Roger Hammond: Character actor whose Dickensian air was perfect for costume drama
Tuesday 20 November 2012
Despite his enormous presence and generous frame, Roger Hammond, a splendid character actor for 50 years, was a god of small things. His mellifluous voice and delicate mannerisms made him a gift to television, often bringing a Dickensian touch to the quacks, clergymen and statesmen that were his speciality.
Hammond always resisted the hamminess that can come with physical magnitude; indeed, it was his lack of greed as an actor that made him so cherished by his peers. It is a sweet irony that as a child he found that the way to overcome a crippling stammer was by pretending to be someone else: that led him into a 50-year career, the final performance of which was as the doctor who fails to cure the King of that same impediment in the mighty The King's Speech (2010).
Born John Roger Hammond in Stockport, the son of a managing director in the cotton industry, he was educated at King's Drive prep school and Stockport Grammar before winning a place to board at Bryanston School in Dorset. He was successfully scholastically but put most of his energy into school plays, and was given an early break by Cicely Matthews on BBC Children's Hour in the "I Want to be an Actor" slot. After leaving school he was given a summer job at the Library Theatre in Manchester by one of the most insightful talent spotters of the age, David Scuse, a fierce but brilliant artistic director who also helped launch the careers of Leonard Rossiter and Anthony Hopkins.
While reading English at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, he joined the Marlowe Society and fell in with a glorious company that included Derek Jacobi and Trevor Nunn. The company was doing stunning work at this time, partly in rebellion at the fact that there was no drama department at the University. (FR Leavis detested actors' interpretations of Shakespearean roles, preferring to read them than have them staged.) Under the supervision of George "Dadie" Rylands the little company soared breathlessly through a vast roster of plays, and was commissioned by the British Council to record the complete canon of Shakespeare, augmented by visiting luminaries such as Gielgud and Ashcroft.
From these heights Hammond went to Rada, where he shared a flat with his Marlowe Society friend, Ian McKellen. Another fellow student, Martin Jarvis, warmly remembers "summer lunchtimes soaking up the sun on the roof of Roger's King's Road flat". This was an exciting time to be a young actor with good prospects.
Hammond was a great children's entertainer, and indeed his London debut, after a spell in repertory in Suffolk, was at the Unicorn Theatre Club in 1963, a theatre which specialised in pantomime and plays for young audiences. Later he would delight children on screen with roles for the Children's Film Foundation and in series such as Catweazle and Doctor Who, and as Father Christmas, in Tom's Christmas Tree (2006). Later stage credits include originating the role of Sir George Baker in Alan Bennett's The Madness of George III at the Lyttleton Theatre in 1991, a part he reprised for the 1993 film, and Donado in Alan Ayckbourn's production of 'Tis Pity She's A Whore at the Olivier in 1988.
Television cottoned on to him fast, and he could always be relied upon for idiosyncratic support in popular shows of the day from The Avengers (1967) to Softly Softly (1969). Blessed with an air of a figure from some bygone age made him particularly busy in costume drama: a chivalrous Prince of Wales in The Duchess of Duke Street (1976), Sir Harold Nicholson in Edward and Mrs Simpson (1978) and Sir Ronald Braithwaite in The Glittering Prizes (1976) among others.
He made good use of that Dickensian tint in an excellent Little Dorrit for the BBC in 1988 and was a splendid Jabez Wilson in Granada's dramatisation of The Red-Headed League for The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes in 1984, note-perfect as a kindly, mild-mannered pawnbroker who pours his bizarre tale out to Holmes and Watson only for them to laugh their heads off. In a slimier vein, he was a deliciously decadent Chief Augur in Rome (2005), and even turned up as one of the most odious villains ever to trouble Minder (1984), an agoraphobic and sadistic bookmaker who gets his come-uppance when forced to collect his debts in the middle of a football pitch.
His finest hour on television was as Waffles in "Uncle Vanya", recorded for the BBC2 Performance strand in 1991. Hammond brought genuine pathos and gentle humour to his portrayal of the terminally decent man who has remained faithful to his wife ever since she jilted him on their wedding day. On the big screen appeared alongside Steve Coogan in Around the World in 80 Days (2004), Scarlett Johansson in A Good Woman (2004), and McKellen and Robert Downey Jr in Richard Loncraine's Richard III (1995).
He was also forever popping up by surprise in comedy shows, from Drop the Dead Donkey (1995), where he stole the final episode with a single line, to One Foot in the Grave (1990), in which he sat in an eye-clinic waiting room squinting grotesquely and responding with impeccable timing to the line "Susan's gone into hospital with a woman's problem" with "My brother suffers with that."
Leaving behind a delightful gallery of performances, Hammond exemplified the best qualities of a character actor: never a star, but always twinkling.
John Roger Hammond, actor: born Stockport 21 March 1936, married Helen Weir 1968 (divorced 1975; one son) died London 8 November 2012.
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