Obituaries

Jan 252017
 

John Hurt, widely admired stage and screen actor, dies aged 77

British actor became an overnight sensation after playing Quentin Crisp in the 1975 television film The Naked Civil Servant

Few British actors of recent years have been held in as much affection as Sir John Hurt, who has died aged 77. That affection is not just because of his unruly lifestyle – he was a hell-raising chum of Oliver Reed, Peter O’Toole and Richard Harris, and was married four times – or even his string of performances as damaged, frail or vulnerable characters, though that was certainly a factor. There was something about his innocence, open-heartedness and his beautiful speaking voice that made him instantly attractive.

As he aged, his face developed more creases and folds than the old map of the Indies, inviting comparisons with the famous “lived-in” faces of WH Auden and Samuel Beckett, in whose reminiscent Krapp’s Last Tape he gave a definitive solo performance towards the end of his career. One critic said he could pack a whole emotional universe into the twitch of an eyebrow, a sardonic slackening of the mouth. Hurt himself said: “What I am now, the man, the actor, is a blend of all that has happened.”

For theatregoers of my generation, his pulverising, hysterically funny performance as Malcolm Scrawdyke, leader of the Party of Dynamic Erection at a Yorkshire art college, in David Halliwell’s Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs, was a totemic performance of the mid-1960s; another was David Warner’s Hamlet, and both actors appeared in the 1974 film version of Little Malcolm. The play lasted only two weeks at the Garrick Theatre (I saw the final Saturday matinée), but Hurt’s performance was already a minor cult, and one collected by the Beatles and Laurence Olivier.

He became an overnight sensation with the public at large as Quentin Crisp – the self-confessed “stately homo of England” – in the 1975 television film The Naked Civil Servant, directed by Jack Gold, playing the outrageous, original and defiant aesthete whom Hurt had first encountered as a nude model in his painting classes at St Martin’s School of Art, before he trained as an actor.

Crisp called Hurt “my representative here on Earth”, ironically claiming a divinity at odds with his low-life louche-ness and poverty. But Hurt, a radiant vision of ginger quiffs and curls, with a voice kippered in gin and as studiously inflected as a deadpan mix of Noël Coward, Coral Browne and Julian Clary, in a way propelled Crisp to the stars, and certainly to his transatlantic fame, a journey summarised when Hurt recapped Crisp’s life in An Englishman in New York (2009), 10 years after his death.

Hurt said some people had advised him that playing Crisp would end his career. Instead, it made everything possible. Within five years he had appeared in four of the most extraordinary films of the late 1970s: Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), the brilliantly acted sci-fi horror movie in which Hurt – from whose stomach the creature exploded – was the first victim; Alan Parker’s Midnight Express, for which he won his first Bafta award as a drug-addicted convict in a Turkish torture prison; Michael Cimino’s controversial western Heaven’s Gate (1980), now a cult classic in its fully restored format; and David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980), with Anthony Hopkins and Anne Bancroft.

In the latter, as John Merrick, the deformed circus attraction who becomes a celebrity in Victorian society and medicine, Hurt won a second Bafta award and Lynch’s opinion that he was “the greatest actor in the world”. He infused a hideous outer appearance – there were 27 moving pieces in his face mask; he spent nine hours a day in make-up – with a deeply moving, humane quality. He followed up with a small role – Jesus – in Mel Brooks’s History of the World: Part 1 (1981), the movie where the waiter at the Last Supper says, “Are you all together, or is it separate cheques?”

Hurt was an actor freed of all convention in his choice of roles, and he lived his life accordingly. Born in Chesterfield, Derbyshire, he was the youngest of three children of a Church of England vicar and mathematician, the Reverend Arnould Herbert Hurt, and his wife, Phyllis (née Massey), an engineer with an enthusiasm for amateur dramatics.

After a miserable schooling at St Michael’s in Sevenoaks, Kent (where he said he was sexually abused), and the Lincoln grammar school (where he played Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest), he rebelled as an art student, first at the Grimsby art school where, in 1959, he won a scholarship to St Martin’s, before training at Rada for two years in 1960.

He made a stage debut that same year with the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Arts, playing a semi-psychotic teenage thug in Fred Watson’s Infanticide in the House of Fred Ginger and then joined the cast of Arnold Wesker’s national service play, Chips With Everything, at the Vaudeville. Still at the Arts, he was Len in Harold Pinter’s The Dwarfs (1963) before playing the title role in John Wilson’s Hamp (1964) at the Edinburgh Festival, where critic Caryl Brahms noted his unusual ability and “blessed quality of simplicity”.

This was a more relaxed, free-spirited time in the theatre. Hurt recalled rehearsing with Pinter when silver salvers stacked with gins and tonics, ice and lemon, would arrive at 11.30 each morning as part of the stage management routine. On receiving a rude notice from the distinguished Daily Mail critic Peter Lewis, he wrote, “Dear Mr Lewis, Whooooops! Yours sincerely, John Hurt” and received the reply, “Dear Mr Hurt, thank you for short but tedious letter. Yours sincerely, Peter Lewis.”

After Little Malcolm, he played leading roles with the RSC at the Aldwych – notably in David Mercer’s Belcher’s Luck (1966) and as the madcap dadaist Tristan Tzara in Tom Stoppard’s Travesties (1974) – as well as Octavius in Shaw’s Man and Superman in Dublin in 1969 and an important 1972 revival of Pinter’s The Caretaker at the Mermaid. But his stage work over the next 10 years was virtually non-existent as he followed The Naked Civil Servant with another pyrotechnical television performance as Caligula in I, Claudius; Raskolnikov in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and the Fool to Olivier’s King Lear in Michael Elliott’s 1983 television film.

