Donald Pickering: Character actor who played three roles in 'Dr Who' and Douglas Hurd in 'Who Bombed Birmingham?'

Wednesday 03 February 2010 01:00

Although he was one of those character actors whose face was familiar to millions on television while his name remained elusive, Donald Pickering occasionally stepped out of the shadows to take leading roles. It was his misfortune that two of them did not give him the exposure for which he might have hoped.

In 1974, he was cast as the cynical, snobbish Adolphus "Dolly" Longstaffe in The Pallisers, a 26-part BBC adaptation by Simon Raven of Anthony Trollope's novels. The tale of a Victorian aristocratic family's lives and political ambitions, spread over 20 years, was dubbed "Son of Forsyte" by some but failed to capture the imagination of viewers in the same way as The Forsyte Saga had done. The series even featured one of the stars of that previous drama, Susan Hampshire – playing the flighty Lady Glencora – alongside Philip Latham as Plantagenet.

Part of the programme's failure to attract a large audience was the power cuts the country suffered during a winter of industrial disputes and the three-day week. This was compunded by the screening of the final two episodes five months late after strikes at the BBC meant that they could not be completed on time. As the series dragged on, viewers disappeared, despite some witty scripts and a cast of well drawn comic creations.

Pickering's character – described by the Oxford Reader's Companion to Trollope as being "lazy, dim-witted and contrary", "devoted chiefly to playing cards and smoking cigars" – was certainly one of those. He was also pivotal in Raven's adaptation, frequently recapping what has gone before and putting current storylines into context.

Six years later, Pickering appeared to have landed a plum role when he played Dr Watson in the television series Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson (1980), but the Polish-American production, shot in Warsaw with Geoffrey Whitehead as Arthur Conan Doyle's detective, was never screened in his homeland.

However, Doctor Who aficionados will recall a hat-trick of guest appearances by Pickering in the sci-fi serial over almost a quarter of a century. In the story "The Keys of Marinus" (1964), alongside William Hartnell in the first incarnation of the Time Lord, he played the court prosecutor Eyesen, who gets the Doctor's companion Ian Chesterton (William Russell) convicted of murder – until the advocate himself is discovered to have framed the defendant.

Then, in "The Faceless Ones" (1967), with Patrick Troughton as the Doctor, Pickering took the role of Blade, a captain with Chameleon Tours, whose young holidaymakers disappear after being enticed by its package deals. Twenty years later, in "Time and the Rani" (1987) – the first Doctor Who story with Sylvester McCoy in the title role – the actor played Beyus, the leader of the Lakertyan race, forced to become a servant of the Doctor's arch rival The Rani (Kate O'Mara).

Born in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1933, Pickering made his stage début in The Comedy of Errors at the Old Vic School Theatre in 1951. He subsequently acted with repertory companies in Oldham, Canterbury, Farnham, Liverpool and Derby. In the West End, he appeared in Poor Bitos (Duke of York's Theatre, 1964), Conduct Unbecoming (Queen's Theatre, 1969), The Case in Question (Haymarket Theatre, 1975) and Our Song (Apollo Theatre, 1992).

He reprised his role as Captain Rupert Harper in Conduct Unbecoming on Broadway (Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 1970-71), earning a nomination for a Tony Award as Best Supporting or Featured Actor (Dramatic). He had previously appeared on Broadway as Sir Harry Bumper in a revival of The School for Scandal (Majestic Theatre, 1963, directed by John Gielgud).

Pickering made his screen début in the Television Playhouse production of Ted Willis's Woman in a Dressing Gown (1956), playing Brian Preston, a teenager who sees the effects of his father's affair on his mother. Dozens of television roles followed, including Metellus in Androcles and the Lion (1960), Simon Bliss in Hay Fever (1960), Charles de Beavoisis in The Scarlet and the Black (1965), Dr Penberthy in Lord Peter Wimsey: The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1973), Lucullus in The Cleopatras and Hallows in Return to Treasure Island (1986).

He also played Douglas Hurd, the real-life Foreign Secretary, in Who Bombed Birmingham? (1990), an ITV drama-documentary that helped to secure the release of those wrongfully imprisoned for the 1974 IRA Birmingham pub bombings.

Throughout his career, Pickering had one-off character roles in popular series such as The Saint (two parts, 1964, 1966), The Avengers (two parts, 1967, 1969), The Professionals (1982), and later, Heartbeat (2001) and Holby City (2004).

Although his first two films, Carry on Admiral (1957, not related to the "Carry On" series), and Doctor at Large (1957) were both comedies, most of Pickering's big-screen roles were in dramas. They included a television announcer in the director François Truffaut's futuristic Fahrenheit 451 (1966), Lieutenant Colonel Mackenzie in A Bridge Too Far (1977) and the sycophantic Major Russell in Zulu Dawn (1979). The actor never married.

Anthony Hayward

Donald Ellis Pickering, actor: born Newcastle upon Tyne 15 November 1933; died Eastleach, Gloucestershire 19 December 2009.

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