Peter Copley: Prolific character actor whose career lasted more than 70 years

Peter Copley was a leading British character actor whose career spanned an astonishing eight decades. Alongside a prolific stage career dominated by Shakespeare and other classics, he notched up more than 150 screen performances in a range of roles from the meek to the villainous.

Most were one-offs, but he will be remembered particularly by television viewers as the wise, old Abbot Heribert in the first series of the murder mystery Cadfael (1994), starring Derek Jacobi as the 12th-century monk who turns sleuth at Shrewsbury Abbey, in stories based on Ellis Peters's novels. Loose in his interpretation of holy orders, Heribert encouraged Cadfael to pursue his investigations until he himself was summoned by the Church authorities and replaced by a new abbot.

Born the son of two artists in Bushey, Hertfordshire, in 1915, Copley trained at the Old Vic School in London, before joining the company at the Old Vic Theatre (1932-34), where he made his professional début as the Gaoler in The Winter's Tale. His first West End role was as the Footman in Viceroy Sarah (Whitehall Theatre, 1935).

Copley's first film appearance was in the short Tell Me If It Hurts (1934), as a waiter in the whimsical tale of a diner damaging a tooth at a respectable restaurant. He then had a small role in the army comedy-drama Farewell Again (1937), starring Leslie Banks and Flora Robson.

Shortly after the outbreak of war, he joined the Royal Navy (1940-41) but, as a result of previously undergoing surgery for stomach problems, left through illness after just a few months spent at a training camp and Chatham dockyard. As a result, he acted at the Oxford Playhouse (1941), then toured with the actor-manager Donald Wolfit's company before performing in London theatres during the war.

When peacetime came, Copley rejoined the Old Vic Theatre company, which was staging its productions at the New Theatre following the devastation that its own building hadsuffered during the Blitz. With previous experience as a fencer and fight arranger, he choreographed theclimactic duel between Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson, as the king and Richmond, in Richard III (1944), before taking acting roles himself (1945-50) – most prominently as Edmund in King Lear (to Olivier's Lear) and Laertes in Hamlet (with Michael Redgrave playing the prince). Copley also appeared with the company in a season of plays on Broadway (New Century Theatre, 1946).

Throughout the 1950s he combined stage work with screen appearances. His many films included The Elusive Pimpernel (alongside David Niven, 1950), the Mary Tudor biopic The Sword and the Rose (as the novelist Edwin Caskoden, 1953), Foreign Intrigue (with Robert Mitchum, 1956) and the comedy Just My Luck (starring Norman Wisdom, 1957).

But it was television that keptCopley increasingly busy. As well as popping up in episodes of series such as No Hiding Place (1960), Maigret (1960), Danger Man (1964) and The Avengers (1968), he acted the Rev Hilary Charwell in The Forsyte Saga (1967), Cedric Maddocks in the political drama Bill Brand (1976), a priest in Anna Karenina (1978), George in the sitcom Never Say Die, set in sheltered flats for the elderly (1987) and Robinson in Andrew Davies's adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell's novel Wives and Daughters (1999).

He took various roles in Crown Court (1973-78), including a judge and a police inspector. He described the law as "a hobby", having been called to the Bar in 1963. He was also in the films Help! (1965), The Knack... and how to get it (1965), The Jokers, as a lawyer (1966) and Empire of the Sun (1987).

Copley's later stage roles included Beauchamp in the original production of Tom Stoppard's play Artist Descending a Staircase (Duke of York's Theatre, 1988-89) and Firs in The Cherry Orchard (Albery Theatre, 1996-97), as well as many with the Royal Shakespeare Company.

He was also a prolific performer with the Bristol Old Vic Theatre company (1983-88 and 1992-95), for which he starred as Mr Voysey in The Voysey Inheritance. Copley lived in Bristol, where the University of the West of England awarded him an Honorary Degree of Master of Arts in 2001.

Anthony Hayward

Peter Copley, actor: born Bushey, Hertfordshire 20 May 1915; called to the Bar (Middle Temple) 1963; married firstly Pamela Brown (died 1975; marriage dissolved), secondly Ninka Dolega (one daughter; marriage dissolved), thirdly Margaret Tabor (one stepson, one stepdaughter); died Bristol 7 October 2008.

peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
Arts and Entertainment
Highs and lows of the cast's careers since 2004
New Articles
i100... with this review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
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

Cover Supervisor

£75 - £90 per day + negotiable: Randstad Education Group: Are you a cover supe...

Marketing Manager - Leicestershire - £35,000

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (CIM, B2B, MS Offi...

Marketing Executive (B2B and B2C) - Rugby, Warwickshire

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organisation wit...

SEN Coordinator + Teacher (SENCO)

£1 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Job Purpose To work closely with the he...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
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