Michael Gough

Michael Gough
Michael Gough

Michael Gough obituary in “The Guardian” in 2011.

The actor Michael Gough, who has died aged 94, was an arresting presence on stage, television and film for the entire postwar period, notably as the butler Alfred Pennyworth in Tim Burton’s Batman movies. Eventually he just voiced roles, as with the Dodo Bird in the same director’s Alice in Wonderland film last year, but always to striking effect.

Gough started in the Old Vic company in London before the second world war, but it took till 1946 for his career proper to get off to a flying start in the West End, in Frederick Lonsdale’s But for the Grace of God. The fistfight-to-the-death scene was done with such startling verisimilitude that nearly all the stage furniture was demolished nightly, and Gough broke three ribs and injured the base of his spine. So copiously did blood flow from his lower lip at one performance that his adversary, played by Hugh McDermott, held him up by the scruff of the neck for the audience to gape at the gore dripping over the footlights. Gough, as the degenerate black sheep of an English family trying to blackmail an American adulterer, would curl a long lip into a sneering smile, which became a characteristic of this fine actor’s style. Whether villainous or heroic, romantic or sly, funny or frightening, he put that snarl to good use alongside his dark-brown voice and melancholy features in a wide range of parts.

He was born in Kuala Lumpur, Malaya, where his father was a rubber planter. After attending Rose Hill school, Tunbridge Wells, and Durham school, he dropped out of Wye Agricultural College in Kent in order to study acting at the Old Vic. He came to be in great demand in the West End: in Sartre’s Crime Passionel (1948), he dithered as a political assassin; later that year, in Daphne du Maurier’s September Tide, he set about the seduction of his mother-in-law (Gertrude Lawrence) with a fascinating delicacy when it came to removing her glasses. He played an apt and indignant Laertes to Alec Guinness’s Hamlet (1951), then a passionate and neurotic son to a possessive mother in Coward’s The Vortex (1952). In Ibsen’s The Wild Duck (1955), he was the sardonic idealist Gregers Werle – as Kenneth Tynan put it, “oozing sincerity while letting the man’s neuroses seep through the facade”. The same performance prompted Caryl Brahms to perceive Gough’s “extraordinary capacity for keeping speech straining at the leash; for pent-up emotion; and for the cut and parry and flash of word-play”.Advertisement

Although Gough’s mannered elegance was hardly suited to the social misfits erupting in the new wave of British drama or the theatre of the absurd, he did not ignore either movement. He took over from Alan Webb in Orson Welles’s production of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros when it moved with Laurence Olivier from Sloane Square to the West End in 1960; he appeared in the Royal Court’s Brecht anthology in 1962; and in 1969 he toured two of Pinter’s one-acters, A Slight Ache and The Lover, to South America.

A busy and regular film actor, he headed the bomb-disposal squad in the Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger wartime drama The Small Back Room (1949), and in The Go-Between (1970) played the father of a headstrong young woman (Julie Christie). He developed a strong line in science-fiction and horror roles.

At the National theatre, Gough excelled as a comedian. He played a resigned and rueful parent in Ayckbourn’s Bedroom Farce (1977), nibbling pilchards on toast in bed with his wife (Joan Hickson) in celebration of a wedding anniversary, their contentment ruined by a daughter with a marital crisis that Gough sneaked shrewdly away from. When the comedy transferred to Broadway the following year, he and Hickson won Tony awards.

One of Gough’s funniest West End roles was as Baron von Epp in the 1983 revival of Osborne’s A Patriot for Me. Presiding over a military “drag” ball in the heyday of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, he wore a long gown and tiara, carried a fan and handbag, and as Queen Alexandra he moved among his guests with gravity and grace to bring the house down at the Haymarket.

Unafraid to go out on a limb – most notably as King Lear (1974) at the Belgrade theatre, Coventry, or as the old retainer Firs to Judi Dench’s Madame Ranevskaya in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard (1990) at the Aldwych – Gough breathed humour and humanity into all his work. His marriages to Diana Graves, Anne Leon and Anneke Wills ended in divorce, and he is survived by his fourth wife, Henrietta Lawrence, his daughter, Emma, and sons, Simon and Jasper. His daughter Polly predeceased him.

Toby Hadoke writes: Michael Gough first made his cinematic mark as Nicholai to Vivien Leigh’s Anna Karenina (1948), Michael Corland opposite Alec Guinness in The Man in the White Suit, and Martin Raynor in Michael Anderson’s thriller Night Was Our Friend (both in 1951).

Gough had made it known he was slightly miffed that many high-profile thespians were taking up the minor roles in Olivier’s Richard III (1955), leaving little room for actors like himself. He received a late-night phone call, replete with expletives, from an apparently outraged Olivier, accusing him of “stirring the shit”. Olivier was in reality pulling his leg, having taken Gough’s feelings on board, and offered him the choice of which of the Duke of Clarence’s murderers to play. Gough immediately opted for “whichever one has the most lines”.

He excelled in character roles on the big screen for more than five decades, drawing on his classical and theatrical resources for leading directors: for Ken Russell, he appeared in Women in Love (1969); for Derek Jarman, Caravaggio (1986); and for Martin Scorsese, The Age of Innocence (1993). His feline features and ability to lend gravitas to the otherworldly often took him into the realms of the fantastical. He worked for Hammer Films and Amicus in a number of genre productions that retain a cult following, notably Dracula (1958), The Phantom of the Opera (1962), Dr Terror’s House of Horrors (1965) and Horror Hospital (1973). Many of these films were good, some not, but Gough was never less than committed, and always eerily memorable. It was these roles that gave him a serious cachet among a generation of film buffs who became movie makers, such as David Zucker, who cast him in the comedy spoof Top Secret! (1984); Wes Craven, in The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988); and Tim Burton, in Batman (1989).

Gough’s character, Alfred Pennyworth, is the loyal butler and confidant to Bruce Wayne and his superhero alter ego, played in that film and its first sequel, Batman Returns (1992), by Michael Keaton. While Wayne was portrayed by Val Kilmer in Batman Forever (1995) and George Clooney in Batman and Robin (1997), Gough remained a constant, providing charm and quintessential Britishness to ground the various offbeat situations. Gough continued to work with Burton, in Sleepy Hollow (1999) and, as a voice artist, in The Corpse Bride (2005).

He was memorable on television as prime minister Sir Anthony Eden in Ian Curteis’s Suez 1956 (1979), in the cameo role of Dr Grant in Brideshead Revisited (1981), in a splendid turn as Mikhel in Smiley’s People (1982), and, most strikingly, as a dishevelled, bewhiskered, flatulent writer in Dennis Potter’s Blackeyes (1989).

In Doctor Who, he played the Celestial Toymaker, who, despite appearing only once, opposite William Hartnell in 1965, became one of the programme’s most iconic villains. A bored eternal, dressed as a Chinese mandarin, he lured unwitting space travellers to his domain to play apparently innocent parlour games with lethal consequences. The character proved memorable enough for Gough to be asked to reprise it in 1986, which he was happy to do, until Michael Grade decided to rest the show. In the interim, Gough had also played a devious old friend of the Doctor – by now, Peter Davison – in the 1983 story Arc of Infinity.

• Michael Gough, actor, born 23 November 1916; died 17 March 2011

• This article was amended on 18 March 2011. The original said that Gough played Baron von Epp in Chichester; that his adversary in the Lonsdale play was Robert McDermott; and that he made a film, Welcome to Washington, as an amateur. These points have been corrected.

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