Obituary: Alec McCowen

Alec McCowen in The Tempest at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1993. Photo: Marilyn Kingwill
Alec McCowen in The Tempest at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1993. Photo: Marilyn Kingwill

Few actors were as consistently intelligent and engagingly relaxed on stage and screen as Alec McCowen. They were qualities that shone through a career encompassing the classics and contemporary work and that lit up his two remarkable one-man plays – St Mark’s Gospel (1978) and Kipling (1983).

Both pieces enjoyed runs in the West End and on Broadway, the former – a vivid account from the King James’ Bible – boasted “theatrical merits past telling” according to The Stage, while the latter, a portrait of the Edwardian poet written by Brian Clark, was “a personal triumph” for McCowen.

Born in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, to devout evangelical parents, he made his professional debut as Micky in Paddy the Next Best Thing with Macclesfield Rep in 1942 while still a student at RADA. He spent the war in India and Burma performing with the military’s Entertainments National Service Association.

His first London appearance was as Maxim in Anton Chekhov’s Ivanov (Arts Theatre, 1950) and he made an impression at the same venue in 1952 as Hugh Voysey in The Voysey Inheritance. A run of successful roles that included Daventry (Roger MacDougall’s Escapade, St James’s Theatre, 1953), Barnaby Tucker (Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker, Haymarket Theatre, 1954) and Dr Bird (Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, Hippodrome Theatre, 1956) soon saw him rising through the ranks.

He became a regular with London’s Old Vic in the 1960s, making his debut as the Dauphin – “the most striking and interesting… since Alec Guinness” said The Stage – in George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan and as Mercutio to Judi Dench’s Juliet in Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, before going on to play Algernon, Richard II, Oberon and Malvolio.

With the Royal Shakespeare Company, McCowen was a knowing Fool to Paul Scofield’s King Lear in Peter Brook’s austere 1962 production, contrasting its severity with the comic relish of Antiphonus in the same year’s The Comedy of Errors.

Forty years later he teamed again with Scofield’s Lear, this time as the Earl of Gloucester, for a recording by Naxos featuring Kenneth Branagh as the Fool.

His “large, sweeping, dominating performance” (The Stage) as the delusional Father Rolfe in Peter Luke’s Hadrian VII at Birmingham Repertory Theatre and, later, the Mermaid Theatre, London, proved to be McCowen’s breakthrough performance. It earned him an Evening Standard drama award and a Tony nomination on Broadway.

In 1970, he returned to Birmingham to play Hamlet and was back in the West End and on Broadway the following year for a second Tony nomination as Philip in the Royal Court’s transfer of Christopher Hampton’s The Philanthropist.

With the National Theatre in 1973, his Alceste was “alive in every way in every moment” in John Dexter’s “dream come true” production (The Stage) of Tony Harrison’s robustly witty adaptation of Moliere’s The Misanthrope.

He reunited with Dexter to create the role of the psychiatrist Dysart in Peter Shaffer’s Equus in 1973 and again the following year for “an apparently perfect” Professor Higgins to Diana Rigg’s Eliza in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion at the Albery Theatre, London. In 1975, the pair reprised The Misanthrope on Broadway (earning McCowen a third Tony nomination) and subsequently at the Old Vic.

His later stage career was marked by a variety that embraced Antony to Dorothy Tutin’s Cleopatra in 1977 for Toby Robertson’s Prospect Theatre Company and a superlative Frank – the timid researcher thwarted in his attempts to find a cure for the common cold – in Brian Thompson’s Tishoo (Wyndham’s Theatre, London, 1979).

Writing in the Guardian, critic Michael Billington described McCowen’s performance as Adolf Hitler in Christopher Hampton’s The Portage to San Cristobal of AH at the Mermaid Theatre in 1982 as “one of the greatest pieces of acting I have ever seen”. The Stage’s Peter Hepple considered it “the very stuff of great theatre”.

In 1986, he was seen as Henry Harcourt Reilly in TS Eliot’s The Cocktail Party, the inaugural production of director John Dexter and producer Eddie Kulukundis’ New Theatre Company, at London’s Phoenix Theatre.

At the National Theatre in 1987 he portrayed Vladimir in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot as a glorious clown and was seen alongside Scofield and Eileen Atkins as a veteran crime reporter in danger of being ousted in Jeffrey Archer’s pressroom drama Exclusive at the Strand Theatre in 1989. The following year he lent Uncle Jack, the missionary priest sent home from Uganda under a cloud, a sense of seemingly harmless disorientation in Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa at the National Theatre.

Notable late appearances included the pedantic English professor Michael imprisoned in Beirut in Frank McGuinness’s Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me (Hampstead and Vaudeville theatres; it also marked his Broadway swansong), and a commanding Prospero memorably teamed with Simon Russell Beale’s Ariel in The Tempest, directed by Sam Mendes, for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1993.

He was heard in a radio broadcast of John Osborne’s never-produced screenplay The Charge of the Light Brigade, given a gala charity staging at Armoury House, London, in 2002.

Directing credits include Terence Rattigan’s While the Sun Shines (Hampstead Theatre, 1972) and Martin Crimp’s Definitely the Bahamas (Orange Tree Theatre, 1987).

McCowen’s screen debut came in 1953’s The Cruel Sea and he made his mark as Brown in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner in 1962. His exquisitely underplayed comic timing was seen to delightful effect as the nephew to Maggie Smith in Travels With My Aunt (1972) and as the police inspector forced by his wife to eat rich gourmet food in Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy (1972).

He was also seen as Q in Sean Connery’s 1983 one-off comeback as James Bond, Never Say Never Again. His last screen appearance was a cameo in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York in 2002.

Television credits included the Whitehall spy-catcher title role in two series of Mr Palfrey of Westminster (1984-85), Dr Chasuble in The Importance of Being Earnest (1986) and Sir Robert Peel in Victoria and Albert (2001).

He published two volumes of autobiography – Young Gemini (1979) and Double Bill (1980) – and was appointed an OBE in 1972 and a CBE in 1986. His partner, the actor Geoffrey Burridge, died in 1987.

Alexander Duncan McCowen was born on May 26, 1925, and died on February 6, aged 91

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