Grouty’s greatest hits

 

© BBC

 

I suppose I shouldn’t feel too upset about the passing of the great British character actor Peter Vaughan.  He’d enjoyed an excellent innings – he was 93 when he died three days ago – and his seven-decade acting career had lasted right up to the present with his performance as Maester Aemon in the blockbusting HBO fantasy series Game of Thrones.  But I’m still sorry to see him go, primarily because he was one of those thespians who’d seemed so enduring and ubiquitous that I fancied he was going to continue popping up in films and on TV shows until the end of time.

 

Here’s a selection of my favourite moments from Peter Vaughan’s acting CV.  I haven’t picked his acclaimed performance in the award-winning 1996 BBC TV series Our Friends in the North because I haven’t seen it – I wasn’t living in the UK when it was broadcast.  And I haven’t mentioned Game of Thrones because, believe it or not, I’ve never watched it either.  (Though someday I’ll take half-a-year off and devote it to a seven-season Game of Thrones boxset binge.)

 

Fanatic (1965)

When the famous British studio Hammer Films wasn’t making gothic horror movies in the 1960s, it was making small-scale psychological thrillers.  These included Taste of Fear (1961), Paranoiac (1963) and this film, which despite some predictability and a disappointing ending is a lot of fun.  It benefits from a great little cast and from deft low-budget direction by Canadian filmmaker Silvio Narizzano, who’d later direct 1966’s classic Georgy Girl and the 1970 movie version of the Joe Orton play Loot.

 

Fanatic has Stephanie Powers crossing paths with and being imprisoned by a rich, elderly and demented religious fanatic, played with scenery-chewing gusto by Tallulah Bankhead.  In the roles of Bankhead’s husband-and-wife servants – who do her bidding because they hope to get a generous inheritance after her death – are Vaughan and the formidable actress Yootha Joyce.  By the late 1970s Joyce would be Britain’s indisputable Sitcom Queen, thanks to playing the dragon-ish Mildred Roper in Man about the House (1973-76) and George and Mildred (1976-1980).

 

© Hammer Films

 

The pleasure of Vaughan’s performance in Fanatic is what a total scum-bucket he is.  His character is by turns shifty, scheming, greedy, sadistic, thuggish, lecherous and cowardly.  You can’t help but cheer when near the end Bankhead shoots him in the face.

 

An additional bonus is that playing the household’s mentally subnormal handyman is a young and before-he-was-famous Donald Sutherland.  Yay!

 

Straw Dogs (1971)

Set in rural Cornwall, dealing notoriously with vigilantism, violence and rape, Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs sees Vaughan essaying another scummy character.  He’s local patriarch, boozer and brute Tom Hedden, who leads the climactic assault on Dustin Hoffman and Susan George’s house after the village idiot accidentally kills his daughter, flees and takes refuge there.

 

© ABC Pictures / Talent Associates

 

When the village magistrate, played by T.P. McKenna, arrives at the house to try to defuse the situation, Vaughan blasts him apart with his shotgun.  Then Vaughan starts climbing in through one of Hoffman’s windows.  Hoffman tackles him and things don’t end well for him when his shotgun goes off again during the struggle.

 

After viewing Straw Dogs, one sick-minded friend of mine was prompted to quip, “Peter Vaughan never really found his feet in that movie, did he?”

 

Symptoms (1974)

Spanish director Jose Ramon Larraz’s British-made horror film is a languid, dreamy and quietly effective piece of work that’s regarded now as a minor classic.  Little seen for many years, it was finally scheduled for DVD release this year with the help of the British Film Institute.  Lorna Heilbron plays a young woman invited by a new, slightly-odd friend (Angela Pleasence) to spend time with her on her remote country estate.  However, Vaughan – playing yet another unsavoury character, the creepy groundsman – is soon dropping hints to her that she isn’t the first young woman to have been invited to the estate; and the previous one may not have left it.

 

© Finiton Productions

 

In the supporting cast is Mike Grady, who along with Vaughan would later become a regular in the BBC sitcom Citizen Smith.  About which, more in a minute.

 

Porridge (1974-1977 & 1979)

I can understand why Vaughan was bemused at how a generation of Britons identified him completely with Harry Grout in the BBC’s classic prison-set sitcom Porridge.  He was in Porridge for only a couple of episodes and the 1979 movie adaptation.  However, he certainly made an impression.

 

Usually funny, occasionally serious, Porridge follows the adventures of a cynical old lag (Ronnie Barker) and his naïve young cellmate (Richard Beckinsdale) as they try to keep their heads down, serve their time with a minimum of trouble and navigate a safe path between the prison authorities on one hand and the prison’s more criminal elements on the other.  Representing those criminal elements is the prison’s Mr Big, the fearsome Harry Grout – Grouty as he’s referred to, under whispered breath.

