David Morris: Actor who made his dbut at 79

David Cedric Morris, painter, lecturer and actor: born Folkestone, Kent 11 September 1924; married 1957 Olwen Goodwin (two sons, two daughters); died Watford, Hertfordshire 29 October 2007

Thursday 06 December 2007 01:00

David Morris played Grandpa George in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Tim Burton's colourful but sinister 2005 film adaptation of Roald Dahl's much-loved children's book. Cinemagoers saw him lying in an old bed alongside the actress Liz Smith, top-and-tailed with David Kelly and Eileen Essell, all playing the elderly grandparents of Charlie (Freddie Highmore).

It was a darker screen version of the Dahl story than that scripted by the author himself for Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory 34 years earlier, with the story transplanted from a bright, cheerful Bavarian city to a grim mill town in England and the poverty of Charlie's family evident for all to see.

The film was also the pinnacle of Morris's second career as an actor after spending all his working life painting and teaching art. However, for years he had mounted his own Shakespearean productions in the "Bottom Theatre", the barn studio at the end of his garden in Buckinghamshire. He saw Grandpa George as "a loving curmudgeon a bit like King Lear, in fact".

Morris's chance to turn professional had come when a television director friend, Sandy Johnson, cast him in an episode of the murder-mystery series Jonathan Creek (2004) at the age of 79. "It was proving impossible to find an aged actor to play the part of a wizened-looking old man who could remember a lot of lines, important plot stuff," recalled Johnson.

Eventually, I sugggested to the producer, Verity Lambert, and the writer, David Renwick, that we should meet my friend David Morris, an "amateur actor" who looked right and seemed to have a photographic memory. He came into TV Centre, charmed us all with his performance, got the part and started a new career as an actor.

In between that first appearance and his film fame, Morris was seen in the cult TV series Little Britain (2004), as the Welsh postman delivering letters to Matt Lucas's "only gay in the village".

Born in Folkestone, Kent, in 1924, Morris was nine when he won a choral scholarship to Magdalen College School, Oxford, where he became head chorister, head boy, rugby captain and editor of the school magazine. Subsequently studying English at Magdalen College, he was tutored by C.S. Lewis.

After beginning wartime Army service in 1941, Morris typically opted for the rank of private rather than that of an honorary officer. The horrors that he witnessed and the death of his brother, strafed by an Italian plane in the North African desert, led him to become a peace campaigner.

On finishing his studies at Oxford, he turned his back on a planned academic or political career to become a painter, having been influenced by the portrait and landscape artist Peter Greenham, who was later to become Keeper of the Royal Academy Schools. He studied for two years at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris and then stayed in France, painting and teaching at schools in Orleans and Arles. He subsequently lectured in Oxford, London and Brighton, and taught in the Royal Academy Schools for 20 years.

Over more than half a century, he painted portraits and landscapes all over the world, with some exhibited by the Royal Portrait Society and the Royal Academy. One of his favourite places was Dieppe, where he had bought a house shortly after the end of the war and enjoyed painting seascapes. An active CND member and organiser of the first "Artists for Peace" exhibition in London, Morris also developed a love of acting, reflected in the productions he staged at his home.

After his screen dbut in Jonathan Creek, he appeared in the television play When I'm 64 (2004), as the dying father of a retired teacher (Alun Armstrong) who had hoped to see the world after decades at a boys' school. He also acted in A Very Social Secretary (2005), the television dramatisation of David Blunkett's affair with his diary secretary; the Steve Coogan sitcom Saxondale (2006); and the short film The 400th Fly! (2006), playing the neighbour who kills a girl's pet fly.

Morris wrote an unpublished autobiography, "Luminous Shadows", which offers a view on British art, life, love and spirituality from the 1930s to the present day.

Anthony Hayward

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