Obituary: Robert Urquhart

Anthony Hayward
Friday 24 March 1995 00:02

Quiet, well-read and a lover of classical music, Robert Urquhart was an actor who grew frustrated with his career as he grew older. It was, he bemoaned, an honourable profession but so much of the material he was offered did not deserve any respect. Although he appeared in dozens of feature films and starred in television series such as The Pathfinders, The Reporters, The Inheritors, The Aweful Mr Goodall and The Old Men at the Zoo, Urquhart spent more and more time at his home in the Scottish Highlands, where he established an eating, drinking and musical establishment called the Ceilidh Place, never letting go of his Scottish roots.

Born the son of a sailor in Ullapool, Ross and Cromarty, Urquhart followed his father into the Merchant Navy on leaving school. He travelled as an apprentice to Australia, New Zealand, South America and South Africa, and achieved third mate's papers. During the Second World War, he was torpedoed three times in the Mediterranean but was uninjured and, in 1942, left the sea to serve on land stations and ended up working in the salty Glasgow docklands.

Turning to acting, Urquhart made his stage dbut at the Park Theatre, Glasgow - John Stewart's famous launching pad for young talent - and then won an ex-Serviceman's scholarship to RADA. He appeared in Tyrone Guthrie's production of The Thrie Estaitis at the first Edinburgh Festival, in 1947 - the play's first revival for 400 years - and was offered a season with the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-upon-Avon the following year, appearing alongside Paul Scofield, Diana Wynyard and Anthony Quayle in Hamlet and The Taming of the Shrew. Urquhart followed this with repertory work at the Little Rep, in Edinburgh, and at the Citizen's Theatre, Glasgow, before making his first West End appearance, alongside Eileen Herlie, in The Second Mrs Tanqueray (Haymarket Theatre) and playing Horatio to Alec Guinness's Hamlet at the New Theatre.

Branching out, he made his film dbut in You're Only Young Twice (1952) and followed it in the same year with Tread Softly and Paul Temple Returns, before starring with another newcomer, the Canadian actress Diane Foster, in Isn't Life Wonderful (1952). This led to a screen contract with Associated British and his subsequent films included Happy Ever After (1954, with David Niven and Yvonne de Carlo), Knights of the Round Table (1954), The Curse of Frankenstein (1956, with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee), Yangtse Incident (1957), The Bulldog Breed (1960, with Norman Wisdom), 55 Days at Peking (1962, with Charlton Heston), Mosquito Squadron (1968) and The Looking Glass War (1969).

By the early Seventies, Urquhart was finding acting increasingly frustrating and spent more time on his business interests in the Highlands. He had no respect for much of the material he was offered and turned an old house in the picturesque fishing village of Ullapool into the Ceilidh Place, which started as a coffee shop, before serving food, then adding music and room for dancing. It was furnished with pews from an old church and Urquhart staged concerts there by Robin Hall and Jimmie MacGregor, who had won national fame with their appearances on the Tonight television programme.

The actor still managed to find a handful of good roles throughout the Seventies, mainly on television. They began with that of Wing Commander MacPhearson in The Pathfinders (1972-73), following the air crews who flew in advance of bombing raids to pinpoint targets for the main force. He played an ageing, drunken journalist, Vic, searching for a quiet life in the provinces in The Reporters, written by Arthur Hopcroft and first seen as a Play for Today (1972), and a Welsh property-owner trying to save his stately home from the taxman and the filthy rich in The Inheritors (1973). The concerns of this character echoed his own for the wilds of Scotland, worried that the oil men would ravage the beautiful countryside. In The Aweful Mr Goodall (1974), Urquhart was a widower, Jack Goodall, a former MI5 colonel drawn back into the world of espionage despite retiring to a comfortable Eastbourne flat.

On television, he also played the Quartering Commandant in Brideshead Revisited (1982), the teacher George Jenkins in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1978) and Tom Stockman in Ibsen's An Enemy of the People, as well as acting in the acclaimed series The Old Men at the Zoo (1983), adapted from Angus Wilson's novel, and the David Puttnam First Love Channel Four television films P'Tang Yang Kipperbang (1982) and Sharma and Beyond (1984). He also wrote and acted in a Sixties series called Jango.

Urquhart's career turned full circle when, in 1984, he starred in The Thrie Estaitis at the 36th Edinburgh Film Festival.

Anthony Hayward

Robert Urquhart, actor: born Ullapool, Ross and Cromarty 16 October 1922; twice married (one son, two daughters, and one son deceased); died Edinburgh 21 March 1995.

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