Keith Michell: 'The Six Wives of Henry VIII' actor who made many great stage roles his own

Michell had been out of the public eye for a number of years, but he will remain in our minds for many years to come

Simon Farquhar
Sunday 22 November 2015 19:08
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Michell as Henry: he wanted to play him, he said, as ‘the first civilised king of England’
Michell as Henry: he wanted to play him, he said, as ‘the first civilised king of England’

Like Robert Newton as Long John Silver or Robert Hardy as Churchill, Keith Michell came to be triumphantly associated with one particular role, which he played more times perhaps than any other actor. The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1970) was a glorious moment for BBC2, winning the channel record-breaking audiences – even, for one episode, amassing a bigger audience share than BBC1 for the first time in its five-year history. The serial was drizzled with awards and broadcast in 75 countries, as well as spawning a cinema version, Henry VIII and His Six Wives, in 1972.

Having most recently played the king in a West End comedy, Jean Canolle’s The King’s Mare (Garrick, 1966), Michell fiercely reined in his performance to avoid any trace of caricature. Conscious always that Henry was only one king removed from Richard III, a man his father had slain, he presented the monarch as, in his words, “the victim of violent times and violent men, but one who emerged during a renaissance, and really became the first civilised king of England”. He began as a tall, handsome and romantic man, and at end was old, enormous and blustery. It was a massive task, and despite recent depictions such as that by Damian Lewis in Wolf Hall, Michell’s remains for many the definitive portrayal, and not only because of his striking resemblance to Holbein’s indelible portrait.

The son of a cabinet maker, Keith Joseph Michell was born in 1926 in Adelaide. He was educated at Port Pirie High School, Adelaide Teacher’s College, Adelaide School of Arts and Crafts and Adelaide University, and was working as an art teacher when he made his first stage appearance, in Lover’s Leap at the city’s Playbox Theatre in 1947. Two years later, after a short spell at the ABC radio network, he sailed to England to study at the Old Vic Theatre School.

After a year with the Young Vic Company, during which he played Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice and Ellis Duckworth in Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Black Arrow (which was also shot for the BBC, giving Michell his small screen debut), he made his first appearance on the West End stage, playing a different monarch, Charles II, in the musical And So To Bed (New Theatre, 1951).

He toured Australia with Anthony Quayle’s Shakespeare Memorial Theatre Company, then, after three seasons at Stratford (The Taming of the Shrew, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Troilus and Cressida and Romeo and Juliet), stopped at the Royal Court to appear with John Osborne in Don Juan and the Death of Satan. He then returned to the Old Vic to continue in classical roles, including Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing, Aaron in Titus Andronicus and Antony in Antony and Cleopatra.

After he had won great acclaim playing the lead in Peter Brook’s production of the musical comedy Irma La Douce (Lyric, 1958), a production he accompanied to Broadway two years later, the seeds of a later triumph were sown when Olivier invited him to play Don John in John Fletcher’s The Chances, the first production at the new Chichester Festival Theatre, in 1962. He fell in love with the space there and in 1974 was appointed Artistic Director, a hotly contested job and an appointment that surprised many, but which proved quite a triumph. His background in art and design led to rich collaborations with the theatre’s designers, Michell determined that the vast, American-style space did not provoke actors into playing from the tip of the stage.

His three years running the theatre saw celebrated productions of Oedipus Tyrannus, Turgenev’s A Month in the Country and Pirandello’s Tonight, We Improvise, all of which he appeared in. He did a good job in the latter of keeping the audience uncertain as to whether the unexpected incidents on stage were planned or spontaneous; Michell, playing the director, in one gimmick was bodily thrown out of the building by the actors and crew. The production even began with a black-out and a tannoy request for Michell to report to the control box to mend the fault.

He took Othello (Chichester, 1978) to Melbourne, and returned to England as Salieri in Amadeus at the Ashcroft, Croydon in 1983. His final stage role returned him to Chichester, for Shakespeare’s Henry VIII in 1991.

His television and film work, with the exception of the regal role (which he played for the last time in The Prince and the Pauper in 1996), was never as interesting as his work on the stage, to which his imposing demeanour was more suited. He was one of a number of talents shipped over to America for The Day Christ Died (1980), and his film appearances included the thrillers Dangerous Exile (1958) and Sam Wanamaker’s The Executioner (1970).

By the 1970 he had become famous and popular enough to front a number of programmes, including the musically themed Presenting Keith Michell (1971) and a Show of the Week strand in which he visited different theatres to recall some of the music and drama of their pasts.

His musical leanings even got him on to Top of the Pops in 1980, reciting a song from Jeremy Lloyd’s Captain Beaky, having both recorded and illustrated the books. Sweetly, he attended a revival of the poems at the Royal Albert Hall in 2011. Michell had been out of the public eye for a number of years, but for one role, he will remain in our minds for many years to come.

Keith Michell, actor and director: born Adelaide 1 December 1926; married Jeanette Sterke (one daughter, one son); died Hampstead, London 20 November 2015.

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