His first big movie had been Fred Zinnemann’s A Man for All Seasons (1966) with Paul Scofield (Hurt played Richard Rich) but his first big screen performance was an unforgettable Timothy Evans, the innocent framed victim in Richard Fleischer’s 10 Rillington Place (1970), with Richard Attenborough as the sinister landlord and killer John Christie. He claimed to have made 150 movies and persisted in playing those he called “the unloved … people like us, the inside-out people, who live their lives as an experiment, not as a formula”. Even his Ben Gunn-like professor in Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) fitted into this category, though not as resoundingly, perhaps, as his quivering Winston Smith in Michael Radford’s terrific Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984); or as a prissy weakling, Stephen Ward, in Michael Caton-Jones’s Scandal (1989) about the Profumo affair; or again as the lonely writer Giles De’Ath in Richard Kwietniowski’s Love and Death on Long Island.

His later, sporadic theatre performances included a wonderful Trigorin in Chekhov’s The Seagull at the Lyric, Hammersmith, in 1985 (with Natasha Richardson as Nina); Turgenev’s incandescent idler Rakitin in a 1994 West End production by Bill Bryden of A Month in the Country, playing a superb duet with Helen Mirren’s Natalya Petrovna; and another memorable match with Penelope Wilton in Brian Friel’s exquisite 70-minute doodle Afterplay (2002), in which two lonely Chekhov characters – Andrei from Three Sisters, Sonya from Uncle Vanya – find mutual consolation in a Moscow café in the 1920s. The play originated, like his Krapp, at the Gate Theatre in Dublin.

His last screen work included, in the Harry Potter franchise, the first, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001), and last two, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Parts One and Two (2010, 2011), as the kindly wand-maker Mr Ollivander; Roland Joffé’s 1960s remake of Brighton Rock (2010); and the 50th anniversary television edition of Dr Who (2013), playing a forgotten incarnation of the title character.

Because of his distinctive, virtuosic vocal attributes – was that what a brandy-injected fruitcake sounds like, or peanut butter spread thickly with a serrated knife? – he was always in demand for voiceover gigs in animated movies: the heroic rabbit leader, Hazel, in Watership Down (1978), Aragorn/Strider in Lord of the Rings (1978) and the Narrator in Lars von Trier’s Dogville (2004). In 2015 he took the Peter O’Toole stage role in Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell for BBC Radio 4. He had foresworn alcohol for a few years – not for health reasons, he said, but because he was bored with it.

Hurt’s sister was a teacher in Australia, his brother a convert to Roman Catholicism and a monk and writer. After his first short marriage to the actor Annette Robinson (1960, divorced 1962) he lived for 15 years in London with the French model Marie-Lise Volpeliere Pierrot. She was killed in a riding accident in 1983. In 1984 he married, secondly, a Texan, Donna Peacock (divorced in 1990), living with her for a time in Nairobi until the relationship came under strain from his drinking and her dalliance with a gardener. With his third wife, Jo Dalton (married in 1990, divorced 1995), he had two sons, Nicolas and Alexander (“Sasha”), who survive him, as does his fourth wife, the actor and producer Anwen Rees-Myers, whom he married in 2005 and with whom he lived in Cromer, Norfolk. Hurt was made CBE in 2004, given a Bafta lifetime achievement award in 2012 and knighted in the New Year’s honours list of 2015.

Aug 292016
 

Comedy legend Gene Wilders has died

Gene Wilder, who established himself as one of America’s foremost comic actors with his delightfully neurotic performances in three films directed by Mel Brooks; his eccentric star turn in the family classic “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”; and his winning chemistry with Richard Pryor in the box-office smash “Stir Crazy,” died early Monday morning at his home in Stamford, Conn. He was 83.

A nephew, the filmmaker Jordan Walker-Pearlman, confirmed his death in a statement, saying the cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease.

Mr. Wilder’s rule for comedy was simple: Don’t try to make it funny; try to make it real. “I’m an actor, not a clown,” he said more than once.

With his haunted blue eyes and an empathy born of his own history of psychic distress, he aspired to touch audiences much as Charlie Chaplin had. The Chaplin film “City Lights,” he said, had “made the biggest impression on me as an actor; it was funny, then sad, then both at the same time.”

Mr. Wilder was an accomplished stage actor as well as a screenwriter, a novelist and the director of four movies in which he starred. (He directed, he once said, “in order to protect what I wrote, which I wrote in order to act.”) But he was best known for playing roles on the big screen that might have been ripped from the pages of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

He made his movie debut in 1967 in Arthur Penn’s celebrated crime drama, “Bonnie and Clyde,” in which he was memorably hysterical as an undertaker kidnapped by the notorious Depression-era bank robbers played by Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty. He was even more hysterical, and even more memorable, a year later in “The Producers,” the first film by Mr. Brooks, who later turned it into a Broadway hit.

Mr. Wilder played the security-blanket-clutching accountant Leo Bloom, who discovers how to make more money on a bad Broadway show than on a good one: Find rich backers, stage a production that’s guaranteed to fold fast, then flee the country with the leftover cash. Unhappily for Bloom and his fellow schemer, Max Bialystock, played by Zero Mostel, their outrageously tasteless musical, “Springtime for Hitler,” is a sensation.

The part earned Mr. Wilder an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor. Within a few years, the anxious, frizzy-haired, popeyed Mr. Wilder had become an unlikely movie star.

He was nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance as the wizardly title character in “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” (1971). The film was a box-office disappointment, partly because of parental concern that the moral of Roald Dahl’s story — that greedy, gluttonous children should not go unpunished — was too dark in the telling. But it went on to gain a devoted following, and Willy Wonka remains one of the roles with which Mr. Wilder is most closely identified.

His next role was more adult but equally strange: an otherwise normal doctor who falls in love with a sheep named Daisy in a segment of Woody Allen’s “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex but Were Afraid to Ask,” in 1972. Two years later, he reunited with Mr. Brooks for perhaps the two best-known entries in either man’s filmography.

In “Blazing Saddles,” a raunchy, no-holds-barred spoof of Hollywood westerns, Mr. Wilder had the relatively quiet role of the Waco Kid, a boozy ex-gunfighter who helps an improbable black sheriff (Cleavon Little) save a town from railroad barons and venal politicians. The film’s once-daring humor may have lost some of its edge over the years, but Mr. Wilder’s next Brooks film, “Young Frankenstein,” has never grown old.

