Stay up to date with notifications from The Independent

Notifications can be managed in browser preferences.

OBITUARY: Nicholas Pennell

Anthony Hayward
Saturday 11 March 1995 00:02 GMT

Most often cast as a likeable and respectable gentleman, Nicholas Pennell achieved his greatest fame on television, as the gentle Michael Mont in the Forsyte Saga series, first screened in 1967. Five years later, he left Britain for Canada and made his mark on stage at Stratford, Ontario, for 23 consecutive seasons, becoming recognised as one of the leading classical actors performing in North America.

Born into a farming family in Devon, Pennell wanted to act from the age of five, but his parents insisted that he qualify for a more reliable job. At the age of 18 he attended secretarial school, but took his first steps into acting by attending RADA.

Pennell made his West End dbut as a police guard in Masterpiece (Royalty Theatre, 1961), a production that marked the great Anton Walbrook's last stage performance. Pennell followed it with the role of Horne in Harold Pinter's A Night Out at the Dublin Theatre Festival and Comedy Theatre (1961).

It was while acting at the Pitlochry Festival, in Scotland, that he was spotted by a television casting director and, during the next few years, appeared in Emergency Ward 10, Maigret and Nol Coward's The Vortex, in the leading role of Nicky. That production was revived for the stage (Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford 1965) and saw him acting opposite Ann Todd.

The highly emotional energy he brought to the part led to his being cast as Michael Mont in the BBC's 26-part adaptation of John Galsworthy's novel The Forsyte Saga, the story of a family of London merchants from the 1870s to the 1920s; he also shared the narration with Kenneth More. His character, gentle and honourable, was everything that the brutal lawyer Soames Forsyte was not. But Soames, played by Eric Porter, was pleased to see Pennell's character marry his daughter Fleur (Susan Hampshire).

The serial, originally broadcast on BBC2, caused such a stir that it was repeated the following year on BBC1 and received two more repeat runs, as well as being broadcast in the United States and other countries. Unfortunately for the BBC, The Forsyte Saga was not a long-term best-seller because it was the last important programme to be made in black-and-white.

The film director Karel Reisz saw Pennell's performance in the serial and cast him as the discourteous Bedford in his ambitious picture Isadora (1968, later retitled The Loves of Isadora), starring Vanessa Redgrave in the title-role. Pennell had already appeared in the films Rasputin - the Mad Monk (1966), alongside Christopher Lee, and the comedy Only When I Larf (1968). He followed Isadora with roles in Battle of Britain (1969, as a young pilot) and in Forbush and the Penguins (1971), as well as in the television film David Copperfield.

His other television appearances included The Brothers Karamazov, Poor Bitos, A Tale of Two Cities, The Doctors, Doctor Who and The Flaxton Boys, playing the gentle the Rev A.D. Partridge in the children's series that starred a young Peter Firth.

In 1972, Pennell travelled to Canada, where he made a name for himself at Stratford, Ontario, particularly in the roles of Iago and Richard II. He also toured America in two of his own productions, Rogues and Vagabonds and This Fair Child of Mine (1977), and returned to the West End for Edna O'Brien's Virginia (Haymarket Theatre, 1981), alongside Maggie Smith. He played the self-effacing husband Leonard Woolf, a role he had acted at Stratford, Ontario, the previous year.

Anthony Hayward

Nicholas Pennell, actor: born Brixham, Devon 19 November 1938; died Stratford, Ontario 22 February 1995.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in