 

Despite being a convict, Grouty lives a life of luxury with his every need attended to by obsequious fellow-inmates and crooked warders.  He’s clearly inspired by Mr Bridger, the character played by Noel Coward in the popular 1969 caper movie The Italian Job.  But while Coward plays Bridger for laughs, swanning about his lavish cell like a member of the Royal Family, the bear-like and quietly-intense Vaughn imbues Grouty with genuine menace.  You have no doubt that if you cross him, he’ll arrange for someone to break your legs.  And if nobody’s available to do it, he’ll break those legs himself.

 

© BBC

 

Citizen Smith (1977-78)

A BBC sitcom scripted by John Sullivan, Citizen Smith was a political satire starring Robert Lindsay and set in 1970s south London.  Lindsay plays Wolfie Smith, a hopeless Che Guevara wannabe and leader of a revolutionary, but equally hopeless organisation called the Tooting Popular Front.

 

Peter Vaughan would have been a shoo-in for the role of local gangster Harry Fenning (actually played by Stephen Greif), whom Wolfie frequently rubs up the wrong way while he tries to engineer a people’s uprising.  Instead, however, Vaughan landed the slightly milder role of Charlie Johnson, the father of Wolfie’s comparatively-sensible girlfriend Shirley (Cheryl Hall).

 

Much of the show’s charm came from the bickering between Wolfie and the conservative, no-nonsense, old-fashioned Charlie.  The latter’s sarcastic tones as he repeatedly refers to his prospective son-in-law as ‘Trotsky’, ‘Chairman Mao’ and ‘the yeti’ are a joy.   Citizen Smith lasted for four seasons, but it was never quite the same after Vaughan left at the end of season two.

 

The Time Bandits (1981)

Director / writer Terry Gilliam’s fantasy The Time Bandits is a lovely film with a lovely cast – and I don’t just mean the various Hollywood stars in (mostly) cameo roles, but also Craig Warnock as eleven-year-old hero Kevin and David Rappaport, Kenny Baker, Jack Purves and co. as the time-travelling dwarves.  Vaughan appears as a cantankerous, feeling-his-age and self-pitying ogre called Winston: “You try being beastly and terrifying… you can only get one hour’s sleep a night because your back hurts, and you daren’t cough unless you want to pull a muscle.”  He shares a houseboat with his wife, Mrs Ogre, who’s coincidentally played by another Sitcom Queen – Katherine Helmond, who was Jessica Tate in the legendary American comedy Soap (1977-81).

 

© Handmade Films

 

When Winston catches Kevin and the dwarves in his fishing net, he and Mrs Ogre make plans to eat them – “Aren’t they lovely?  We can have them for breakfast!” – but the dwarves turn the tables on him after he unwisely agrees to let them massage his sore back.

 

Terry Gilliam liked Vaughan so much that he cast him in his next movie, Brazil (1985).  Writing on Facebook the other day, Gilliam urged his followers to “put on Brazil or Time Bandits and lift a glass to him.  Farewell, Peter!”

 

The Remains of the Day (1993)

James Ivory’s The Remains of the Day is much admired but I’m not a huge fan of it.  Perhaps this is because before I saw it I’d read the Kazuo Ishiguro novel on which it’s based; and I prefer the book to the film.

 

Vaughan plays Stevens Sr., father of the main character played by Anthony Hopkins – James Stevens, a duty-obsessed and unthinkingly loyal butler to a 1930s aristocrat.   Stevens Sr. was once a distinguished butler himself, equally dutiful and loyal.  As his health and abilities fail, however, he loses his standing and dignity in the household and ends up a lowly cleaner.  His plight becomes a warning to his son about what lies ahead.  An added tragedy is that the son is too self-consciously reserved to show his emotions at the old man’s decline.

 

And for me, the most memorable thing in the movie version of The Remains of the Day is Peter Vaughan’s poignant performance.

 

© Merchant-Ivory Productions

 

The magnificent seven dwarves

 

© The Birmingham Mail

 

Last weekend saw the passing of Kenny Baker, an actor whose face wasn’t famous but whose most prominent film-role certainly was.  The three-foot, eight-inch-tall Baker was the man inside the bodywork of the diminutive Star Wars robot R2D2, part dodgem car and part coffee percolator.  He steered the trundling, beeping droid through six instalments of George Lucas’s lucrative space-fantasy saga.  He would have returned in a seventh, last year’s The Force Awakens, but declining health prevented this.

