Obituary: John Thaw

Compelling character actor who made his name on both sides of the law

The actor John Thaw, who has died at the age of 60, made exemplary use of the great opportunities offered by television drama in its heyday. Over a span of 35 years, he starred in five very different, very popular, series related to law and order - in the course of which he ascended in status from military policeman to QC - while also gracing some of the most memorable single plays of the era.

To each of these roles, plus others on the stage or cinema screen, he brought a massive presence, craggy features which could register determination or doubt with equal facility, and a familiar but subtly modulated voice.

When some years ago, the National Film Theatre asked me to choose a double bill of the best in TV drama, I reached first for Dinner At The Sporting Club, Leon Griffiths' 1978 play about young boxers slugging each other for the entertainment of dinner-jacketed toffs as they tucked into the filet mignon. Thaw was the human, fallible, but ultimately courageous, manager of one of the boys - and this was when he was at the height of his renown in the toughest of his police series, The Sweeney.

Born in Manchester and educated at Ducie technical high school, Thaw trained for the stage at Rada, and made his professional entrance at Liverpool Playhouse in 1960. His television debut the following year was as a member of Granada's anthology series, The Younger Generation, in which a stock company of raw young actors - Thaw was only 19 - performed original plays by equally raw young writers, among them Maureen Duffy, Adrian Mitchell and Robert Holles.

Redcap, in which Thaw played a sergeant in the special investigation branch - the military police equivalent of the CID - was dreamed up by a Daily Mirror journalist, Jack Bell, though the scripts were the responsibility of Ian Kennedy Martin. It was produced by ABC Television for the Midlands and north of England regions, which ABC served. From 1965, however, it was fully networked.

Thaw's next crime series, Thick As Thieves (1974), by Dick Clement and Ian la Frenais, is perhaps the joker in the pack, in that it was a situation comedy rather than a drama series, though a superior example of that form, exploring the pains of a precarious menage à trois. In his only role on the wrong side of the law, Thaw played a crook who has settled down cosily with the wife of an accomplice (Bob Hoskins) still in prison, whereupon the latter is released on parole.

The same year, Thaw's old colleagues at ABC - by then the dominant partner in Thames Television - came up with an early, one-off TV movie, Regan, with Thaw as a tough, criminal-hating Flying Squad detective inspector. As they had doubtless intended, it was so successful that a full series followed in 1975-76 under the title The Sweeney, derived from cockney rhyming slang (Flying Squad/ Sweeney Todd). With Denis Waterman and Garfield Morgan as, respectively, Regan's detective sergeant and his scratchy superior, it ran to no fewer than 52 episodes, plus two feature films, Sweeney! (1977) and Sweeney 2 (1978).

Action was everything in The Sweeney; perhaps the most enduring single image Thaw will have left behind is that of Regan pounding across some north London car lot in the chase sequence that climaxed every story. The contrast between this policeman and Thaw's next characterisation, that of the reclusive real-ale enthusiast and music-lover who lent his name to the intermittent series (from 1987) of Inspector Morse mysteries, could hardly have been more pronounced. The stories were adapted from Colin Dexter's novels set in Oxford, where deep thought was to be expected, and usually occupied a full two hours of screentime.

In real life, as the writer of the rival Prime Suspect canon, Lynda La Plante, meanly pointed out, such a grizzled figure would have long been retired but, in many ways, Morse was the John Thaw character the television audience took most to heart. Enormous curiosity built up when Dexter promised, in his next book, to reveal his hero's first name. It was Endeavour.

Finally, in the forensic line, came Kavanagh QC, with Thaw as our television's fourth long-running criminal lawyer, his predecessors being Boyd QC back in the 1950s, the irrepressible Rumpole and the Scottish procurator-fiscal of Sutherland's Law. Again intermittently, it was still popping up in the new century, with - in the last instalment to be seen before Thaw's announcement last year that he had cancer of the oesophagus - the teasing possibility that Kavanagh might become a judge. In real life, Thaw was awarded the CBE in 1993.

Meanwhile, other distinguished performances continued. In the theatre, he played Professor Higgins in a revival of Pygmalion in 1984, and Joe Keller in Arthur Miller's All My Sons the following year. The Absence Of War brought him back to the National Theatre in 1993. His later films included Cry Freedom (1987), and Charlie (1992). On television, Thaw had ventured into doublet and tights in 1981 as Sir Francis Drake, in Drake's Venture, followed, three years later, by Hubert in Shakespeare's King John. He did another sitcom, Home To Roost (1985-89), and starred in Kingsley Amis's Stanley And The Women (1991).

Omitted from most of the reference books is perhaps his most gratifying performance of all, as the father trying to find out how his soldier son has died in Northern Ireland in a remarkable single play by Douglas Livingstone, We'll Support You Evermore (1985). "Though the quest for the truth was the mainspring of the plot," I wrote at the time, "it was never going to be settled. What mattered, in the end, was an uncomplicated man's grief and puzzlement, both conveyed so subtly by the formidable Mr Thaw."

Thaw was married, first, to historian Sally Alexander, and, after their divorce, to the actor Sheila Hancock, by whom he is survived, together with their daughter Joanna, his daughter Melanie from his first marriage, and a stepdaughter from the second.

· John Edward Thaw, actor, born January 3 1942; died February 21 2002


Philip Purser

The GuardianTramp

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