Peter Copley: Prolific character actor whose career lasted more than 70 years

Monday 29 December 2008 01:00 GMT

Peter Copley was a leading British character actor whose career spanned an astonishing eight decades. Alongside a prolific stage career dominated by Shakespeare and other classics, he notched up more than 150 screen performances in a range of roles from the meek to the villainous.

Most were one-offs, but he will be remembered particularly by television viewers as the wise, old Abbot Heribert in the first series of the murder mystery Cadfael (1994), starring Derek Jacobi as the 12th-century monk who turns sleuth at Shrewsbury Abbey, in stories based on Ellis Peters's novels. Loose in his interpretation of holy orders, Heribert encouraged Cadfael to pursue his investigations until he himself was summoned by the Church authorities and replaced by a new abbot.

Born the son of two artists in Bushey, Hertfordshire, in 1915, Copley trained at the Old Vic School in London, before joining the company at the Old Vic Theatre (1932-34), where he made his professional début as the Gaoler in The Winter's Tale. His first West End role was as the Footman in Viceroy Sarah (Whitehall Theatre, 1935).

Copley's first film appearance was in the short Tell Me If It Hurts (1934), as a waiter in the whimsical tale of a diner damaging a tooth at a respectable restaurant. He then had a small role in the army comedy-drama Farewell Again (1937), starring Leslie Banks and Flora Robson.

Shortly after the outbreak of war, he joined the Royal Navy (1940-41) but, as a result of previously undergoing surgery for stomach problems, left through illness after just a few months spent at a training camp and Chatham dockyard. As a result, he acted at the Oxford Playhouse (1941), then toured with the actor-manager Donald Wolfit's company before performing in London theatres during the war.

When peacetime came, Copley rejoined the Old Vic Theatre company, which was staging its productions at the New Theatre following the devastation that its own building hadsuffered during the Blitz. With previous experience as a fencer and fight arranger, he choreographed theclimactic duel between Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson, as the king and Richmond, in Richard III (1944), before taking acting roles himself (1945-50) – most prominently as Edmund in King Lear (to Olivier's Lear) and Laertes in Hamlet (with Michael Redgrave playing the prince). Copley also appeared with the company in a season of plays on Broadway (New Century Theatre, 1946).

Throughout the 1950s he combined stage work with screen appearances. His many films included The Elusive Pimpernel (alongside David Niven, 1950), the Mary Tudor biopic The Sword and the Rose (as the novelist Edwin Caskoden, 1953), Foreign Intrigue (with Robert Mitchum, 1956) and the comedy Just My Luck (starring Norman Wisdom, 1957).

But it was television that keptCopley increasingly busy. As well as popping up in episodes of series such as No Hiding Place (1960), Maigret (1960), Danger Man (1964) and The Avengers (1968), he acted the Rev Hilary Charwell in The Forsyte Saga (1967), Cedric Maddocks in the political drama Bill Brand (1976), a priest in Anna Karenina (1978), George in the sitcom Never Say Die, set in sheltered flats for the elderly (1987) and Robinson in Andrew Davies's adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell's novel Wives and Daughters (1999).

He took various roles in Crown Court (1973-78), including a judge and a police inspector. He described the law as "a hobby", having been called to the Bar in 1963. He was also in the films Help! (1965), The Knack... and how to get it (1965), The Jokers, as a lawyer (1966) and Empire of the Sun (1987).

Copley's later stage roles included Beauchamp in the original production of Tom Stoppard's play Artist Descending a Staircase (Duke of York's Theatre, 1988-89) and Firs in The Cherry Orchard (Albery Theatre, 1996-97), as well as many with the Royal Shakespeare Company.

He was also a prolific performer with the Bristol Old Vic Theatre company (1983-88 and 1992-95), for which he starred as Mr Voysey in The Voysey Inheritance. Copley lived in Bristol, where the University of the West of England awarded him an Honorary Degree of Master of Arts in 2001.

Anthony Hayward

Peter Copley, actor: born Bushey, Hertfordshire 20 May 1915; called to the Bar (Middle Temple) 1963; married firstly Pamela Brown (died 1975; marriage dissolved), secondly Ninka Dolega (one daughter; marriage dissolved), thirdly Margaret Tabor (one stepson, one stepdaughter); died Bristol 7 October 2008.

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