 

In the movies R2D2 was partnered with the jabbering humanoid robot C-3PO, whom I always thought was a bit of a knob-head.  R2D2, though, was the star.  Indeed, according to R2D2’s Wikipedia entry, George Lucas made a point of having the resourceful little droid save the day on at least one occasion in every film.

 

That said, I think Baker’s finest hour wasn’t as R2D2 but as Fidget, one of the six time-travelling dwarves in Terry Gilliam’s superlative fantasy film, The Time Bandits (1981).  The kindly Fidget gets killed near the end, squashed beneath a falling pillar; but fortunately God, played by Sir Ralph Richardson, pops up in the nick of time to restore him to life.  I’ve heard claims that Gilliam based the dwarves’ characters on the six members of the outfit he’d formerly belonged to, the Monty Python team; and Fidget, the nice-guy dwarf, was modelled on Michael Palin.

 

Kenny Baker’s death got me thinking.  I’ve seen a lot of short actors in my time – especially as they appear in many horror, fantasy and science-fiction movies, three genres I’m a fan of.  So who are my favourite ones?

 

Firstly, I’d pick Skip Martin.  By the time of his death in 1984 Martin had appeared in several British horror movies that, because I watched them at a formative age, are now seared on my memory.  As well as playing big-top dwarves in John Llewellyn Moxley / Werner Jacobs’ Circus of Fear (1966) and Robert Young’s atmospheric Vampire Circus (1972), Skip Martin appeared in Corridors of Blood (1958), The Hellfire Club (1961), Son of Dracula (1974) and the absolutely barking-mad-insane Horror Hospital (1973).

 

© Alta Vista Productions / AIP

 

But he’s at his best in Roger Corman’s majestic 1964 adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death.  Writers Charles Beaumont and R. Wright Campbell stitch a second Poe story, Hop Frog, into the plot and Martin takes the title role in this.  Well, almost the title role – Beaumont and Campbell rename him ‘Hop Toad’ for some reason.  Hop Toad is one of two little people employed as entertainers by rottenly-evil Prince Prospero (Vincent Price), who’s holed up in his castle and living a life of drink / drugs / sex / party / diabolism-fuelled decadence while a plague, the Red Death, decimates the countryside outside.  One of Prospero’s loathsome guests, Alfredo (Patrick Magee), insults Hop Toad’s dainty, doll-like partner Esmerelda and he vows revenge.

 

This comes when Alfredo decides to don fancy dress at Prospero’s next big social event, the masque.  Hop Toad persuades him to wear a hairy (and inflammable) ape costume.  Then on the night, with the help of some chains and a giant hanging candelabrum, he suspends Alfredo above the revellers on the dance floor, sets his costume alight and burns him to a crisp.  This delights Price’s Prospero, who purrs, “Look…  I believe Hop Toad is playing some sort of a joke on Alfredo!”  Gratifyingly, when the inevitable happens and the Red Death gets into the castle and poops the party, Hop Toad and Esmerelda are among the few who escape.

 

Less prolific in British horror movies, but still memorable, was American actor Michael Dunn.  A man with an intriguing back story – he reputedly had an IQ of 178 and a non-acting CV that included stints as a singer, a journalist, a hotel detective and a monk – he made his name during the 1960s with appearances in countless American TV shows, most famously as Dr Miguelito Loveless, the main villain in The Wild, Wild West (1965-1968).  He was also nominated for a Tony Award for his performance in Edward Albee’s stage adaptation of Carson McCullers’ The Ballad of the Sad Café and for an Oscar for his role as narrator in Ship of Fools (1965).

 

From www.nctc.net

 

Near the end of his life he appeared in another British-made Poe adaptation, Gordon Hessler’s Murders in the Rue Morgue (1971); and another British horror film of the barking-mad-insane variety, Jack Cardiff’s The Mutations (1973), in which he was a member of a carnival sideshow that’s a front for some horrific gene-splicing experiments carried out by mad scientist Donald Pleasence.  In the year The Mutations was made, Dunn – by then frustrated about the roles he was getting – died of pulmonary heart disease.  His health wasn’t helped by his fondness for Jack Daniel’s, which despite his size he could put away a lot of.

 

When I’m in the right mood, I quite like The Mutations.  But I can see how appearing in a sleazy British horror movie where Donald Pleasence surgically turns people into plant monsters must have convinced Dunn his career was on the skids.