Mr. Wilder himself hatched the idea, envisioning a black-and-white film faithful to the look of the Boris Karloff “Frankenstein,” down to the laboratory equipment, but played for laughs rather than for horror. He would portray an American man of science, the grandson of the infamous Dr. Frankenstein, who tries to turn his back on his heritage (“that’s Frahn-kahn-STEEN”) but finds himself irresistibly drawn to Transylvania to duplicate his grandfather’s creation of a monster in a spooky mountaintop laboratory.

Mr. Brooks’s original reaction to the idea, Mr. Wilder recalled, was noncommittal: “Cute. That’s cute.” But he eventually came aboard as director and co-writer, and the two garnered an Oscar nomination for their screenplay.

Serendipity played a role in the casting. Mr. Wilder’s agent asked him to help find work for two new clients, and thus Marty Feldman became Frankenstein’s assistant, Igor (“that’s EYE-gor”), and Peter Boyle the monster. Madeline Kahn, whose performance as the chanteuse Lili Von Shtupp had been a highlight of “Blazing Saddles,” played the doctor’s socialite fiancée. Cloris Leachman was Frau Blücher, the sound of whose name caused horses to whinny in fear.

The name Blücher, Mr. Wilder said in a 2008 interview with The San Jose Mercury News, came from a book of letters to and from Sigmund Freud: “I saw someone named Blücher had written to him, and I said, ‘Well, that’s the name.’” And Mr. Wilder certainly knew a lot about Freud.

His first of many visits to a psychotherapist is the opening scene in the memoir he published in 2005, “Kiss Me Like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art.”

“What seems to be the trouble?” the therapist asks.

“I want to give all my money away,” he says.

“How much do you have?”

“I owe three hundred dollars.”

Soon the jokes and evasions give way to the torments of sexual repression, guilt feelings and his “demon,” a compulsion, lasting several years, to pray out loud to God at the most embarrassing times and in the most embarrassing places. But never onstage or onscreen, where he felt free to be someone else.

Gene Wilder was born Jerome Silberman in Milwaukee on June 11, 1933. His father, William, a manufacturer and salesman of novelty items, was an immigrant from Russia. His mother, the former Jeanne Baer, suffered from rheumatic heart disease and a temperament that sometimes led her to punish young Jerry angrily and then smother him with regretful kisses.

He spent one semester at the Black-Foxe Military Institute in Hollywood. His mother saw it as a great opportunity; in reality, it was a catch basin for boys from broken families, where he was regularly beaten up for being Jewish.

Safely back home after that misadventure, he played minor roles in community theater productions and then followed his older sister, Corinne, into the theater program at the University of Iowa. After Iowa, he studied Shakespeare at the Bristol Old Vic Theater School in England, where he was the first freshman to win the school fencing championship.

He next enrolled part time at the HB Studio in New York, while also serving a two-year Army hitch as an aide in the psychiatric unit of the Valley Forge Army Hospital in Pennsylvania — an assignment he requested because, he said, “I imagined the things I would see there might relate more to acting than any of the other choices.” He added, “I wasn’t wrong.”

After his discharge, he won a coveted spot at the Actors Studio, and it was then that he adopted the name Gene Wilder: Gene for Eugene Gant, the protagonist of Thomas Wolfe’s “Look Homeward, Angel,” and Wilder for the playwright Thornton Wilder.

In his first major role on Broadway, Mr. Wilder played the chaplain in a 1963 production of Bertolt Brecht’s “Mother Courage and Her Children.” The production ran for less than two months, and he came to believe that he had been miscast. The good news was that he met the boyfriend of the star, Anne Bancroft: Mel Brooks, who wore a pea coat the night he met Mr. Wilder backstage and told him, “You know, they used to call these urine jackets, but they didn’t sell.”

So began the conversation that ultimately led to “The Producers.”

Mr. Wilder’s association with Mr. Brooks led, in turn, to one with Richard Pryor, who was one of the writers of “Blazing Saddles” (and Mr. Brooks’s original choice for the part ultimately played by Mr. Little). In 1976, Mr. Pryor was third-billed behind Mr. Wilder and Jill Clayburgh in “Silver Streak,” a comic thriller about murder on a transcontinental train. The two men went on to star in the 1982 hit “Stir Crazy,” in which they played a hapless pair jailed for a crime they didn’t commit, as well as “See No Evil, Hear No Evil” (1989) and “Another You” (1991).

Mr. Wilder’s first two marriages, to Mary Mercier and Mary Joan Schutz, ended in divorce. In 1982, he met the “Saturday Night Live” comedian Gilda Radner when they were both cast in the suspense comedy “Hanky Panky.”

One evening, he recalled in “Kiss Me Like a Stranger,” he and Ms. Radner innocently ended up at his hotel to review some script changes. The time came for her to go; instead, she shoved him down on the bed, jumped on top of him and announced, “I have a plan for fun!” He sent her home anyway — she was married to another man — but before long, they began a relationship.

By his account, Ms. Radner was needy, obsessed with getting married and, once they married in 1984, obsessed with having a child, a project that ended in miscarriage just months before she learned she had ovarian cancer in 1986.

Of their first year of living together, he wrote: “We didn’t get along well, and that’s a fact. We just loved each other, and that’s a fact.” He left, only to find that he needed to go back.

Ms. Radner died in 1989. “I had one great blessing: I was so dumb,” Mr. Wilder once said of her last years. “I believed even three weeks before she died she would make it.”

In memory of Ms. Radner, he helped to found an ovarian cancer detection center in her name, in Los Angeles, and Gilda’s Club, a network of support centers for people with cancer. He also contributed to a book, “Gilda’s Disease” (1998), with Dr. M. Steven Piver.

Mr. Wilder himself developed non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1999. With chemotherapy and a stem-cell transplant, he was in remission by 2005.

In 1991 Mr. Wilder married Karen Boyer, a hearing specialist who had coached him in the filming of “See No Evil, Hear No Evil,” in which his character was deaf and Mr. Pryor’s was blind. She survives him, as does a daughter from an earlier marriage. His sister died in January.

