Obituary: Robert Hardy

Actor Robert Hardy, 91

Robert Hardy’s success on film and television overshadowed a theatrical career that never quite realised the potential his early stage appearances had promised.

He will be best remembered as the avuncular veterinarian Siegfried Farnon in the BBC’s long-running adaptation of James Herriot’s Sunday evening favourite All Creatures Great and Small, appearing in 90 episodes over a dozen years from 1978.

More indelible was his association with Winston Churchill – a role he took virtual ownership of in nine appearances on stage and screen. He first played the wartime prime minister in 1981’s Winston Churchill: The Wilderness Years, for which he received a BAFTA award nomination.

His other appearances as Churchill included 1988’s The Woman He Loved, a portrait of the affair between Wallis Simpson and Edward VIII, the following year’s Bomber Harris and the lavish, 12-part adaptation of Herman Wouk’s sprawling novel War and Remembrance.

He even managed to appear as Churchill in an episode of Agatha Christie’s Marple, and was seen on stage in Paris (performing in French) in Alain Decaux and Alain Peyrefitte’s Celui Qui a Dit Non in 1999. He last reprised the role, poignantly as the once robust leader in deteriorating health, in Marion Milne’s 2015 television movie Churchill: 100 Days That Saved Britain.

There was also the ill-fated Winnie, a ‘play with music’ that closed not much more than a month after it opened at the Victoria Palace Theatre in 1988.

Late in life, he found a young cult following for his appearances in three Harry Potter films as Cornelius Fudge, the minister of magic, between 2002 and 2007.

The son of an army major and peacetime headmaster of Cheltenham College, Hardy – who was born in Cheltenham in 1925 – read English at Oxford University, numbering CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien among his tutors. It was there that his interest in acting began, notably appearing as Fortinbras in Kenneth Tynan’s Hamlet in 1948.

After training as a fighter pilot in the RAF, he completed his degree and made his professional debut with the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in 1949. Early appearances there included Friar Francis to John Gielgud and Peggy Ashcroft’s Benedick and Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, with which he made his West End debut (as Claudio) at the Phoenix Theatre in 1952.

The following year he was seen as a romantic and dashing Laertes to Richard Burton’s Hamlet at the Bristol Old Vic, and as Aerial to Michael Hordern’s Prospero in Robert Helpmann’s 1954 revival of The Tempest.

His Prince Hal in both parts of Henry IV in 1955 was praised by The Stage for its “grace, charm and princely being from hair to toe”.

He returned to Stratford in 1959 to play the scheming tribune Sicinius Velutus opposite Laurence Olivier’s Coriolanus, a dangerous Edmund to Charles Laughton’s King Lear and Oberon to Mary Ure’s Titania in Peter Hall’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Although Hall invited him to stay for the inaugural season of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Hardy objected to the roles being offered and went elsewhere.

He spent more than a year as the Count in the Bristol Old Vic production of Jean Anouilh’s The Rehearsal, variously at the Globe, Queen’s and Apollo theatres, after which he was seen at the Criterion Theatre in Iris Murdoch and JB Priestley’s A Severed Head.

In 1964, he led a company of British actors to Chicago’s Ravinia Festival, where he took the title roles in Henry V and Hamlet.

He conjured Sir Henry Wildair with a sparkling Restoration relish in George Farquhar’s The Constant Couple for Prospect Productions in 1967 and was palpably pained as the brother in an unhealthy relationship with Diane Cilento’s sister in Ted Allan Herman’s I’ve Seen You Cut Lemons (directed by Cilento’s then husband, Sean Connery) at the Fortune Theatre in 1969.

A growing profile on television increasingly kept him away from theatre, but he returned in 1982 for Dear Liar, Jerome Kilty’s dramatisation of letters exchanged between Hardy’s George Bernard Shaw and Sian Phillips’ Mrs Patrick Campbell at the Mermaid Theatre.

A decade later he was seen in Ray Kendall’s Body and Soul, an ecclesiastical drama about the Church of England’s proposed ordination of women, at the Albery Theatre.

His stage swansong – fittingly enough, as Winston Churchill – was short-lived, injury obliging him to withdraw during previews of Peter Morgan’s The Audience at the Gielgud Theatre in 2013.

Hardy’s television breakthrough had come as the older David Copperfield in a 1956 adaptation. In the early 1960s, he was seen as Henry V in the BBC’s Shakespeare history plays compendium An Age of Kings and as Coriolanus in The Spread of the Eagle.

In 1969, he was a tyrannical Pontius Pilate to Colin Blakely’s Jesus in Dennis Potter’s Son of Man and enjoyed an early taste of fame as an ambitious oil executive in The Troubleshooters (1966-70), a Nazi sergeant in the wartime drama Manhunt (1970), and as Prince Albert to Annette Crosbie’s Queen Victoria in Edward the Seventh (1975).

A deft comic facility was put to melancholic use as Toby Belch in Twelfth Night (1980) and, more manically, as newspaper mogul Terence ‘Twiggy’ Rathbone and editor Russell Spam in Andrew Marshall and David Renwick’s Fleet Street satire, Hot Metal (1986-89).

More recently, he had been seen as Tite Barnacle in Little Dorrit (2008) and in an episode of crime thriller Lewis (2010).

Away from acting, Hardy was a serious amateur historian, writing an authoritative book on the history of the longbow in 1976 and acting as a consultant to the Mary Rose Trust, which raised and preserved Henry VIII’s imposing Tudor man-of-war in 1982.

He was appointed a CBE in 1981.

Timothy Sydney Robert Hardy was born on October 29, 1925, and died on August 3, aged 91. He is survived by a son from his first marriage to Elizabeth Fox (a former wardrobe mistress at Stratford) and two daughters from his second to Sally Pearson, daughter of the actor Gladys Cooper.