Michael Gough: Actor who rounded off a long career with his best-known role, Bruce Wayne's butler in the 'Batman' films

Robert Sellers
Saturday 19 March 2011 01:00

Like the character he played in four of the Batman movie blockbusters, that of Bruce Wayne's faithful butler Alfred, Michael Gough radiated quiet authority and avuncular charm; he could spin a theatrical tale like few others.

But despite Shakespearean training and extensive theatre his name was made by slaving in cheap horror movies, though almost uniquely among his contemporaries Gough had the knack for being able to move effortlessly from the high brow to the low brow, equally at home in Ibsen on stage or as a sadistic killer in Z-features, and in a career that spanned over 60 years played everything from royalty to mad scientists.

He was born in 1917 in Malaya, where his father worked as a rubber planter. When he was six the family returned to England and he attended Rose Hill school in Tunbridge Wells and Durham School. It was supposed that Gough would follow in his father's wake and to that end he enrolled in agricultural college, but his dream was always to be an actor, ever since, as a schoolboy, he had been captivated by the stage presence of Rex Harrison. "I thought, that's what I wanted to be, that guy!" The fact that he'd failed all his examinations and was befuddled at how he was going to earn a living was further inducement to pursuing a theatrical career. "You didn't have to pass exams to become an actor, you just said, 'I am an actor,' and you were one!"

Unfortunately showbusiness wanted little to do with Michael Gough, who washed dishes in Soho cafes to keep himself in food and cigarettes, while during lunch breaks he waited forlornly in the offices of theatrical agents. In 1936 his luck changed when he won a place at the Old Vic School and played numerous roles during the 1936-37 season. Talk about being thrown in at the deep end: his first professional stage appearance was with Laurence Olivier. Gough's one and only line – "Will you go hunting, my lord?"

A trip to Broadway the following year ended in disaster when the show folded within days of opening, leaving him down and out in New York. Far from despondent, he married one of the actresses, Diana Graves, a niece of the poet Robert Graves, and together they lived in near-poverty until their fellow thespian Eric Portman bailed them out, allowing Diana to get work as a French tutor and Gough to win a place with a touring company, by which time the couple had enough money to return to England.

A burgeoning theatrical career was interrupted by the war, where Gough served with the Pioneer Corps, since when he rarely found himself out of work as an actor, carving out a particularly distinguished West End career that took in everything from classical drama to farce. Notable productions included Noel Coward's The Vortex, Hamlet in 1951, when he played Laertes to Alec Guinness's Prince, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and a role opposite Richard Burton and John Gielgud in Christopher Fry's The Lady's Not For Burning.

Gough's break in films came in 1947 with Blanche Fury, a torpid Victorian melodrama starring Stewart Granger. Better was to follow with roles in the Ealing Classic The Man in the White Suit (1951), Richard III (1955) and Reach for the Sky (1956). Then in 1958 he made the film which was to drastically alter his career path, Hammer's Dracula. It led to a succession of low-grade British horror pictures where he usually played the leading nasty, often giving colourful and broad performances that resulted in him being unfairly typed as a poor man's Peter Cushing.

Titles like Horrors of the Black Museum (1959), Dr Terror's House of Horrors (1965) and Konga (1960), a cut-price rival to King Kong, did Gough no favours artistically, but were there when he needed the money and fitted in with his own view of himself as a sort of acting tradesman who took on jobs as they came along, if they appealed, and just got on with it. That went for television, too, and Gough gave some gloriously ripe villainous turns in The Avengers and Dr. Who.

By the early 1970s Gough had succeeded in shaking off his horror image and had pleasingly matured into a character actor of some distinction, one of that band of British performers whose faces are better known than their names. On television he was a fine Dr Livingstone in the BBC epic serial The Search for the Nile and a memorable dirty old man in Dennis Potter's controversial Blackeyes. On film, his performance in The Go-Between (1970) deservedly earned him a Bafta nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

But it was to be those past horror misdemeanours that landed Gough the role for which he will forever be best known to cinemagoers, that of Alfred in the phenomenally successful Batman movies. Tim Burton, director and lover of bad horror films, cast Gough after watching him receive a Tony award for his performance in Alan Ayckbourn's Bedroom Farce on Broadway. "That's the guy who's in all those terrible films,"cried Burton. "He's our Alfred!"

Gough's regal voice and gothic features, so at home in his monster movies, also proved ideal for Burton's darkly subversive reworking of the Batman story. Gough played Alfred in three subsequent sequels, seeing Burton pass the directorial reins over to Joel Schumacher and Bruce Wayne evolve from Michael Keaton to Val Kilmer and finally George Clooney. In the ever-changing Batman universe Gough remained the one constant.

It was Burton, too, who gave Gough one of his last roles, at a point when he had virtually given up acting. The director was anxious to lure him out of semi-retirement to play a crooked lawyer in his supernatural masterpiece Sleepy Hollow (1999). "I'm too old, I can't learn lines any more," Gough protested. "So we'll cut them," countered Burton, who later employed Gough's menacingly silky tones in Corpse Bride and Alice In Wonderland.

For such a sedate and unassuming man Gough's private life erred faintly on the side of turbulence. He was married four times, on three occasions to actresses. After separating from Diana Graves he married Anne Leon and then Anneke Wills, a television actress best known as the companion Polly in Doctor Who from 1966 to 1967, now an accomplished painter and designer; and finally to Henrietta Lawrence.

He had four children, two sons, Simon and Jasper, and two daughters, Emma, and Polly, who in 1982 was killed in a car crash at the age of 19. Late in life Gough was heard to wearily ruminate that all in all he'd perhaps had too many wives and too many children. "I've been a hostage of fortune all my life."

Michael Gough: actor; born Malaya 23 November 1917; married firstly Diana Graves (divorced), secondly Anne Leon (divorced), thirdly Anneke Wills (divorced), fourthly Henrietta Lawrence, two sons, one daughter, and one daughter deceased); died 17 March 2011.

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