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.)
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?”
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.
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