Even before he became ill, Mr. Wilder had begun slowing down. He made his first and last attempt at a television series, the short-lived and little-remembered comedy “Something Wilder,” in 1994.

He returned to the theater in 1997 in a London production of Neil Simon’s “Laughter on the 23rd Floor.” In 1999 he was a writer for two TV movies in which he starred, “Murder in a Small Town” and “The Lady in Question,” playing a theater director turned amateur sleuth. In 2001 he appeared at the Westport Country Playhouse in Connecticut in a program of one-act farces. Shortly after appearing in an episode of “Will & Grace” in 2003 — he won an Emmy for that role — he declared that he had retired from acting for good.

“I don’t like show business, I realized,” he said in 2008. “I like show, but I don’t like the business.”

He was by then enjoying a new career as a novelist. His “My French Whore,” published in 2007, was the story of a naïve young American who impersonates a German spy in World War I. (“Just fluff, but sweet fluff,” the novelist Carolyn See wrote in her review in The Washington Post.) It was followed by two more novels, “The Woman Who Wouldn’t” and “Something to Remember You By,” and a story collection, “What Is This Thing Called Love?”

But it was, of course, as an actor that Mr. Wilder left his most lasting mark. In his memoir, he posed a question about his life’s work, then answered it:

“What do actors really want? To be great actors? Yes, but you can’t buy talent, so it’s best to leave the word ‘great’ out of it. I think to be believed, onstage or onscreen, is the one hope that all actors share.”

May 242016
 

Burt Kwouk, who has died aged 85, was best known for his role as Cato Fong, the long-suffering manservant of Inspector Clouseau (Peter Sellers) in the Pink Panther films.

As well as answering the telephone and dealing with the inspector’s daily needs, Cato’s chief role was to keep Clouseau vigilant by attacking him whenever he least expected it. Their encounters became a running joke throughout the Pink Panther series and the scenes involving their preposterous karate-style sparring – interspersed with loud screams – generally resulted in the destruction of Clouseau’s flat and Cato himself being knocked out, usually because of one of Clouseau’s underhand tricks.

“But Cato,” the inspector tells him before kicking him in the face in The Return of the Pink Panther (1975), “your fly is undone… and so, my friend, are you.”

Pink Panther fans (including the Prince of Wales and Elvis Presley, who could quote chunks of dialogue verbatim) loved the gag – particularly the slow-motion martial arts yowls and Cato’s ingenious hiding places, such as the canopy of a four-poster bed and a freezer. (“You know, Cato, your freezer ambush ploy. I really congratulate you.”)

Although Kwouk appeared in three James Bond films (including the spoof Casino Royale in 1967) and had a successful subsequent career on British television, his fondest professional memories were of his time in the Pink Panther films, and his friendship with Sellers endured until the actor’s death in 1980. “I learnt a lot from Peter,” he later recalled. “Particularly how to be ‘second banana’ – by which I mean like a straight man to him.”

He was sanguine about Clouseau’s affectionate references to Cato as his “little yellow friend”. “They can call me anything they like,” he once said, “as long as I get paid and my name is spelt correctly.”

Herbert Tsangtse Kwouk was born on July 18 1930 at Warrington while his parents were touring Europe. His father, a textile tycoon, was a descendant of a Tang dynasty general and Kwouk was brought up in the wealthy, mannered world of pre-war Shanghai. Between the ages of 12 and 16 he attended the Jesuit Mission School in the city, which he described as “the Far East equivalent of Eton”. He was then sent to the US to complete his education. He left China in 1947.

In 1949 Kwouk’s parents and sister were caught up in the Chinese revolution. Kwouk’s British passport enabled his mother and sister to leave for Hong Kong, but his father stayed in China. “I think my father supported the revolution,” Kwouk recalled, “because, morally, a person could not fail to support it: the mass of Chinese people were starving on the streets.”

He remained in America and continued his education until 1954 when he decided to tour Europe. Arriving in Britain he found a room in Ladbroke Grove and began looking for work. “I had no idea what I wanted to do,” he said, “but I went into catering because at least there you get to eat.” He worked as a dish-washer for Joe Lyons before moving on to a variety of jobs including mortuary attendant and later “butter-wrapper” at a factory in Clapham.

He spent his free time “hanging around the cheap end of Chelsea” with a group of friends. “We were the gestation period for the Swinging Sixties,” Kwouk explained. “We used to drink wine and talk about what we were going to do with our lives.”

After his girlfriend persuaded him that acting would make a suitable career and arranged for Kwouk to have some publicity photographs, he auditioned and got the part of a Malayan in Windom’s Way (1957), having persuaded the casting director that he spoke fluent Malay (he did not).

Kwouk was spotted by a talent scout who offered him a role in The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958). He then spent the next four years working consistently in a variety of film and television roles. “It made me very unpopular with a lot of the Oriental/American actors,” he said. “They had all been in the business for years and I just arrived from England and walked straight into non-stop work.”

After a part in the 1962 film 55 Days at Peking, Kwouk returned to Britain to appear in various television comedy shows, resisting advice from agents who suggested he change his name to Charlie Chan or Mr Woo. Through the early 1960s he was cast as a villain in series such as Danger Man, The Saint and The Avengers.

In 1964, having appeared as a baddie in Goldfinger, Kwouk was offered the part of Kato (later changed to Cato) in A Shot in the Dark. After reading the script Kwouk turned the part down. “I couldn’t see the point,” he recalled, “the character didn’t have a lot of screen time, didn’t say very much, and kept getting knocked down.” His agent eventually persuaded him that he needed the money and Kwouk accepted the role.

“Peter Sellers made me,” he said later, “there’s no doubt about it. He raised me to higher level and was a very generous actor, he kept finding ways for Cato get a bigger laugh.” Despite Sellers’s eccentricities Kwouk maintained that they had a good working relationship. “Peter was odd,” he admitted, “but few geniuses are not odd. I learned a lot about comedy acting just by watching his eyes before a take.” Cato proved so popular that he was written into all but one of the subsequent films. “1 loved playing the part,” Kwouk recalled, “but it was mayhem, half the time I was petrified I was actually going to get hurt by one of Peter’s wild lunges.”

Kwouk then alternated between playing villains in films such as The Brides of Fu Manchu (1966) and You Only Live Twice (1967) and playing Cato, which he did through the 1970s in The Return of the Pink Panther (1974), The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976) and The Revenge of the Pink Panther (1978). After Sellers’s death Kwouk wanted to give up the part and possibly against his better judgment he accepted roles in both The Trail of the Pink Panther (1982) and Curse of the Pink Panther (1983). Both films were made after Seller’s death and both flopped. He made a small appearance in the Meryl Streep vehicle Plenty (1985) before concentrating on his television career.

He took roles in television drama series such as Tenko (1981-83), in which he played a chilling, sadistic Japanese commandant. While admitting that many of the parts he played were seen by the Chinese community as “derogatory to their race” Kwouk rarely refused a role. “If I don’t do it someone else will,” he reflected.

Kwouk returned to filmmaking with appearances in Air America, opposite Mel Gibson, in 1990, and in Leon the Pig Farmer, a low-budget British production, in 1993. That year he revisited the role of Cato one final time in The Son of the Pink Panther. He became familiar to a new generation on television, with a recurring role as Entwistle in Last of the Summer Wine, and in The Harry Hill Show (as himself).

He was appointed OBE in 2011.

Burt Kwouk was an affable man who liked a glass and a smoke. He is survived by his wife Caroline, whom he married in 1961, and a son.

Burt Kwouk, born July 18 1930, died May 24 2016

Mar 312016
 

As one half of The Two Ronnies, Ronnie Corbett – who has died at the age of 85 – was one of the UK’s best-loved entertainers with a career spanning more than six decades.

The Two Ronnies predated Ant and Dec by more than 20 years and followed on from another household name comedy double act – Morecambe and Wise.
Made up of the rotund, jocular Englishman Ronnie Barker and the diminutive mischievous Scot Ronnie Corbett, the pair would become known for their hilarious sketches, mock news bulletins and comedy songs.

Their famous pay-off after every show was: “And it’s good night from me. And it’s good night from him.”
Neither comic played the straight man, both seemingly more than content to share out the funnies between them and they worked together for more than 30 years until Barker’s death in 2005.

Born in Edinburgh to a Scottish baker and his English wife, Corbett was educated locally but shunned further education after a handful of performances in amateur theatrical shows at his church youth club convinced him he wanted to be an actor.

He served his national service with the Royal Air Force and was, at only five feet tall in his stocking feet, the shortest commissioned officer in the British Forces.
After moving to London, he made his first professional stage appearance as Ronald Corbett in Take it Easy in 1956.. He was initially sensitive about his height, but as his career developed he made shrewd use of its comic potential.

His film appearances included Rockets Galore! (1957), Casino Royale, alongside David Niven, (1967) and the cinema version of the farce No Sex Please, We’re British (1973).

In 1965 he starred with Danny La Rue in cabaret at Winston’s, La Rue’s Mayfair nightclub, where he was seen by David Frost who asked him to appear in The Frost Report. It was there that he first worked with Ronnie Barker. Most of the writers and cast – which included the Monty Pythons John Cleese, Graham Chapman and Michael Palin and Goodies Tim Brooke-Taylor and Bill Oddie – were Oxbridge graduates. But as former grammar school boys who did not go to university, Corbett and Barker were drawn together and were soon thought of as a pair. They famously appeared with Cleese in the Class sketch, in which Corbett – representing the lower classes looking up to the middle and upper classes – got the pay-off: “I get a pain in the back of my neck.”

Of his relationship with Barker, Corbett said: “We liked each other very much and Ron, I suppose was the brainier of the two of us as far as theatrical knowhow because of his writing skills.” The pair would get their own show in 1971. It would run for 16 years and became essential family viewing.

One of their most famous sketches, Four Candles, was written by Barker showing off his natural gift for amusing wordplay. Walking into an old-fashioned ironmonger’s store, Barker appears to ask for “four candles”. Corbett gives him the candles but it turns out that Barker wanted “fork handles – ‘andles for forks”. With a team of writers and the hugely talented Barker at his disposal, Corbett said he was never tempted to sit down at the typewriter himself: “I think it’s a very brave thing to do, to write something down on a piece of paper and give it to someone and say, ‘I think this is very funny’.
“It’s bad enough getting up and doing it.”

Corbett’s most famous contributions to the show were his solo monologues, delivered from a chair, facing the camera.
His attempts to tell a simple joke, usually with a deliberately corny punch line, were constantly disrupted by his own going off tangent and relating other humorous incidents. The jokes could often last several minutes in the telling. Even after the show ended, it would be regularly repeated and enjoyed many festive specials.

Both Corbett and Barker enjoyed hugely successful solo careers, the latter with the classic prison sitcom Porridge and Corbett in Sorry!, which ran from 1981 to 1988.

In 2005, Corbett teamed up again with Ronnie Barker for The Two Ronnies Sketchbook, featuring comedy sketches from their original series with newly-recorded linking material.
The shows were recorded prior to Barker’s death later that year from heart failure at the age of 76. Corbett led tributes saying: “Ronnie was pure gold in triplicate – as a performer, a writer and a friend.

“We worked together since 1965 and we never had a cross word.
“It was 40 years of harmonious joy, nothing but an absolute pleasure. I will miss him terribly.”

Speaking to BBC’s Front Row in 2010, when he filmed a one-off The One Ronnie to mark his 80th birthday, he said he had never even entertained the idea of starting a partnership with another comedian.

“I suppose I avoided thoughts of it because it had been such a happy and supportive collaboration that we had, that I would miss his advice and his touch.”

In 2006, he played himself in Ricky Gervais’s comedy series Extras. A running gag involved references to Gervais’s character Andy apparently losing his virginity to “a women that looked like Ronnie Corbett”. The episode featured Corbett being caught taking drugs at the Baftas.

