OBITUARY: Sir Michael Hordern

Adam Benedick
Wednesday 03 May 1995 23:02

What was it that set Michael Hordern so unmistakably apart from other actors of the first rank? The long, lined, weather-beaten face which drew comparison with battered Gladstone bags, morose blood- hounds and owls? The mournful countenance, the thoughtful gaze, which combined to bestow on his rueful, wrinkled and sometimes tetchy visage an air of intelligence?

Whatever success Hordern may have had as a fisherman - and he never let slip the chance to scurry away to a river bank with a rod and line - he could hook an audience by bringing what appeared to be a finely tuned mind and unfailing integrity to everything he did. It was a mind moreover which got its kicks from being apparently boggled without boring (or boggling) the spectator.

Who could ever forget who saw it the sight of Hordern's anguished moral philosopher George in Tom Stoppard's Jumpers, weaving one intricate fancy after another into a web of almost cosmic absurdity? Arms (and ideas) akimbo, strutting, fretting and fuming with notions, he fought his way as to the academic manner born through Stoppard's maze of sermonising and moralising.

At rehearsal he trembled at the challenge of its opening 13-minute speech with no cues but a photographic memory and no clues to its sense. But the veteran interpreter of these new-fangled intellectual young writers (he had already battled his way through other avant-gardistes like John Whiting and Harold Pinter) ended the first night at the Old Vic in 1972 in tears, not of despair but of elation for the ovation. For him or for Stoppard? It was a moot point. What had given Hordern's acting its zest and spontaneity was probably actor's nerves. Uncertain and insecure, he made much of the text sound as if he was indeed hammering it out for himself. Whether he was or wasn't was beside the dramatic point. He made it seem so.

Once you have an audience in your palm as Hordern had that night, it does not matter what is actually in your mind. Did not Sarah Bernhardt tot up her laundry lists while delivering tirades at the Comdie-Franaise? Why should not Michael Hordern while officially musing about the meaning of life and death and God's will not simultaneously ponder his next triumph over some unsuspecting trout or make in his mind's eye a round of the Berkshire hedges with dog and gun?

What helped to keep our minds on Stoppard's tortuous theme was Hordern's mannerisms. Who else could have looked as gleefully startled by the workings of his own brain or fiddle with his right ear so eloquently as he pursued George's search for absolutes? Smacking his wrists together behind his back, sighing soulfully, plunging the hands simultaneously into his cardigan pockets or beating his forehead as each new notion crossed his brow, Hordern was rare among actors in being able to button-hole an audience for ideas as well as feelings.

The gift explained a good deal of his sympathetic power in what otherwise might have seemed pretentious plays. The natural manner somehow made them seem more sincere, at any rate while he was on stage. And then there was the voice: soothing, human, haunting, thoughtful and so distinctive that whether it lurked in the background as a narrator, hovered over the promotion of a domestic product on an advertisement, or grunted tenderly as Paddington Bear, it was warmly, winningly unmistakable.

Off-stage Hordern was the least theatrical of men and the least pretentious of actors. "I am a countryman, not a townsman," he said. "I believe that to be able to shake off the artificiality of the theatre and enjoy the reality that is the country is of marvellous therapeutic value."

It was easy for him, therefore, to turn his slightly bent back on the bright lights, the glamour, the first nights, the flattery and the green- room gossip and head for the great outdoors. He hated long runs in the theatre. They made him feel in a rut. He never cared much either for big subsidised companies or for the prattle of actors or directors.

Coming late to the stage - he was in his late twenties after years of selling exercise books profitably enough to make a decent modest living - may have helped to liberate Hordern from the traditional aspirations of his profession. He had already done some amateur acting before, at 26, taking the professional plunge, as Lodovico in Othello, in 1937.

Within a few seasons he found himself serving in the Navy during the Second World War, ending up in 1945 as a lieutenant-commander. Then came the post-war scramble for theatrical employment. He had no reputation, little experience beyond a couple of years in rep at Bristol and a few tours. And he was already 34.

He came quickly to notice. After a long-running West End thriller, Dear Murderer, and two joyous Christmases (1948 and 1949) at Stratford-upon- Avon as Mr Toad in Toad of Toad Hall, he went to what was still the most steadily intelligent playhouse in London, the Arts under Alec Clunes's regime.

There Hordern did distinguished work in two of the most awkward first plays in dramatic history, Chekhov's Ivanov (1950), and John Whiting's Saint's Day (1951). To both he brought a refreshing, nervy presence and a compelling insight into introspective characters. Even Gielgud did not risk Ivanov on the stage for another 14 years, which was when Hordern chose again to play the grizzled old pessimist of Whiting's supposedly obscure and highly controversial drama, this time at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, a typical reassertion of faith in a maligned and most promising author.

By then Hordern had established himself as one of London's most original, courageous and compelling players, especially in character parts. His marvellously miserable Jaques in As You Like It or his gleaming, rubicund Sir Politick Would-Be in Volpone (1952) gave Stratford playgoers some of their best moments; and for the Old Vic he proved a fine, fussy, humane Polonius to Richard Burton's Hamlet, in the 1953-54 season.

If his Macbeth (1958-59) was lightweight vocally and emotionally and overshadowed by the shuddersome Beatrix Lehman as his lady, Hordern had won golden opinions for King John. His bespectacled Pastor Manders to Wendy Hiller's Mrs Alving in Ghosts (1958) struck a subtler note than Donald Wolfit who replaced him for the West End transfer. Hordern became an actor to watch, whatever the part.

