James Bree: Actor seen in 'On Her Majesty's Secret Service' and 'Dr Who'

Friday 06 March 2009 01:00

James Bond film lovers will recall the character actor James Bree as Gumbold, one of the arch-villain Blofeld's henchmen in On Her Majesty's Secret Service, the only 007 picture to star George Lazenby as the British Secret Service agent.

Gumbold, a Swiss attorney, helps Blofeld to pass himself off as the Comte de Bleauchamp, whose treatment clinic for women with allergies is a front for a plot to destroy the world's agricultural economy. In the end, it is documents stolen by Bond from Gumbold's safe that lead him to Blofeld.

Bree's screen time in the 1969 picture, for which he donned spectacles, was short – but as a character actor he was used to making the most of fleeting appearances. Doctor Who aficionados will remember him for three different roles in the BBC science-fiction series, alongside three incarnations of the Time Lord, played by Patrick Troughton, Tom Baker and Colin Baker.

In "The War Games" series of episodes (1969), Bree played a security chief who interrogates the Doctor's assistant Zoe (Wendy Padbury), using a helmet-like device to probe her mind, but is eventually killed. He returned in "Full Circle" (1980) as Ragen Nefred, one of the three "Deciders" running a colony in space. Finally, the actor had to endure being kicked in the private parts by Bonnie Langford, as the Doctor's companion Mel, in "The Ultimate Foe" (1986), in which he played the Keeper of the Matrix as the Doctor is put on trial for his life by other Time Lords.

The actor was born James Rutherfoord Worsfold Thomson in Somerset in 1923. He changed his name to Thomson-Bree on inheriting land in Warwickshire that had belonged to his great-uncle, Archdeacon William Bree, and became patron of the benefice and rectory of Allesley. He would also use Bree as his stage name.

After attending Radley College, in Oxfordshire, and serving in the RAF at the end of the Second World War, he trained as an actor at the Central School of Speech and Drama (1947-49), where he won the Fogarty Prize for Best Performance. Bree acted in repertory theatre in Leatherhead before making his West End début in The Love of Four Colonels (Wyndham's Theatre), understudying and eventually replacing Peter Ustinov. He followed it with stage roles in The Matchmaker (directed by Tyrone Guthrie, Haymarket Theatre), The Devil's Disciple (Winter Garden), Camino Real (Phoenix Theatre) and The Visit (directed by Peter Brook, Royalty Theatre, 1958).

When the director Peter Hall set up the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1960, Bree joined it and played Tranio in The Taming of the Shrew, Nestor in Troilus and Cressida and the Old Shepherd in The Winter's Tale. Two years later, after the company had established a London base at the Aldwych Theatre, Bree appeared there in The Duchess of Malfi, Ondine, The Devils, As You Like It, The Caucasian Chalk Circle and A Penny for a Song (with Judi Dench playing his daughter).

By then, he already had experience in television, appearing in an adaptation of the John Vanbrugh Restoration comedy The Relapse, or, Virtue in Danger (starring Moira Lister and Michael Gough, 1954) – taking three parts, Tug, Bull and Syringe, in the live broadcast.

Other roles followed in Great Expectations and The School for Scandal (both 1959), before Bree became a prolific bit-part player in a raft of popular series such as The Avengers (1963), No Hiding Place (1963), Z Cars (in which he played three characters, 1964, 1969, 1972), Upstairs Downstairs (1971), On the Buses (1971), The Professionals (1978), The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1986) and The Ruth Rendell Mysteries (1998). He was frequently cast as detectives, doctors, priests and military officers.

In ITV's sumptuous, 1984 adaptation of The Jewel in the Crown, based on Paul Scott's novel sequence "The Raj Quartet", a mustachioed Bree played Uncle Arthur, the British Army officer who with his wife, the Layton girls' Aunt Fenny (Rosemary Leach), is first seen travelling to the younger sister Susan's wedding. Later, Fenny persuades Arthur to bring some of his junior officers to dinner to meet the elder sister, Sarah, in an attempt to find her a husband, feeling that her less than positive attitude towards British rule in India might be putting off potential suitors.

Earlier, the actor was seen as Gaston Colbert, the Belgian resistance operative supplying forged and stolen documents to Allied airmen shot down by the Luftwaffe, in the first series of Secret Army (1977). He also attended fan conventions for The Prisoner, the cult television series starring Patrick McGoohan, in which he made an appearance in 1968.

A stroke suffered 10 years ago rendered Bree speechless. His long-time partner, Albert Yates, died in 2006.

Anthony Hayward

James Rutherfoord Worsfold Thomson-Bree (James Bree), actor: born East Coker, Somerset 20 July 1923; died London 1 December 2008.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments