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Jonathan Adams

Narrator in the original 'Rocky Horror Show'

Wednesday 22 June 2005 00:00 BST

John Adams (Jonathan Adams), artist and actor: born Northampton 14 February 1931; married 1969 Julia Vezza (marriage dissolved 1976); died London 13 June 2005.

As a boy in Northampton Jonathan Adams happened to see the 1920 film The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and he decided there and then he wanted to be an actor or an artist. In the event he became both. Art and acting struggled for supremacy for much of his early life but eventually complemented one another - and he was never a bored "rester". As an actor he is best remembered for creating the part of the Narrator in The Rocky Horror Show. As an artist, his last exhibition, "Jonathan Adams in Wonderland", opened in London at the Riverside Studios, Hammersmith, in April.

It all began in his Northampton Grammar School days when he set up the "Ramblers Acting Company" (with himself in the lead roles) and published a short-lived Boy's Own-type magazine in which his own stories owe much to Edgar Allan Poe. He also fabricated a sort of camera obscura through which he beamed images on to paper which then served as a base for his first, surreal drawings and paintings.

Leaving school at 16, he enrolled at Northampton Art School - strongly supported by his school art master, David Gommon, a painter of note who became his lifelong friend. Here he tried unsuccessfully to infiltrate the Dada and Surrealist ideas already attracting him and seems to have had a good word for only one of his teachers, Alicia Boyle, though it was she who warned him against dissipating his efforts in two major passions.

After four unsatisfactory years at Northampton he was accepted by Chelsea School of Art in London, where his teachers included Prunella Clough and his favourite, Ceri Richards, "an exciting, eclectic quasi Surrealist". Socially and artistically Chelsea spelled freedom of a sort Adams had not known in Northampton, where he had struggled to express his teenage tensions, despair (his mother died, after a long illness, wheelchair-bound, when he was only 16) and the ever-present black humour which was as much part of his character as the "black dog" depressions that early affected him.

Chelsea liberated him and from his King's Road base opposite Peter Ustinov's he would sally forth to the exuberant parties of the "Arty Set", some of them at Liz Frink's Oakley Street flat, observing, en route, that "master of poise and pose, Quentin Crisp, on mince-about". After his success singing his own songs, in jazz idiom, at the college's Christmas show, he became sought after as entertainer and chansonnier.

Two years on, in 1953, he was doing his National Service in the RAF having chosen, as a pacifist, to join up as a Nursing Attendant. He wryly described his basic training as "having made a man of me, from which I never recovered" and one of his fellow sufferers remembers him doing Picassoesque caricatures during lectures - he was a gifted graphic artist but, until his last exhibition, few people had seen this aspect of his oeuvre. A posting to Penang (RAF Butterworth) was a time of real self-fulfilment; he wrote, put on weekly radio shows, composed songs to his own piano accompaniment and painted in the coolness of the morgue, "hoping there would be no sudden arrivals" to disturb him.

His greatest achievement was a one-man art show supported by the British Council which sold well. In one of his letters home to his beloved father Julius he wrote, "I'm in a state of flux at the moment, my head crammed full of all kinds of things; acting, piano playing, singing [he had a good bass baritone voice], painting, writing: I want to do everything."

Back in Northampton on demobilisation, however, he found a job teaching art at a boys' secondary modern and hated it. He was not good at keeping order or inspiring his unruly pupils, though he stuck at it for four years before announcing at the age of 28, in 1959, that he had decided to become an actor - adopting, as Equity already had a John Adams (his born name) the name Jonathan.

He started, like so many other aspirants, via the ASM route - at Manchester's Library Theatre and elsewhere - and then during the early 1960s returned to Northampton to join the Repertory Theatre, becoming over the next three years one of its most respected character actors. He was also making films with fellow actors for private viewing and exhibiting his Max Ernstian collages and Kurt Schwitters-type constructions locally and, for the first time in London, at the South London Gallery.

By 1966 he had moved permanently to the "wicked city", his agent Tod Joseph requiring a London telephone number for him, but he found it difficult to get work in the cut-throat world of the capital's theatreland. He continued to act for repertory companies elsewhere, filled in with some supply teaching and carried on with his art, holding a number of joint exhibitions with his then wife, Julia Vezza. At last in 1972 the call that mattered came and he found himself engaged to play the Narrator in The Rocky Horror Show.

The show began its tumultuous life in June 1973 as a six-week project at the Royal Court's humble Theatre Upstairs. Adams helped to develop his part during rehearsals with the author, Richard O'Brien, and director, Jim Sharman, and none of them had any idea what a wild success it would be. Two years later it was filmed as The Rocky Horror Picture Show with Adams, who by this time had become bored with the Narrator role, taking on instead the rather larger part of the weird professor Dr Everett Scott (a Rival Scientist). In 1990 he resumed the Narrator role for a revival at the Piccadilly Theatre. Both film and play drew a cult following, especially in the United States, and for some years Adams attended the annual convention there and was feted by his fans.

Between times he was he was busy creating collages from printed matter, paint and other materials to reflect his surreal world of dreams and visions, subconscious fears and aspirations. One of these works using false teeth was sold to his dentist and over the next 20 years or so his collages were exhibited at a wide range of venues including London University's Dixon Gallery, the Barbican Centre, Northampton Museum and Art Gallery and the Chelmsford Arts Festival (where in 1996 he was Resident Artist). Collage, he later recorded, "is the artistic style that suits me best".

Music, both classical (particularly Bach) and jazz, meant much to him and he was a competent pianist, composing or arranging the music for his one-man shows in Richmond, at the Orange Tree Theatre, and Hampstead. A particular hit of his started with the lyric "I'm the Camden Council Canine Crap Collector" and examples of his mordant wit were much treasured by his friends if not by his neighbours, who rather resented his calling his Finchley home Tomb View, sharing, as it did, a wall with a cemetery.

His acting career included work for radio - he had a very distinctive voice, sang his own songs for BBC's Round Midnight and later joined the BBC Drama Repertory Company; for television - with parts in Bergerac, Yes, Prime Minister and Kavanagh QC, and as policemen in Z Cars, Star Cops and The Bill; and for films - mainly, apart from The Rocky Horror Picture Show, made for television. His stage productions included Master Class (Old Vic, 1984 - he played the dreaded Zhdanov to Timothy West's Stalin), Jérôme Savary's ill-fated Metropolis (Piccadilly, 1989) and Gillian Lynne's 1991 Valentine's Day at Chichester. He also joined the Actors' Company, that bright vision of Ian McKellen and Edward Petherbridge, and toured with them to Central and South America.

But it was the one-man shows such as Jonathan Adams' Happy Hour that best displayed his many talents and his work for these and for such West End productions as Cameron Mackintosh's Tomfoolery (1980) gave fullest play to the extrovert side of his character. Tomfoolery, a selection of Tom Lehrer's morbid songs, was a particular success until the nightly gyrations of "The Masochism Tango" did for him and he had to leave the cast to have a hernia operation.

John McCann and Gudrun McCann

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