Terence Rigby: Actor admired by Harold Pinter

With his burly physique, deep voice, and a special gift for suggesting underlying menace, Terence Rigby had a stage and screen career included several memorable heavies and monsters. On sceen he was a London villain in Get Carter (1971), opposed James Bond as Bukharin in Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) and was a memorably brooding Stalin – a part he had played previously in the theatre – in Testimony (1988).

But Rigby, always popular with fellow actors (a superb raconteur, many of his stories acquired during "resting" stints behind the Royal Opera House's artistes' bar), had a remarkably wide range. He often played sympathetic policemen – most regularly as the dog-handler PC Snow in Softly, Softly (he appeared in more than 80 episodes of the TV series between 1967and 1976) – and he gave richly detailed performances in classic serials, including a gloriously ripe Pumblechook in the 1999 Great Expectations and a touchingly dogged Dr Watson (to Tom Baker's Holmes) in a mini-series of The Hound of the Baskervilles (1981). On stage his work ran a wide gamut, from Shakespeare to musicals, Samuel Beckett, and particularly noteworthy, in the plays of Harold Pinter, who greatly admired Rigby's work.

Rigby's passion for the stage was kindled by school plays, Boy Scouts' concerts and by amateur dramatics during his RAF National Service. Initially he turned away from the insecurities of an actor's life and worked as a quantity surveyor before succumbing to the theatre's lure, training at Rada with an impressive generation including John Thaw and Tom Courtenay.

Like so many fine actors of his era, Rigby gained rich experience from his early work in regional repertory theatre. He worked at Birmingham Rep, where colleagues included the young Derek Jacobi and he played an especially broad range of parts as a founding member of Century Theatre in Keswick. Rigby found a congenial atmosphere when he worked for Theatre Workshop under Joan Littlewood, touring in her production of Lionel Bart's Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be.

Early television appearances included several episodes – as various police constables – in Dixon of Dock Green (1964-67). Before long, Rigby was a familiar television presence, often in episodes of journeyman series and sitcoms, but gradually featuring regularly in prestige enterprises such as his constantly intriguing presence as Roy Bland in John le Carré's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1979), and in Alan Plater's The Beiderbecke Affair (1985) in which he played Big Al in all six episodes, repeating his splendid characterisation in The Beiderbecke Connection (1988).

Rigby's first association with Pinter's work was in The Homecoming. He was appearing in a variety of supporting roles in a less than scintillating Dickens musical, Pickwick (Saville, 1964), when he auditioned (several times) for the forthcoming Pinter production for the Royal Shakespeare Company. His performance of Lenny, one of the brothers in the sweaty all-male north London household of The Homecoming (Aldwych, 1965 and NY 1967) under Peter Hall with a cast of all the talents – Paul Rogers as the patriarch alongside Ian Holm, Michael Bryant, and Vivien Merchant as the intrusive Ruth – was unforgettably slimy, seemingly of little brain until he suddenly took on his philosopher-brother Teddy in a kind of dialectical duel.

Later, when Hall moved to the South Bank, Rigby joined the National Theatre Company for Pinter's No Man's Land (Lyttelton, 1975 and NY 1976). In the luxury home of an ageing, alcoholic literary figure (Sir Ralph Richardson), a visitor (Sir John Gielgud), a dissolute, W.H. Audenish poet, arrives and the play develops into one of Pinter's most absorbingly ambiguous pieces, which gradually reveals that this is no accidental meeting. Equally ambiguous is the relationship between the two mysterious, indeed menacing, servants (Rigby and Michael Feast) guarding the household; this was as magisterial a double-act as the knightly duo, with Rigby delighting the house with a long speech detailing the complex reasons for the impossibility of reaching Bolsover Street by car.

Also at the National, Rigby appeared in Robert Bolt's ambitious play on 1917 Russia, State of Revolution (Lyttelton, 1997). The production was received decidedly grumpily, with some criticism of Bolt for not having written the kind of play critics expected of him. Bolt in fact managed impressively to cover his history without didacticism. Giving Rigby a meaty role as Joseph Stalin, he was rewarded by a superb performance, ursine and occasionally viciously malevolent, but often slyly sardonic.

Later, Rigby spent several lengthy periods in America, on occasion acting in regional theatre there. He worked one last time with Peter Hall when he played a Pozzo of real stature, commandingly authoritative, in Hall's production of Waiting for Godot (2005).

More screen work came Rigby's way in later years. Subsequent movies included Funny Bones (1995), Elizabeth (1998), starring Cate Blanchett, in which he made a brief but powerful impact as Bishop Gardiner, Plunkett and Macleane (1999), Mona Lisa Smile (2003), the fascinating Colour Me Kubrick (2005), and Flick (2007), his final film.

Alan Strachan

Terence Christopher Gerald Rigby, actor: born Birmingham 2 January 1937; died London 10 August 2008.

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