He also starred as himself in Little Britain Abroad and, in 2009, he hosted Strictly Come Dancing alongside Tess Daly and Claudia Winkleman when regular host Bruce Forsyth had flu.

Corbett was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 2012 New Year Honours for services to entertainment and charity.

Jan 262016
 

Singer-songwriter Colin Vearncombe, who performed under the name Black, has died at the age of 53, two weeks after being injured in a car crash.

The Liverpool singer, whose 1987 single Wonderful Life was a top 10 hit around the world, suffered head injuries in the crash in Ireland on 10 January, and was placed in an induced coma.

He died on Tuesday surrounded by his family in hospital, his publicist said.

His wife Camilla said she was “deeply grateful” to staff who cared for him.
The father-of-three, who was in intensive care at Cork University Hospital, “died peacefully” with his family at his side “who were singing him on his way”, a statement said.
“Colin received the best possible care from the expert and highly professional staff there and we are deeply grateful for everything they did,” his wife and three sons said in a statement.

Fellow Liverpool musician Pete Wylie of 80s band The Mighty Wah! paid tribute to his friend on Twitter, saying the news was “just so very sad”.
“I want to send all the love I can muster to Colin’s parents, brother & partner + to all who loved him, and who he loved too,” he wrote.
“I could still sing the very first song Colin recorded with me in the WAH! studio. I remember it that clearly. And that voice!”

Born in Liverpool in 1962, Vearncombe had his first top 10 hit with the single Sweetest Smile in June 1987 when he was 25 years old.
His second hit song Wonderful Life, which he had previously released but only got to number 72 in the charts, made the top 10 in the UK, Switzerland, Germany, France, Austria, the Netherlands and Italy.

However, despite having found fame, Vearncombe later said “the pop star life” was not as he had imagined it.
“I was frustrated by how few of the people in the music world I respected. Maybe I just didn’t go to the right clubs. I’ve never been a great schmoozer or networker and the idea of setting out to meet a certain type of people is anathema to me,” he said.
“It was two years of disappointment – I didn’t have any wild sex, I’m not a druggie, so I was just digging a hole for myself.”

Wonderful Life has since been used in numerous advertisements and films, and has been covered by artists including Tina Cousins and Katie Melua.
The album of the same name sold more than 1.5 million copies and peaked at number three.

Although he is best known for Wonderful Life and another 1980s single Sweetest Smile, Vearncombe released 15 albums under his own name.
Last year, he returned to his original stage name for a crowd-funded album, Blind Faith, which received positive reviews.
He has also published poetry and staged exhibitions of his paintings in south-west Ireland, where he lived in later life.
Hundreds of fans wrote messages of support on the musician’s Facebook page following the crash.
His publicist said there would be a private funeral, as well as a memorial service for him in Liverpool “as we know there are many, many people who will want to celebrate Colin’s life and work”.

Jan 142016
 

British actor Alan Rickman, whose career ranged from Britain’s Royal Shakespeare Company to the Harry Potter films, has died. He was 69.

His sonorous, languid voice was his calling card – making even throwaway lines of dialogue sound thought-out and authoritative.
It could also be laced with threat, something he employed to great effect in Die Hard, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and the eight Potter films, where he played scheming potions master Severus Snape.

But he could also take on romantic leads, as in Anthony Minghella’s 1991 drama Truly, Madly, Deeply and later turned his hand to directing.

Born in Acton, west London, Rickman was the second of four children for Margaret Doreen Rose, a housewife, and Bernard Rickman, a painter and decorator.
His father died of lung cancer when he was just eight years old, leaving his mother to seek out work to feed her family.
“She was a tigress,” he later said. “She could do anything. She had various jobs, she got trained in various others, she always reinvented herself.”

The young Rickman showed an interest in the arts from an early age and trained in graphic design and typography at the Royal Academy of Art, writing for the college journal, ARK while he was there.
After graduation he opened a graphic design studio, Graphiti, with several friends – but theatre was always lurking in the background and after three years he quit to become an assistant stage manager at the small Basement Theatre Company.

Then, aged 26, he found himself posting a letter to Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (Rada) asking for an audition. To his surprise, he was accepted.
“Fortunately I wasn’t actually the oldest person there,” he later reflected.
Upon graduation, he worked for a number of repertory companies before becoming a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), sharing a house in Stratford with Ruby Wax.
But he left after a season, disillusioned by the company and declaring he wanted to “learn how to talk to other actors on stage rather than bark at them”.

He was soon seduced by the small screen, playing Tybalt in a BBC production of Romeo and Juliet (1978) and taking roles in Smiley’s People and The Barchester Chronicles (both 1982).
A return to the RSC in 1985 was more rewarding as the actor, having shed some of his youthful angst, took the starring role in Christopher Hampton’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses.
He portrayed the drawling sexual connoisseur Vicomte de Valmont, who “slips sly and inscrutable through the action like a cat who knows the way to the cream,” said the Guardian in its original review.
Rickman’s co-star, Lindsay Duncan, was less coy – saying the audiences would leave the theatre wanting to have sex “and preferably with Alan Rickman”.
The show transferred to the West End and then to Broadway, where the actor secured the first of two Tony nominations.

His next role – as sharp-tongued terrorist Hans Gruber in Die Hard – was to make him internationally famous. As he squared off against a sweaty Bruce Willis, his urbane put-downs and coldly-calculated violence helped raise the film above the standard blockbuster fare.
The actor also provoked a showdown on the set when he refused to throw fellow actress Bonnie Bedelia to the floor, as required by the script.
“My character was very civilised in a strange sort of way and just wouldn’t have behaved like that,” he said. “Nor would Bonnie’s character, a self-possessed career woman, have allowed him to. It was a stereotype – woman as eternal victim – that they hadn’t even thought about.”

