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Obituary: Royce Mills – ‘master farceur and much-admired pantomime dame’

Royce Mills in Aladdin at Guildford's Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in 2004

A master farceur and versatile, impeccable company member, Royce Mills was an early linchpin of the Theatre of Comedy, a West End veteran, National Theatre player, pantomime dame of repute and familiar face on television.

When Mills appeared as Leo in Ben Travers’ Corker’s End at the Yvonne Arnaud Guildford in 1968, The Stage described him as “slightly simple-minded, lovable… the one always to confuse the situation and land himself in impossible scrapes”. It might well have served as his motto. He went on to carve out a niche for himself in roles of hapless, helpless, easily flustered incompetence.

Born in Tetbury, Gloucestershire, Mills made his television debut, aged 13, in 1955 before going on to study fine art and train as a theatre designer at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Deciding on a career change, he enrolled in its acting course, graduating in 1967 with the gold medal and Shakespeare Prizeman awards.

Royce Mills. Photo: Daniel Harwood-Stamper

Mills’ professional career began at the Yvonne Arnaud, where he also designed occasional shows, and caught attention in Sandy Wilson’s 1967 revival of his own The Boyfriend. In later years, he often returned to Guildford, most recently to reprise his much-admired Widow Twankey in 2012.

Having made his West End debut when The Boyfriend transferred to the Comedy Theatre, he returned in 1973 as Jimmy Winters in PG Wodehouse’s Oh, Kay! (Westminster Theatre) and again two years later as fading star Fred Castle in Travers’ The Bed Before Yesterday alongside Joan Plowright at the Lyric Theatre.

With the Theatre of Comedy at the Shaftesbury Theatre in the 1980s, he was “brilliantly bewildered” in Ray Cooney’s Run for Your Wife and manically memorable in Philip King’s See How They Run.

Other West End appearances included Dion Boucicault’s The Streets of London (Her Majesty’s, 1980), George Axelrod’s The Seven-Year Itch (Albery, 1985) and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera (Her Majesty’s, 1987).

Mills had the distinction of appearing in multiple roles alongside Peter O’Toole, Tom Conti and James Bolam in several iterations of Keith Waterhouse’s Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell from its original 1989 run at the Apollo Theatre to its 2006 revival at the Garrick Theatre on the eve of his 40th anniversary in the West End.

In 1999, he appeared in Alan Ayckbourn’s adaptation of Alexander Ostrovsky’s The Forest at the National Theatre, after which he became a fixture with the D’Oyly Carte Company at the Savoy Theatre. In later years, he made regular appearances at the Mill at Sonning, where he had been “a joy to watch” as a romantic novelist obliged to don drag to protect his celebrity nom de plume in Simon Williams’ Kiss My Aunt in 1997.

Mills’ television breakthrough came as PC Dinkie Dinkworth in Ted Willis’ police station comedy Coppers End (1971) and peaked with Richard Waring’s sitcom Rings on Their Fingers (1978-80). There were guest appearances in shows hosted by Morecambe and Wise, Dick Emery, Mike Yarwood, Les Dawson, Jim Davidson and Hale and Pace, and a claim to sci-fi cult fame as the voice of the Daleks in Doctor Who from 1984 to 1988.

On radio, Mills was a 20-year stalwart of BBC Radio 4’s weekly satirical show, Week Ending.

In the mid-1970s, he co-founded the producing company Mansion Plays, for which he directed several shows during its brief lifetime.

A committed Equity member, he served on its council for a number of years.

Anthony Royce Mills was born on May 12, 1942 and died on May 21, aged 77.

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