Though he never shirked the big heroic opportunities - his King Lear for Jonathan Miller (Nottingham Playhouse and Old Vic, 1969) was most affectingly demented, the line "Let me not be mad" seeming to shape the whole conception - it was as oddities and eccentrics, failures, dreamers and self- disgusted visionaries that Hordern created his most memorable characters; particularly in new plays.

Not a few new playwrights had reason to be grateful to Hordern, who would give their works, however eccentrically, the necessary comic or ironic ballast. He took a special joy for instance in two short plays by John Mortimer, Dock Brief and What Shall We Tell Caroline? (Lyric, Hammersmith, and Garrick, 1958) with an early outline of the barrister Rumpole and, in the second piece, an embarrassingly amatory schoolmaster husband.

For Peter Hall's newly formed Royal Shakespeare Company at its London headquarters, the Aldwych, in 1958-59, Hordern played Ulysses in Troilus and Cressida and brought some weight to another adventurous double bill, Pinter's The Collection - as an elegant, possessive and somewhat sinister Nol Coward-ish figure in dressing gown - and Strindberg's Playing with Fire (as the Father).

With the exquisitely poised Celia Johnson as his wife he applied all his finely wrought timing, charm and drawing-room manners to Alan Ayckbourn's first West End success, Relatively Speaking (Duke of York's, 1967); and, though Stoppard's first stage play, Enter a Free Man (St Martin's 1968), was a 'prentice piece, it was Hordern's ability to moon about morosely as a dreamy, would-be poet in the suburbs that kept the evening more or less afloat.

It also set up the link that led to Jumpers four years later. Meanwhile, apart from a remarkable, if small-scale, Lear at Nottingham, David Mercer's whimsical Flint (Criterion, 1970) benefited from Hordern's sympathetic insight into the plight of a lecherous, agnostic clergyman with a wife in a wheelchair and designs on a pretty young visitor to the vicarage.

After completing the Jumpers stint at the National (when it was still at the Old Vic) with Gaev in The Cherry Orchard and John of Gaunt in King Richard II, Hordern bumbled and grunted his resourceful way through another rickety, talkative new play, Howard Barker's Stripwell (Royal Court), as a judge of dubious probity, before heading an ingenious dramatisation of Evelyn Waugh's The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold (Royal Exchange, Manchester, 1977, and Round House, 1979) as an introspective voyager with nerve-wracked suicidal tendencies. Once again it was the actor who seemed to leave the writer in his debt.

Then in 1983 came one of Hordern's finest hours as the limping, expostulating and resentful old 18th-century blue-coated blackguardly parent, Sir Anthony Absolute, in The Rivals (National Theatre), humming nostalgically for this amatory youth, groaning enviously at his offspring's follies, thwacking all and sundry with his paternal cane and expressively attacking at breakfast, with a spoon that spoke volumes more than Sheridan ever wrote, a humble boiled egg. Hordern was here at his exuberantly, sunny best.

His doddery waiter William in Shaw's You Never Can Tell (Haymarket, 1990) exemplified his skill at comic timing and in 1992 he struck another autocratic note, in the spirit of Sir Anthony Absolute, in Pinero's Trelawney of the "Wells" (Comedy), though by then the old gusto had departed.

Sometimes his personality found a special power on the small or cinema screen because, although he had the technique and scope to fill a theatre with his presence, he knew better than most of his colleagues how subtle and enriching a player can be before the camera. One of the finest of his more recent television performances came as The Rev Simeon Simcox in Paradise Postponed (1986), and most recently he had appeared in BBC productions of Memento Mori (1991) and Middlemarch (1993).

If his King Lear was among Hordern's small-screen triumphs - a version of the Jonathan Miller revival from Nottingham Playhouse - Hordern rarely had such a conspicuous success in films. His were mainly "character" performances, as morose clergymen, uppish diplomats, dotty generals, tetchy fathers - in films such as The Spanish Gardener (1956), A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966), The Slipper and the Rose (1976) and The Missionary (1982).

As Richard Burton's boss in The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (1965), he was the gloomiest of bureaucrats but he was always vague about his work in the 80-odd pictures he made from 1946 onwards. None of his screen acting was ever less than in character, but as he himself was all too ready to admit he only did it for "the money, the locations and the company - all the wrong reasons I fear". They always came out right on the screen.

Films paid, in effect, for his stage acting, as did those television advertisements for vacuum cleaners and for Crosse & Blackwell soup. He had no scruples about using his artistic persona to puff such things, but the rewards sometimes puzzled him. He once swept into the Garrick Club, in London, for lunch and announced with a mixture of pride and shame, and as a way of making conversation (at which he had rarely felt adept), that for pushing that morning over a carpet before a camera a domestic cleaning appliance his fee had exceeded what the RSC was paying him that season for Shakespearean leads in three productions at Stratford-upon- Avon (including an admired Prospero).

Years later, at the same club, having had a smaller success in one of Keith Waterhouse's conversation pieces, Bookends (Apollo, 1990), as an ageing tutor in correspondence with a former pupil, he was complimented on his sense of timing. What, he confessed, he liked best about working on the stage were scenes involving food. How big a bite, for example, should he take from a sandwich to be sure of speaking the next line precisely? To speak while munching could be highly effective as long as the mouth was not full; and so on.

"Getting that laugh on a particular line is as satisfying as, er, . . ." He searched for a simile. In a trice it came. ". . . shooting a pheasant!" he cried. "Bang, got him! It's like that." With Michael Hordern it usually was.

Adam Benedick

Michael Murray Hordern, actor: born Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire 3 October 1911; CBE 1972; Kt 1983; author of A World Elsewhere 1993; married 1943 Eveline Mortimer (died 1986; one daughter); died Oxford 2 May 1995.

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