The star brought similar thoughtfulness to his later roles, notably Truly, Madly Deeply – in which he played the ghost of Juliet Stevenson’s boyfriend, who comes back to ease her grief.
He continued to essay villains, stealing scenes from Kevin Costner in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, as he screamed “No more merciful beheadings and call off Christmas!”
And his sensitive portrayal of Severus Snape allowed audiences a glimpse of the character’s anguished past long before JK Rowling revealed it in the books.
“He had a real understanding of the character and now looking back, you can see there was always more going on there – a look, an expression, a sentiment – that hint at what is to come,” said the franchise’s producer, David Heyman.
“The shadow that he casts in these films is a huge one and the emotion he conveys is immeasurable.”

But Rickman was no method actor – stepping out of character to playing pranks on his fellow cast members, some of which were caught on camera.
His other film credits included Sweeney Todd, Michael Collins, Dogma and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in which he brought pathos to the voice of eternally depressed robot Marvin The Paranoid Android. (Rickman’s own distinctive voice, he later revealed, was a speech impediment caused by restricted movement in his jaw – a condition with which he was born.)

He worked often with Emma Thompson, after being cast as Col Brandon in her adaptation of Sense and Sensibility. He went on to play her (unfaithful) husband in Love Actually and later directed her in Scottish drama The Winter Guest, his first film behind the camera.
His second film as director, A Little Chaos, starred another Sense and Sensibility cast member, Kate Winslet, as Sabine, who is chosen to build one of the main gardens at King Louis XIV’s new palace at Versailles.

While promoting the film, Rickman, who also played King Louis, spoke of the difficulty of holding down two jobs on set, quoting his friend Ralph Fiennes, who told him: “The danger of directing yourself is that you are embarrassed about going for another take.”
On stage, he reunited with Liaisons Dangereuses director Howard Davies and co-star Lindsay Duncan in 2002 for Noel Coward’s Private Lives, which transferred to Broadway after a successful run in London, earning Rickman his second Tony nod.
Less successful was his 1996 interpretation of Hamlet, which was panned by critics who called it “a palpable miss”.
Other stage performances included Mark Antony opposite Helen Mirren’s Cleopatra at the Olivier Theatre in London and the title role in Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin in 2010.

He also directed the award-winning 2005 play My Name is Rachel Corrie about the American student who was killed by an Israeli army bulldozer in the Gaza Strip.
The star was notoriously reluctant to discuss the art of acting, saying it was “too, too hard” to explain. But speaking to Bafta last year, he described his profession as “the act of giving yourself over to once upon a time”.
Rickman is survived by his wife Rima Horton, who he met as a teenager in art school and married in New York last year.

He had completed several films before his death, including Eye in the Sky, about drone warfare in Kenya, which is due for release in March and Tim Burton’s Alice Through the Looking Glass.

Jan 102016
 

David Bowie has died of cancer aged 69

David Bowie was one of the most influential musicians of his time, constantly re-inventing his persona and sound, from the 1960s hippy of Space Oddity, through Ziggy Stardust and the Thin White Duke to his later incarnation as a soulful rocker.

Where before, artists and groups either evolved their musical style and appearance or remained unchanging, David Bowie seemed to be in permanent revolution.
He defied any label. Music, fashion, sexuality: all were Bowie’s playthings. He was truly an artistic chameleon.
Bowie was born David Jones in January 1947 but reinvented himself as David Bowie, in 1966, in order to avoid confusion with the Monkees’ Davy Jones.

He went on to study Buddhism and mime, and released his first album, the World of David Bowie, in 1967.
But it was the title track of his second album, Space Oddity, which aroused more than passing interest.
The atmospheric tale of an abandoned astronaut, Major Tom, orbiting the Earth, Space Oddity became a hit in 1969, the year of the first Moon landing.
Initially a hit throughout Europe, it took four years to “break” the United States.

Ziggy Stardust

Bowie followed up this initial success with The Man Who Sold the World, a complex album, whose title track has been covered by artists as diverse as Lulu and Nirvana.
His second album of 1971, Hunky Dory, was arguably Bowie’s first great work. Its 11 songs, including the haunting Life on Mars? and Oh, You Pretty Things, redefined serious rock for the 1970s generation.
And a line from Hunky Dory’s final track, The Bewlay Brothers, seemed to perfectly sum up David Bowie, “chameleon, comedian, Corinthian and caricature”.

The following year saw the release of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, a superbly-executed concept album which included hits like Starman, Suffragette City and Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide.
The album’s huge popularity and the accompanying tour, featuring Bowie as the sexually ambiguous Ziggy, brought him worldwide stardom.
By now married to the former Angie Barnett (divorced in 1980) and with a young son, Zowie (now film director Duncan Jones), Bowie was a hedonist of breathtaking scale, living a rock and roll lifestyle fuelled by drink, drugs and vigorous bisexuality.
Having killed off Ziggy, 1973 brought Aladdin Sane, which cemented Bowie’s reputation in the United States.
Songs like Cracked Actor explored the dark, seedy, side of fame, while Jean Genie was an old-fashioned rocker.
As well as writing and performing, Bowie now branched out, producing Lou Reed’s Transformer album and writing and producing Mott the Hoople’s hit single, All the Young Dudes.

Berlin sojourn.

While he was touring with his next album, the apocalyptic Diamond Dogs, David Bowie recorded the Young Americans album in Philadelphia.
This dalliance with “plastic soul” continued on the album Station to Station and brought Bowie hits including Golden Years, Knock on Wood and his first US number one single, Fame, co-written with John Lennon and Carlos Alomar.

But, once more, David Bowie changed direction, moving to Berlin and working on a triptych of albums, Low, Heroes and Lodger.
Produced in collaboration with Brian Eno, these dense works were perhaps the most experimental of Bowie’s career, mixing electronic sounds and avant-garde lyrics to produce a radical, and influential, song cycle.
The late 1970s saw Bowie concentrating on acting, starring in Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth and opposite Marlene Dietrich in the lamentable Just a Gigolo.
The critically acclaimed Lodger album was followed by Scary Monsters, notable for its groundbreaking video accompaniment and the single Ashes to Ashes, which updated the story of Major Tom.

