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Obituary: Freddie Jones – ‘splendid actor and natural stage animal’

Freddie Jones in A Song in the Night at the Lyric Hammersmith in 1989. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Despite coming to acting late in life, making his professional debut at the age of 31, Freddie Jones sustained a rich and varied career on stage and screen over six decades that saw him develop into a character actor of considerable resources.

He was, The Stage noted in 1965: “a splendid actor for registering bottled-up emotions about to blow the cork at any minute” – the resulting explosion as likely to be poignantly comical as it was combustibly dangerous. There were elements of both in his most acclaimed theatre role as Ronald Harwood’s aging actor-manager Sir alongside Tom Courtenay’s titular The Dresser at the Royal Exchange, Manchester in 1980 and subsequently in the West End at the Queen’s Theatre.

It saw Jones in his pomp and his prime, delivering a booming but brittle, boldly expansive yet nuanced performance that paid affectionate and respectful tribute to a lost theatrical age populated by giant, larger than life figures his character hymned such as Sir Donald Wolfit and Wilfrid Lawson.

Although latterly claimed by television – where he enjoyed an Indian Summer as the irascible vicar’s father Sandy Thomas in 632 episodes of Emmerdale, departing the soap after 13 years in 2018 – Jones was a natural stage animal.

Born in Stoke-on-Trent, he made his stage debut in a Boy Scouts’ revue and was a keen amateur performer after leaving school to work as a laboratory assistant. On graduating from the Rose Bruford College with the Lionel Bruford prize for his performance as Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, he toured in an Arts Council-sponsored coupling of Romeo and Juliet and Peter Ustinov’s Romanoff and Juliet in 1958.

Joining the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1962, he made a mark as Zob in Gorky’s The Lower Depths and Jumbo in David Rudkin’s prescient take on Britain’s brute reflex towards immigrants, Afore Night Come, following the play into the Aldwych Theatre in 1964.

The same year he was part of the remarkable ensemble (playing Cucurucu) assembled by Peter Brook for Peter Weiss’ groundbreaking Marat/Sade, with which he also made his sole appearance on Broadway.

Back home, he spent an uneven season at the Mermaid Theatre, appearing as Jupiter in Bernard Miles’ slated Four Thousand Brass Halfpennies, in John Arden’s Left-Handed Liberty and contributed gleefully to an admired revival of Arthur Wing Pinero’s Dandy Dick in 1965.

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He enjoyed success as Stanley Eveling’s eponymous Mister (Duchess Theatre, 1971) and one half of Dear Janet Rosenberg, Dear Mr Kooning (Hampstead Theatre, 1975), as the luckless husband Edgar trapped in a spiteful marriage in Friedrich Durrenmatt’s Play Strindberg (Hampstead Theatre, 1973) and a granitic Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (Yvonne Arnaud Guildford, 1975).

Alongside Annette Crosbie and Richard E Grant, in 1984 he reunited with Harwood in Tramway Road where he was caught movingly on the precipice of a failing marriage and the precipitous introduction of apartheid in 1950s’ South Africa at the Lyric, Hammersmith.

Equally memorable was his solo portrayal of the poet John Clare in Roger Frith’s A Song in the Night (directed by Patrick Garland at the 1986 Edinburgh Fringe and again on tour in 1989) and as the hermit Morrone cajoled into being a Pope and eventual martyr in Peter Barnes’ Sunsets and Glories at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in 1990.

Returning to the RSC the following year, a rare disappointment as Malvolio in Twelfth Night was redeemed by a splendid account of the lunatic scientist Gimcrack in Thomas Shadwell’s 17th-century comedy The Virtuoso, stealing every performance with a display of how to swim on dry land.

He made his last stage appearances in 2001 on tour as a Godot-like tramp alongside actor-writers Sean Foley and Hamish McColl in Bewilderness.

Amassing more than 230 screen credits, Jones was an ever-reliable fixture in popular dramas and classic serials, earning early recognition from the Monte-Carlo International Television Festival as Claudius in Philip Mackie’s The Caesars in 1968. There was a sole BAFTA nomination in 1970 for several roles including Maheu in Emile Zola’s Germinal.

Countless radio appearances included Gorky’s The Old Man (1974), Brian Sibley’s adaptation of Gormenghast (1984), Baloo the Bear in Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book (1994) and a Falstaff “tragic in his tottering comedy” in The Merry Wives of Windsor (1997).

On television, he ranged from Chekhov’s dignified Uncle Vanya (1970) to a deliciously knowing would-be theatre impresario Vincent Crummles in Nicholas Nickleby (1977), Dennis Potter’s Pennies from Heaven (1978) and, in 1987, Engstrand in Ibsen’s Ghosts and pernickety Dr Isaacs – “the Rumpole of the medical profession” – in The District Nurse.

On film, he was seen with Courtenay in Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais’ Otley (1969), in David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980), Dune (1984) and Wild at Heart (1990), alongside Clint Eastwood in Firefox (1982) and, a favourite role, as the dipsomaniac journalist in Federico Fellini’s And the Ship Sails On (1983).

Frederick Charles Jones was born on September 12, 1927 and died on July 9, aged 91. He is survived by his wife, the actor Jennie Heslewood, whom he met at the RSC and married in 1965, and three sons, including the director Rupert Jones and actor Toby Jones.

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