John Woodnutt

Character actor cast as TV villains

Gavin Gaughan
Tuesday 31 January 2006 01:00

John Woodnutt, actor: born London 3 March 1924; twice married (two sons, three daughters); died Northwood, Middlesex 2 January 2006.

John Woodnutt was one of the most prolific character actors from the golden age of television drama, his long, thin face well suited to expressing disapproval, particularly as cold officials or implacable villains.

Making his début with one line at the Oxford Playhouse as an 18-year-old walk-on, he progressed to Shakespearean work under Robert Atkins at the open-air theatre in Regent's Park, and made one of his earliest television appearances in One (1956), "a story of the foreseeable future", broadcast live on the still new ITV. But he became more familiar in a succession of adventure serials shown in early evenings as part of the BBC's children's television slot, usually on Sundays. He was an evil spy in The Black Brigand (1956) from Alexandre Dumas, while Queen's Champion (1958) was written and produced by Shaun Sutton, later Head of BBC Drama. The cast also included Patrick Troughton, Patrick Cargill, the future "Q" Desmond Llewellyn and a very young Jane Asher. Just four months later, Woodnutt was back, in a Cornish swashbuckler, The Rebel Heiress (1958), and was then strangely cast as a Native American in a western, The Cabin in the Clearing (1959).

For a more mature audience, he was in two plays produced by James MacTaggart, whose name lives on in the Edinburgh Television Festival's annual lectures. The Cross and the Arrow (1962) had him as a Labour Front leader in Second World War Germany, while Comrade Jacob (1962), about the social radical Gerrard Winstanley, featured Woodnutt as his opponent Parson Platt, who believed that "in these turbulent times, rough justice may be God's justice".

Woodnutt made five appearances on Z Cars and one on its sister series Softly Softly. In The Avengers (1966), he communicated only by gurgling and whistling; he was also in two of its imitators, Adam Adamant Lives! (1966) and The Corridor People (1966). Other guest roles included The Saint, Public Eye, Dixon of Dock Green, No Hiding Place, Callan, The Sweeney (as a drunken underworld doctor) and the BBC's under-rated 1965 Sherlock Holmes (with Douglas Wilmer as Holmes), as well as Granada's more famous 1980s version (with Jeremy Brett in the title role).

He did three "Wednesday Plays", the first two for MacTaggart; The Portsmouth Defence and Little Master Mind (both 1966), as a barrister in two legal satires, then a snobbish, pipe-smoking and ultimately trouserless father in Peter Nichols's The Gorge (1968). The only time he ever had top billing was in a Thirty-Minute Theatre for BBC2, Two and Two Make Twenty-Two (1967), as a released political prisoner with an unfaithful wife.

He appeared in four Doctor Who stories, beginning with Jon Pertwee's début "Spearhead From Space" (1970), also the first in colour, later playing scaly, pointy-headed aliens in "Frontier in Space" (1973) and "Terror of the Zygons" (1975), before being cast as an elder in Tom Baker's penultimate story, "The Keeper of Traken" (1981). In the same vein, he did the extremely silly The Tomorrow People (1973), and was a villainous Thin Man in The Boy from Space (1971).

After playing Mr Archibald Craven, Mary Lennox's uncle, in The Secret Garden (1975), he did several of the producer (and his former co-star) Barry Letts's Sunday-evening BBC classic serials: Sense and Sensibility (1981), Stalky & Co (1982) and The Pickwick Papers (1985). In Leslie Woodhead's impressive drama-documentary Invasion (1980) he took the part of Kosygin.

Woodnutt personified the Cambridge old guard as the Senior Tutor in Tom Sharpe's Porterhouse Blue (1987), then had a memorable recurring role as the fearsome retired magistrate Sir Watkyn Bassett in Jeeves and Wooster (1990-93).

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