A hard act to follow

profile Peter Vaughan He's done his time, he's grafted, now he's stolen the show, says Marianne Macdonald

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CURIOUS how one small part can catapult you into public consciousness after a lifetime of fine acting. Peter Vaughan has a curriculum vitae quite breathtaking in its scope and quality, yet it wasn't until he played an old man with Alzheimer's that the public sat up and took notice.

That happened on Monday, when Our Friends In The North, the BBC's epic saga chronicling the lives of four Geordies from adolescence to middle age, ended with a performance so masterly that it both stole the show and left its audience gasping in astonished admiration.

Vaughan was playing Felix Hutchinson, Christopher Ecclestone's ageing, disillusioned and estranged father. In previous episodes Vaughan had played the part he has always played: a hard man - distant, repressed, intimidating. Last Monday, that all changed. For once the actor famed for playing villains became vulnerable: witless, child-like, he stared blankly at the wall as a nurse changed his nappy.

"You wouldn't have been at all surprised to see him playing Felix if Felix had stayed as he was: a strong man, a father, a part in someone else's story," observes Peter Flannery, who wrote Our Friends. "This time he's been given a part which goes way beyond that and he's grabbed it with both hands as if to say `Look what I can do!'."

And boy, he can. Of course, the acting world will hasten to remind you that they always knew he could - look at his performance in Brazil, Straw Dogs, The French Lieutenant's Woman, Citizen Smith, Bleak House, Oliver Twist, Porridge - even, if you want to go right back to his first stage break, in Entertaining Mr Sloane. But like an eternal bridesmaid, the 72-year-old Vaughan has never before knelt at the altar of stardom. Always he has played the father, brother, or villain while his co-stars have swanned on to, or continued in, the big time: examples like Frank Sinatra, Diana Dors, Donald Pleasence, Robert De Niro, Emma Thompson and Bob Hoskins spring to mind.

He denies it, naturally, but this must be galling to a man of such pride and ambition. Or is it? "One of the strengths of being a character actor is that you don't have to be the leading actor all the time," he answers ambiguously. And: "It means I can go and do a week's work on a film without affecting my life." But his first wife, the actress Billie Whitelaw, suggests otherwise. During their messy and unsuccessful marriage, she claims to have refused interviews because her success upset him. "I could see him beginning to grow more and more resentful."

PETER VAUGHAN was born in Shropshire but brought up in north Staffordshire. His father was a bank clerk and his mother a nurse, although she did not work. The couple were unhappy and geographic- ally unsettled. They separated briefly soon after Peter was born, but then stayed together without having any more children. According to Whitelaw, they lived a "highly respectable middle-class existence".

Vaughan admits that as a child he was a loner. At Uttoxeter grammar he failed to shine in any subject other than drama, and as soon as he could, just as the Second World War began, he joined Wolverhampton Rep. The move had the blessing of his father, who merely informed his 16-year- old son that from then on he would have to pay his own way.

The apprenticeship was rudely interrupted, however, when Vaughan got his call-up in 1942. He was sent to Ossett in Yorkshire to be trained, an experience he recalls with characteristic understatement as "pretty hard, actually". It was freezing cold and the young recruits had to sleep in an old mill, where they whiled away the long nights by sitting on their beds with bayonets trying to stab the rats.

After Ossett came Catterick, where things improved slightly. Vaughan discovered the garrison was full of actors, not to mention a professional dance orchestra, so he put on plays. Later he was made an officer and sent to Normandy and Belgium. He says this period was "terrifying" but, as with all matters personal, he cannot, or will not, explain exactly why.

Vaughan seems to have had a way of turning almost anything around to help him pursue his passion for acting. For example, he ended up in front of a class as a Morse code instructor and then, in Malaysia, forged a career as a newsreader while repairing telephone lines. It was in Singapore that the true suffering of the war hit home. "Changi jail was where the prisoners of war had been. We saw these remnants of British prisons and the people coming out of forced labour camps. It left me with a feeling of absolute horror at mankind," he recalls, adding grimly: "It doesn't seem to have got much better."

After the war he picked up the threads of his old life at Wolverhampton, then Birmingham Rep. Soon he was getting small parts in London. It was in 1952, in a play at the tiny Gateway Theatre in Notting Hill, that he met the young and beautiful Billie Whitelaw. This was before she became Beckett's strangulated muse, but when she was becoming famous for television parts including a very daring series for its day called Patterns of Marriage. Vaughan asked Whitelaw out to lunch at the next-door pub and before she knew it they ended up in bed.

"I had not intended this to happen, nor indeed wanted it to happen. I was sexually naive," the actress confided in her autobiography. "I was still in my teens and, although not aware of it at the time, still grieving for my father. Peter was nearly 30, `an older man'. I now felt I was his. I belonged to him. That's how I drifted into the relationship called marriage."

IT WAS not a success. Whitelaw's mother described the ad hoc wedding at Kensington Registry Office as a "hole-in-the-corner affair", and one can see why. Vaughan refused to have a reception, and his parents refused to come. The four guests celebrated with a drink at the pub and then the groom treated his new wife to a nuptial banquet of spaghetti and chips.

Although there was mutual affection, the pair could not have been worse suited. Whitelaw was highly strung, scatter-brained, unfaithful. Vaughan, she claims, did not "really have it in his nature to be gentle or tender". But the biggest problem, according to Whitelaw, was her success. "As I got more and more work, Peter's difficulty in dealing with this was starting to show. He became increasingly aggressive, and his anger made me nervous," she wrote in her book. In a poignant anecdote, the actress describes spending her 21st birthday with him in Birmingham. "For some reason he wouldn't tell anyone it was my birthday, let alone my 21st. I had a miserable day."

Amazingly, the couple stayed together for 12 years and only divorced after Vaughan fell in love with someone else. Whitelaw does not say who this was, and Vaughan refuses point-blank to talk about this chapter of his life, so one can only speculate it was Lillias, his present, strong- minded wife of 30 years. Certainly he married her two years later, after a curious period when he oscillated between the new love and the old, and helped bring up Alex and Vicki, Lillias's 11-year-old twin girls.

Without the presence of Whitelaw Vaughan's star began to rise, and in the Sixties and Seventies he landed parts in such then-popular series as Deadline Midnight, a Fleet Street caper in which he played a hard-bitten news editor, The Gold Robbers, in which he was a steely-eyed detective chief inspector, Citizen Smith, and the 1974 series of Porridge, in which he was Harry Grout, the menacing tobacco baron who ran Slade Prison. This is the part most people remember, to Vaughan's disgust. "I have two forms of recognition which slightly miff me," he admits. "One is when people say, `Hello Groutie, are you still acting?' and the other is, `Oh, you're in the James Bond films aren't you?'. I have never been in a James Bond film." And has no plans to be, by the sound of it.

In the Nineties, his parts have got better and better. Recently he acted with Daniel Day Lewis and Winona Ryder in Arthur Miller's The Crucible. This month he is playing a racist redneck in Twelve Angry Men at the Bristol Old Vic - it opens at the Comedy Theatre in London on 11 April - under the direction of the august Harold Pinter, who commends his "extraordinary ferocity and integrity" as an actor. Next to come to the public's attention will be the film of the bestselling Nazi thriller Fatherland, co-starring Miranda Richardson and Rutger Hauer.

Evidently Vaughan is a workaholic, although his son-in-law Gregor Fisher (otherwise known as the comic actor Rab C Nesbitt) reports that he does not talk about "the business" at home. Home is for drinking wine, indulging in weird diets and walking two ferocious looking German shepherds. What, I ask Fisher, is the stage villain like off-stage? "Oh," he says, laughing uproariously, "he's a cantankerous old git. But one of the nicest cantankerous old gits I know."

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