 

One short actor whose career is unlikely to be on the skids anytime soon is British actor Warwick Davis.  After his appearances in three Star Wars films, eight Harry Potter films, plus the Ricky Gervais situation comedy Life’s Too Short (2011-2013), he’s now regarded in Britain as a national treasure.  Incidentally, when he was less famous, Davis played the title character in six instalments of the dopey Leprechaun horror-comedy franchise.  He was in Leprechaun (1992), Leprechaun II (1993), Leprechaun III (1994), Leprechaun IV: In Space (1996), Leprechaun: In the Hood (2000) and Leprechaun: Back 2 tha Hood (2003).  About the last film, Entertainment Weekly mused, “If a movie could spark a race riot, this is it.”

 

From wikipedia.org

 

I like Warwick Davis a lot.  However, having seen clips of those Leprechaun movies – I’ve never watched any in their entirety because, er, life’s too short – I’d advise him to do a bit of work on his Irish accent.

 

Another modern actor of short stature who seems to be doing well is Canadian actor Jordan Prentice.  Like Kenny Baker and Warwick Davis, Prentice found early employment with George Lucas; but while Baker and Davis were lucky enough to be involved in the box-office-busting Star Wars series, Prentice was involved in a less illustrious item in the Lucas canon.  He was one of the actors operating the title character in the atrocious 1986 sci-fi comedy Howard the Duck.

 

In the noughties Prentice appeared in two of my favourite comic-noir movies.  Michael McDonagh’s In Bruges (2008) sees him playing Jimmy, an obnoxious ketamine-abusing, prostitute-chasing dwarf actor who’s doing some filming in the Belgian city of the title.  Jimmy has to put up with dim-witted interloper Ray (Colin Farrell), who insists on babbling about the existentialist misery of being a dwarf: “People go around calling you a midget when you want to be called a dwarf.  Of course you’re going to blow your head off.”

 

© Film4 Productions / Focus Films

 

The previous year he’d appeared in Allan Moyle’s Weirdsville, an amusing shaggy-dog story set in Ontario and involving druggies, Satanists and, yes, dwarves.  The latter seem to belong to a historical re-enactment society for vertically-challenged people and they’re led by Prentice’s character, Martin.  When late in the film Martin and his buddies turn up to save the day dressed in medieval garb, they provide an obvious visual reference to The Time Bandits.

 

That brings me back to The Time Bandits and my next favourite short actor.  Englishman David Rappaport seemed ubiquitous on UK television when I was a youth.  He appeared alongside the anarchic likes of Spike Milligan, Sylvester McCoy, Rik Mayall and Kenny Everett in various madcap kids’ and adult TV shows that I enjoyed, including Q9 (1980), Jigsaw (1980-1981), The Goodies (1981), Tiswas (1981-1982), The Young Ones (1982-1983) and The Kenny Everett Television Show (1985).  He was also in movies like Cuba (1979) and The Bride (1985).  But his cinematic break came when another anarchic talent, Terry Gilliam, cast him in The Time Bandits as Randall, the dwarves’ cocky but essentially good-hearted leader.  If you believe the Monty Python theory, Gilliam based this character on John Cleese.

 

© HandMade Films / Janus Films

 

Tragically, Rappaport suffered from depression and committed suicide in 1990.  Three years later, another short actor, Frenchman Hervé Villechaize, star of the schmaltzy 1980s American TV show Fantasy Island, took his own life – though Villechaize was driven to this not because of mental anguish but because of chronic pain caused by his physical condition.  (In In Bruges, Colin Farrell’s character alludes to both Rapport and Villechaize during his babblings about dwarves.)

 

I’m not a Fantasy Island fan but I admired Villechaize for his performance as Nick Nack, henchman of the villainous Scaramanga (Christopher Lee) in the 1974 James Bond movie The Man with the Golden Gun.  The film’s lame but it has one thing going for it – its baddies, Lee and Villechaize.  While Lee invests Scaramanga with his usual imperious wickedness, Villechaize is more sinisterly ambiguous.  He seems affable.  He’s dutiful and obedient.  Because of his size, he’s almost elf-like.  So is he dangerous?  And if so, how dangerous?  Even Bond himself, Roger Moore, can’t make up his mind.  At the film’s end, rather than liquidating Nick Nack, he settles for trapping him inside a suitcase.

 

© Eon Productions

 

Incidentally, I’ve read that the American short actor Peter Dinklage – famous for his performances in the 2003 arthouse hit The Station Agent and the tits-blood-and-dragons TV fantasy show Game of Thrones – is currently trying to make a film about Villechaize called My Dinner with Hervé.  If the project comes to fruition, let’s hope it’s a worthy epitaph for James Bond’s littlest adversary.

 

© HandMade Films / Janus Films