years, Richard Vernon brought character and distinction, plus a roguish wit and droll humour, to the aristocrats, ministry officials and military men for which his tall, distinguished bearing made him particularly well suited. He will be fondly remembered for such roles as the disapproving bowler-hatted city gent to whom John Lennon says "Give us a kiss" in A Hard Day's Night, the eccentric white- haired Slartibartfast of The Hitch- Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, or more recently Joanna Lumley's father in Class Act.
Born in Reading in 1925, he was educated at Leighton Park and Reading School. His family had a seagoing background, and Vernon's love of sailing equalled his passion for acting. At 18, he enlisted in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve and served during the final months of the Second World War. Stationed in Kowloon at the war's end, he produced, directed and starred in a production of Shaw's Heartbreak House for the Combined Services Club, causing his commanding officer to comment at the end of his service, "Vernon is an excellent dinghy helmsman and amateur actor: in his spare time he performs his duties satisfactorily."
After training at the Central School of Speech and Drama, Vernon made his London stage debut in 1950 in the play Stratton, and three years later had great success as Mr Darling (one of his favourite roles) in Peter Pan at the Scala. Other West End successes included Any Other Business (1959, as Charles Parkin MP), and an effectively droll comic performance as Richard Greatham in the 1968 revival of Coward's Hay Fever.
His screen career gained momentum in the Sixties with roles in such films as Village of the Damned (1960), the Edgar Wallace thriller Clue of the Twisted Candle (1960), Losey's The Servant (1963) and in 1964 three major films, Asquith's The Yellow Rolls Royce and the superior Bond movie Goldfinger (as a ministry official), not to mention his memorable cameo in the Beatles film.
On radio his many roles included Lord Emsworth in several P.G. Wodehouse serials, but it was on television that Vernon found greatest fame. In 1965 he starred in the comedy-thriller series The Man in Room 17, in which he and Michael Aldridge were two spy seekers who tracked their quarry from the seclusion of Room 17 by means of their superior intellects. Subsequently Vernon was featured in such great successes as Upstairs Downstairs (1971- 75), Edward the Seventh (1975), The Duchess of Duke Street (1976-77), and, with waist-length hair and strikingly garbed in flowing robes, the eccentric Slartibartfast in the science-fiction satire The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy (1981).
In 1955, while acting in Canterbury, he married an actress in the company, Benedicta Leigh, by whom he had two children, a boy and a girl. In the mid-Seventies he toured with Phyllis Calvert in The Reluctant Debutante and later roles included the films The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976) and Gandhi (1982), the play Pack of Lies (1983) and on television John Mortimer's epic series chronicling English life since the Forties, Paradise Postponed (1986), and such series as Casualty and Lovejoy.
Vernon continued acting until the onset of Parkinson's two years ago. In 1986, while appearing with David Jason in the West End revival of the farce Dry Rot, Vernon was featured on This Is Your Life in which the actress Wendy Craig, who starred with him in the television series Nanny (1981), testified to his genial nature and commented, "He had the wickedest twinkle of any actor I've ever worked with."
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