John Moffatt was a consummate actor and was exemplary in all genres. Whether in Shakespeare or revue, restoration comedy or panto, he always had great style and integrity.
Although he appeared in films and on television, John’s long and distinguished career was mainly in the theatre and on radio. Born on September 24, 1922, his first rep job was at Perth in 1945, where he met Alec McCowen, his oldest friend – consequently, affectionately known to John as ‘OF’. He spent two years at Oxford Rep, where he and the young Tony Hancock played Ugly Sisters together. This was John’s introduction to the world of pantomime. He later wrote five pantos and became a notable Dame.
In 1950, John was spotted by HM Tennent’s and played many leading roles for them in the West End, including A Winter’s Tale and Much Ado About Nothing, both with John Gielgud, and The Apple Cart with Noel Coward. This was followed by six plays with the English Stage Company, where he played Sparkish in The Country Wife with Joan Plowright – it later went to Broadway with Julie Harris. Both he and McCowen joined the Old Vic Company in 1959, where they met and became lifelong friends with Moyra Fraser, Joss Ackland, Judi Dench and Maggie Smith. The group would all continue to meet regularly for the occasional Sunday lunch until Moyra’s death in 2009.
John had an incredible aptitude for restoration comedy and an absolute instinct for the period and style. In 1969, Laurence Olivier invited him to join the National Theatre Company to play Fainall in The Way of the World. He remained at the National and played many other roles, including Judge Brack in Hedda Gabler with Maggie Smith and Robert Stephens, directed by Ingmar Bergman.
He later returned to the West End for several plays, including Ronald Harwood’s Interpreters with Edward Fox and Maggie Smith, then, in 1976, Ben Traver’s last play The Bed Before Yesterday with Joan Plowright. Probably his favourite job of all, particularly because of the richness of the material, was Cowardy Custard – a celebration of the work of Noel Coward at the Mermaid Theatre, directed by Wendy Toye.
Throughout his life he had a palpable love of radio drama and became an expert radio actor. His most notable performance was as Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot in the long-running series.
He was also undoubtedly one of the wisest men I have ever known, while always remaining one of the most modest. John had a wicked twinkle of fun about him and was hugely entertaining company. His fund of amusing or poignant stories and anecdotes never failed to provide laughter or food for thought. He prided himself on being able to sail through a cryptic crossword in ten minutes flat and, although he described his memory as “like an old attic full of trivia”, his knowledge was extensive and detailed. He had a phenomenal ability of remembering verse and lyrics – he could recall a song that he hadn’t even thought about for 40 years and then sing the entire lyrics.
John was delighted to be able to say that he’d sung Noel Coward’s song Nina at Covent Garden and played a non-speaking role on radio. The last line he spoke in a West End play was “From now on it’s downhill all the way”, on radio “Of course, it was all a lot of nonsense” and, finally, in a recital he compiled and performed with his old friend Judi Dench at the Haymarket Theatre, “If you think that is the end, well it is”.
After a long illness, John died peacefully at home just two weeks before his 90th birthday. With his passing, not only has the profession lost one of the most respected actors but I have personally lost a great friend and mentor of some 37 years. He was quite specific about how he wanted to be remembered – he didn’t want any kind of memorial service. He said: “I’d just like people to remember me in their own way, when I just pop into their minds, perhaps while they are doing the washing up.” I suppose that is the most honest way to celebrate his life. He told me that at least once a day he would think about his old friend Peter Bull, even though it was many years since his death – I’m sure I will not be alone in doing the same with John.
One of John’s favourite verses was by GK Chesterton:
“From quiet home and first beginning
Out to the undiscovered ends
There’s nothing worth the wear of winning
But laughter and the love of friends.”