Actor and web pioneer

But 1983 saw a new, driven, David Bowie return to form with the Let’s Dance album.
Hits like China Girl and Modern Love, coupled with the spectacular Serious Moonlight world tour, introduced Bowie to a whole new generation.
And his 1985 duet with Mick Jagger, a cover version of Martha and the Vandellas’ Dancin’ in the Street, was a major factor in the success of the Band Aid project and its accompanying Live Aid concert.

Bowie returned to acting, playing the lead in The Elephant Man on Broadway as well as typically exotic characters in the films Cat People and The Hunger.
The late 1980s were dominated by Bowie’s involvement with his new band, a postmodernist heavy metal outfit, Tin Machine.
This project, which was designed to allow Bowie to re-examine his rock ‘n’ roll roots, produced two albums of questionable quality and was panned by the listening public and critics alike.

As proof of his enduring popularity, in 2000 he was invited to headline the world-famous Glastonbury festival for the second time, nearly three decades after his debut there.
Bowie’s 2002 album Heathen saw a long-awaited return to form for the indefinable master of rock style, and the man who, throughout his long and varied career, influenced everyone from Iggy Pop to Boy George.

In 2006, he made a surprise return to the big screen, playing a fictional version of real-life Serbian-American inventor Nikola Tesla in Christopher Nolan’s illusionist drama The Prestige, for which he adopts a thick Eastern European accent.
After a decade without a studio album he released The Next Day in 2013, surprising fans who thought he had retired. It became his first UK number one for 20 years.
The same month, a retrospective of his career, “David Bowie Is…” opened at the V&A in 2013, becoming the museum’s fastest-selling show, celebrating his legacy as a style icon as well as a musician and performer.

His latest album, the critically acclaimed Blackstar, was released on his 69th birthday, just days before his death.
He is survived by his second wife, Iman Mohamed Abdulmajid, and children Duncan Jones, the acclaimed sci-fi director, and Alexandria Zahra Jones.

Dec 292015
 

Former Portsmouth goalkeeper Pavel Srnicek has died following a cardiac arrest.

The 47-year-old had been in an induced coma in the Czech Republic since collapsing while out jogging on December 20.

His agent, Steve Wraith, said in a statement: “It is with deep sadness that I have to announce the passing of former player Pavel Srnicek.”

Srnicek made 150 appearances for Newcastle between 1991 and 1998 and went on to have spells with Sheffield Wednesday, Portsmouth and West Ham before returning to St James’ Park in 2006.

His release the following year brought an end to his playing career but he remained in the game and was working as goalkeeping coach at Sparta Prague when he collapsed.

The statement continued: “Pavel suffered a cardiac arrest before the Christmas period in his home country and had been in an induced coma in hospital with his close family around his bedside.

“Despite the best medical attention the final brain scans on Monday showed irreversible damage and the decision had to be taken to switch off the life support machine. Pav passed away on the afternoon of Tuesday, December 29 2015 with his family by his side.

“Pavel, the goalkeeping coach at Sparta Prague, had recently been on a whistle-stop tour of Tyneside to promote his autobiography, ‘Pavel Is A Geordie’, something that he was very proud of.

“My final conversation with him was about getting the entertainers team back together one more time for charity next year as it will be 20 years since that Newcastle team almost won the Premier League.

“We will make that happen and celebrate this great man’s life together.”

Tributes quickly began to pour in for Srnicek, one of Newcastle’s best loved recent characters.

Alan Shearer wrote on Twitter: “So very, very sad to lose my friend and former teammate @PavelSrnicekUK My thoughts are with his family at this awful time. #NUFC #RIPPavel”

Fellow goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel said: “It is with incredible sadness that I’ve have learned that Pavel Srnicek has died. A gentleman and a great sportsman. RIP my friend”

Newcastle fans sang their support for Srnicek during the Boxing Day clash with Everton at the request of the Czech’s family.

The club announced the news on their Twitter feed, saying: “It is with immense sadness that we confirm the passing of former #NUFC goalkeeper Pavel Srnicek today.

“Our deepest condolences go to Pavel’s family, many friends, former colleagues and supporters at this very difficult time.”

Long-serving former Toon keeper Steve Harper was a team-mate of Srnicek and he wrote: “A truly beautiful soul has left this world far too early!! Thank you so much for everything you did for me Pav.”

Srnicek was born in Ostrava, beginning his senior career with Banik Ostrava, and he was capped 49 times by the Czech Republic.

In a tribute to Srnicek on their website, Sparta Prague said: “We will never forget you, Pavel!”

Portsmouth FC
Nov 072015
 

Former Pompey boss and player, Bobby Campbell, has died, aged 78.

Campbell famously led the Blues to the Third division title in the 1982-83 season with a then-record 91 points – 21 years after being part of George Smith’s Pompey side who won the same title in 1962.

He was, however, dismissed from the Pompey hot seat by chairman John Deacon as the club’s first second-division campaign in eight years saw them finish in 16th place.

But he left with his head held high following an impressive win percentage of 45.45 – bettered only in subsequent Pompey years by Harry Redknapp (46.55).

In an interview in the Sports Mail last December, Campbell recalled his Fratton Park departure.

He said: I liked a forward-thinking team who went out to entertain but, nevertheless, I knew we had to keep it tight at the back.

‘We became very popular with the fans playing the way we did, though, so maybe I got the sack because I became too popular.’

Campbell’s first links with Pompey came in 1961, when he arrived from hometown club Liverpool as a half-back.

He went on to play 64 games for the Fratton Park outfit, scoring two goals, before a cruciate ligament injury cut short his playing career at the age of 27.

Recalling his move to the south coast, Campbell added in his Sports Mail Big Interview: ‘I knew it was a big club but I didn’t realise how great it was.

‘I left Liverpool and I thought they were the greatest fans in the land, then I went down to Pompey, who, for me, still are.’

Campbell, who will be fondly remembered by Blues fans, also enjoyed managerial spells with Fulham and Chelsea, and coaching jobs at Arsenal and QPR.

Portsmouth FC