Keith Michell obituary

Actor and theatre director best known for his many portrayals of Henry VIII

Regally tall and strong-featured, the Australian-born actor Keith Michell, who has died aged 88, made his reputation in the 1960s and 70s in classical roles, and probably played the part of King Henry VIII more than any other performer. But he also made a significant contribution to British theatre when he followed Laurence Olivier and John Clements to become artistic director of Chichester Festival Theatre. The appointment in 1974 was Michell’s first of this kind, and came as a surprise to many, since contenders for control of the huge apron stage, and the chance to experiment in a kindlier atmosphere than that of the West End in London, had included Jonathan Miller, Peter Dews and Robin Phillips, all of whom had directing experience, including plays at Chichester.

Michell had been recruited by Olivier to play the lead, Don John, in John Fletcher’s The Chances, in the first production at the new Chichester theatre, in 1962, and also for John Ford’s The Broken Heart, in which he played Ithocles. After that he was always hoping for a return: “I loved working there on the open stage. I was there at its birth.”

What he called the “Vistavision width” stage at Chichester worried him slightly. He thought it like New York stages which, being wide and long, encouraged the actors to “play out front”, frightened that if they did not address the audience from the edge of the stage they would lose its attention. One of his first acts as artistic director was to invite the four designers at Chichester into his office to talk about the stage. He had always held an interest in art and design and before moving to Britain had been an art teacher. He remained an accomplished painter.

A native of Adelaide, Keith was the son of Joseph, a cabinet-maker, and Alice (nee Aslat), and studied at Port Pirie high school, Adelaide Teachers’ College and Adelaide University. While teaching art, he made his first stage appearance, in Bill Daily’s comedy Lover’s Leap at the Playbox theatre in Adelaide in 1947.

After doing work for the ABC radio network in the city, in 1949 he left for Britain and the Old Vic Theatre School. He was a member of the Young Vic Theatre Company (1950-51), his roles including Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice.

Keith Michell as Captain Beaky on Top of the Pops, 1980

His first full London appearance was at the New Theatre in 1951, as Charles II in the musical of And So To Bed. He then joined the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre Company for a tour of Australia (1952-53), and on his return to Stratford-upon-Avon played in The Taming of the Shrew, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Troilus and Cressida, and Romeo and Juliet. In 1956 he both played the title role in Ronald Duncan’s Don Juan at the Royal Court theatre and joined the Old Vic Company for more Shakespeare – Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing, Proteus in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Antony in Antony and Cleopatra and Aaron in Titus Andronicus.

A change of gear came in 1958 when he worked in the stage musical Irma La Douce, which took him to the National theatre, Washington, and to Broadway. Early on in his television career he had played Henry Higgins in Shaw’s Pygmalion (1956), Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights (1962) and Mark Antony in a series of Roman plays called The Spread of the Eagle (1963). Later on came shows built around him as a personality – now a British celebrity – singing songs from the shows.

Chichester in 1974 was the first artistic directorship he had sought: “I knew I should want to do it if I was serious about the theatre. I should want to have overall direction of a company or festival at some stage.” The season opened in May and included many productions in which he appeared: as the Director in Pirandello’s Tonight We Improvise, as Sophocles’s Oedipus Tyrannus, and in Turgenev’s A Month in the Country and Vanbrugh’s The Confederacy.

His film appearances included various forms of historical derring-do in Dangerous Exile (1958), The Hell Fire Club (1961) and Seven Seas to Calais (1962), while The Executioner (1970) was a spy thriller directed by Sam Wanamaker. For BBC television, The Six Wives of Henry VIII devoted an episode to each of the monarch’s six consorts, while Henry VIII and his Six Wives (1972) adapted the same material into a single film, directed by Waris Hussein.

In 1996, he played Henry VIII again, in a television film, The Prince and the Pauper. At 67, he was relieved to discover that the costumes for the rotund king weighed only a fraction of the 20 stone of those he had needed 20 years previously.

For Jeremy Lloyd’s creation Captain Beaky and His Band, Michell illustrated the books and took part in performances once a recording of the songs had taken off in 1980. He was present to see a one-off revival at the Royal Albert Hall in 2011.

In 1956 he married the actress Jeanette Sterke. She survives him, along with their daughter, Helena, son, Paul, and grandchildren, Millie, Matilde and Joe Luca.

• Keith Michell, actor and director, born 1 December 1926; died 20 November 2015

• Dennis Barker died earlier this year

• This article was amended on 21 November 2015. A video showing the wrong actor was removed. It was further amended on 22 November 2015: Michell died at the age of 88 rather than 89.


Dennis Barker

The GuardianTramp

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