Michael Jayston obituary

by 24britishtvFeb. 5, 2024, 11 p.m. 28
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The actor Michael Jayston, who has died aged 88, was a distinguished performer on stage and screen. The roles that made his name were as the doomed Tsar Nicholas II of Russia in Franklin Schaffner’s sumptuous account of the last days of the Romanovs in Nicholas and Alexandra (1971), and as Alec Guinness’s intelligence minder in John Le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy on television in 1979. He never made a song and dance about himself and perhaps as a consequence was not launched in Hollywood, as were many of his contemporaries.

Before these two parts, he had already played a key role in The Power Game on television and Henry Ireton, Cromwell’s son-in-law, in Ken Hughes’s fine Cromwell (1969), with Richard Harris in the title role and Guinness as King Charles I. And this followed five years with the Royal Shakespeare Company including a trip to Broadway in Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming, in which he replaced Michael Bryant as Teddy, the brother who returns to the US and leaves his wife in London to “take care of” his father and siblings.

Jayston, who was not flamboyantly good-looking but clearly and solidly attractive, with a steely, no-nonsense, demeanour and a steady, piercing gaze, could “do” the Pinter menace as well as anyone, and that cast – who also made the 1973 movie directed by Peter Hall – included Pinter’s then wife, Vivien Merchant, as well as Paul Rogers and Ian Holm.

Jayston had found a replacement family in the theatre. Born Michael James in Nottingham, he was the only child of Myfanwy (nee Llewelyn) and Vincent; his father died of pneumonia, following a serious accident on the rugby field, when Michael was one, and his mother died when he was a barely a teenager. He was then brought up by his grandmother and an uncle, and found himself involved in amateur theatre while doing national service in the army; he directed a production of The Happiest Days of Your Life.

He continued in amateur theatre while working for two years as a trainee accountant for the National Coal Board and in Nottingham fish market, before winning a scholarship, aged 23, to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, where he was five years older than everyone else on his course. He played in rep in Bangor, Northern Ireland, and at the Salisbury Playhouse before joining the Bristol Old Vic for two seasons in 1963.

At the RSC from 1965, he enjoyed good roles – Oswald in Ghosts, Bertram in All’s Well That Ends Well, Laertes to David Warner’s Hamlet – and was Demetrius in Hall’s film of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1968), with Warner as Lysander in a romantic foursome with Diana Rigg and Helen Mirren.

But his RSC associate status did not translate itself into the stardom of, say, Alan Howard, Warner, Judi Dench, Ian Richardson and others at the time. He was never fazed or underrated in this company, but his career proceeded in a somewhat nebulous fashion, and Nicholas and Alexandra, for all its success and ballyhoo, did not bring him offers from the US.

Instead, he played Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1972), a so-so British musical film version with music and lyrics by John Barry and Don Black, with Michael Crawford as the White Rabbit and Peter Sellers the March Hare. In 1979 he was a colonel in Zulu Dawn, a historically explanatory prequel to the earlier smash hit Zulu.

As an actor he seemed not to be a glory-hunter. Instead, in the 1980s, he turned in stylish and well-received leading performances in Noël Coward’s Private Lives, at the Duchess, opposite Maria Aitken (1980); as Captain von Trapp in the first major London revival of The Sound of Music at the Apollo Victoria in 1981, opposite Petula Clark; and, best of all, as Mirabell, often a thankless role, in William Gaskill’s superb 1984 revival, at Chichester and the Haymarket, of The Way of the World, by William Congreve, opposite Maggie Smith as Millamant.

Nor was he averse to taking over the leading roles in plays such as Peter Shaffer’s Equus (1973) or Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa (1992), roles first occupied in London by Alec McCowen. He rejoined the National Theatre – he had been Gratiano with Laurence Olivier and Joan Plowright in The Merchant of Venice directed by Jonathan Miller in 1974 – to play a delightful Home Counties Ratty in the return of Alan Bennett’s blissful, Edwardian The Wind in the Willows in 1994.

On television, he was a favourite side-kick of David Jason in 13 episodes of David Nobbs’s A Bit of a Do (1989) – as the solicitor Neville Badger in a series of social functions and parties across West Yorkshire – and in four episodes of The Darling Buds of May (1992) as Ernest Bristow, the brewery owner. He appeared again with Jason in a 1996 episode of Only Fools and Horses.

He figured for the first time on fan sites when he appeared in the 1986 Doctor Who season The Trial of a Time Lord as Valeyard, the prosecuting counsel. In the new millennium he passed through both EastEnders and Coronation Street before bolstering the most lurid storyline of all in Emmerdale (2007-08): he was Donald de Souza, an unpleasant old cove who fell out with his family and invited his disaffected wife to push him off a cliff on the moors in his wheelchair, but died later of a heart attack.

By now living on the south coast, Jayston gravitated easily towards Chichester as a crusty old colonel – married to Wendy Craig – in Coward’s engaging early play Easy Virtue, in 1999, and, three years later, in 2002, as a hectored husband, called Hector, to Patricia Routledge’s dotty duchess in Timberlake Wertenbaker’s translation of Jean Anouilh’s Léocadia under the title Wild Orchids.

And then, in 2007, he exuded a tough spirituality as a confessor to David Suchet’s pragmatic pope-maker in The Last Confession, an old-fashioned but gripping Vatican thriller of financial and political finagling told in flashback. Roger Crane’s play transferred from Chichester to the Haymarket and toured abroad with a fine panoply of senior British actors, Jayston included.

After another collaboration with Jason, and Warner, in the television movie Albert’s Memorial (2009), a touching tale of old war-time buddies making sure one of them is buried on the German soil where first they met, and a theatre tour in Ronald Harwood’s musicians-in-retirement Quartet in 2010 with Susannah York, Gwen Taylor and Timothy West, he made occasional television appearances in Midsomer Murders, Doctors and Casualty. Last year he provided an introduction to a re-run of Tinker Tailor on BBC Four. He seemed always to be busy, available for all seasons.

As a keen cricketer (he also played darts and chess), Jayston was a member of the MCC and the Lord’s Taverners. After moving to Brighton, he became a member of Sussex county cricket club and played for Rottingdean, where he was also president.

His first two marriages – to the actor Lynn Farleigh in 1965 and the glass engraver Heather Sneddon in 1970 – ended in divorce. From his second marriage he had two sons, Tom and Ben, and a daughter, Li-an. In 1979 he married Ann Smithson, a nurse, and they had a son, Richard, and daughter, Katie.

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