Carl Jones talks to veteran actor Peter Vaughan about a lifetime on stage and screen
The Internet Movie Database describes Peter Vaughan, rather unflatteringly, as “an easily unsympathetic bloke”. And it’s not long before I get a brief glimpse into why this Shropshire-born actor may have earned such a fearsome reputation.
We’re about two minutes into a 30-minute chat, reflecting on his career and county roots, when he barks: “Wait a minute, aren’t we supposed to be talking about my new film?”
The ground rules have been well and truly laid. Peter is in charge, and we’ll talk about what he wants to talk about, when he wants to talk about it.
He’s direct, brutally honest, and won’t be messed around. Much like his most famous small-screen character, the roguish Harry Grout in cult comedy Porridge.
To be fair, he’s earned that right. In nearly half a century in the acting game, he’s built a CV which reads like an encyclopaedia of film and television classics. The Saint, Citizen Smith, Heartbeat, Our Friends in the North, The Avengers, Boon, Lovejoy, The Sweeney, the aforementioned Porridge and several dozen movies . . . you name it, Peter Vaughan has starred in it.
His story begins a world away from the silver screen, in a north Shropshire market town.
Born in Wem, back in 1923 (just three years and a few hundred yards from the birth of another Peter who would become a well known actor, the late Peter Jones), and known in those days as Peter Olm, he spent his first seven years in Shropshire.
“My family has strong ties with Shropshire,” he reveals. “My grandfather Joseph was headmaster at Wem Grammar School, but I was only seven years old when I left Shropshire. I never went to school there – and my own personal memories of the county are very few.
“My father was a bank manager, and we moved around with his job. Until the age of five we lived in Wem, and then spent a couple of years in Telford, which of course was only known as Wellington at the time. It has changed a lot since then.”
From Wellington, his family roadshow moved to north Staffordshire, where the county drama group led Peter to a career in repertory theatre in Wolverhampton and Birmingham. That proved to be the stepping stone for what he describes as an amazingly diverse and rewarding career.
Peter has gone on to work with them all. He’s shared cinematic billing with the likes of Robert De Niro, Michael Caine, Sean Connery, Burt Lancaster, Anthony Hopkins and Frank Sinatra, while at the same time carving out a successful career as a TV character actor and acclaimed stage star.
For his role in TV drama Our Friends In The North, he picked up a Bafta best supporting actor nomination, while his brilliant performance as Denethor in the BBC radio dramatisation of The Lord of the Rings is considered by many the unsurpassed and defining portrayal of the character.
Peter has particularly fond memories of working with Sam Peckinpah, his director in Straw Dogs, and describes his Porridge co-star, the late Ronnie Barker, as “a truly marvellous person”.
“I’ve been fortunate in my career to work with some wonderful people. I’ve never been able to particularly choose the direction my career has taken – it’s not as if scripts have been pouring through the door – but I have been lucky enough to have enough jobs to provide stepping stones to a continuing career.
“I’m not showered with offers. At the moment I do pretty much everything that’s asked of me. And fortunately, there seems to be a continuity of work coming through.”
Flashpoint number two in the interview comes when I suggest that he’s perhaps been typecast during his
near-50-year career as a no-nonsense, tough, unfriendly type of rogue.
“Typecast? I’ve never been typecast in my life,” he says. “It’s ridiculous to suggest otherwise. I’ve tackled all manner of roles on stage, television and film.”
Right. OK then. We’ll move on.
Swimming desperately for safer ground, I switch attention to his new movie, Death At A Funeral, in which he plays (whisper it quietly), undoubtedly the most “unsympathetic bloke” in the film.
It’s a chaotically amusing farce in the style of the great old Ealing comedies, boasting a colourful British cast including Jane Asher, Rupert Graves, Matthew MacFadyen and Kriss Marshall. Peter plays the cantankerous elder statesman of the family, Uncle Alfie, who doesn’t believe in social airs and graces.
Peter’s mood lightens.
“It is a wonderful, special film, an absolute joy to make. I was attracted to it because of the absolutely brilliant script, and the brilliance of director Frank Oz created a wonderful atmosphere on set. We all had a ball. But my character wasn’t the laughing kind, so it was a case of turning the acting tap on and off.”
It’s a tribute to Peter’s acting genius that, although he only ever appeared in five episodes of Porridge, ‘Grouty’ is the character most people remember after the regulars. “I think he was so popular because, although he was only seen in a few episodes, Harry was spoken about in most of them,” he reflects modestly.
At the age of 84, Peter shows no signs of slowing down. As well as doing the publicity rounds for Death At A Funeral, he’s preparing to start filming a new drama called Is There Anybody There? with Sir Michael Caine.
“That’s one of the beauties of this business,” he says. “It’s not the sort of career where you have to retire at a given age. I compare it to being a painter or a professional musician – as long as you’re fit and healthy to carry on, and the offers come in, you just keep on going.”
• Death At A Funeral opens at Shropshire cinemas on November 2.