Obituary: David Ryall, actor

Familiar face on TV who gained wider audience through Outnumbered and Harry Potter. Picture: BBC
Familiar face on TV who gained wider audience through Outnumbered and Harry Potter. Picture: BBC
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BORN: 5 January, 1935, in Shoreham-by-Sea, Sussex. Died: 25 December, 2014, in London, aged 79.

David Ryall worked regularly with the great Laurence Olivier on stage in the 1960s and he was a familiar face on British television from the 1970s onwards, although he reached his biggest international audience in his mid-seventies as Dumbledore’s old friend Elphias Doge in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I.

As a member of the National Theatre Company in London, Ryall appeared in many important new plays in the 1960s, several of which came on tour to Scotland. He later had a spell with the Royal Shakespeare Company.

But many of the parts for which he became best known came to Ryall comparatively late in life.

As well as his role in the Harry Potter series, he was the troublesome grandfather in the sitcom Outnumbered and he played the old man, looking back on his life in flashback, in the BBC’s recent gritty period drama The Village, with John Simm and Maxine Peak.

No matinee idol, Ryall had the sort of careworn face that suggested he had witnessed a lot of history in the making. He looked like an elder Buster Keaton, catapulted unexpectedly from comedy to tragedy.

Ryall played both with equal success. And on stage and screen his repertoire included crooks and lawyers, gardeners and peers, Churchill and God.

He was born David John Ryall in Shoreham-by-Sea, Sussex, in 1935, went to grammar school, won a scholarship to RADA, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, in London, and acted with several English repertory companies.

In 1965 he joined the National Theatre Company, which had been set up by Olivier just a few years earlier and was beginning to make an impact on the theatre world.

In an interview with the Guardian earlier this year he recalled auditioning for Olivier, who was one of his great heroes.

“I was given a year’s contract,” he said.

“That meant you could set up home and have a family and know you were going to be working solidly.

“Others in the company used it as a leg-up to doing movies, but I wanted a career on the stage.”

Ryall remembered that in their production of Feydeau’s farce A Flea in Her Ear, there was a scene in which Ryall grabs Olivier by the lapels and Olivier staggers back, literally taking Ryall with him. “It seems so representative of what happened – how I was dragged into the theatre by Olivier,” Ryall said.

During his eight years with the company, Ryall appeared in a string of major productions of new plays and classics, including Peter Shaffer’s The Royal Hunt of the Sun, with which he came to the King’s Theatre in Glasgow in 1966, and Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, which brought him to the King’s in Edinburgh two years later.

After leaving the National, Ryall developed his career in television, although he also continued to act in theatre. One of his first significant television roles was as the moneylender Sextus Parker in the 1974 BBC adaptation of Anthony Trollope’s The Pallisers.

He was one of Michael Gambon’s fellow patients in Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective, Simon Templar’s adversary Inspector Teal in two Saint television movies in the late 1980s and the tabloid editor Sir Bruce Bullerby in the House of Cards sequels To Play the King and The Final Cut.

His distinctive looks and screen presence also brought him an increasing number of film offers and he had supporting roles in The Elephant Man; Truly, Madly, Deeply; The Russia House; Around the World in 80 Days; City of Ember; and The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse, with Mark Gatiss, with whom he worked on several shows over the years.

Gatiss became a personal friend and tweeted about the loss of “a twinkling, brilliant, wonderful actor”, following the announcement of Ryall’s death.

In the Harry Potter series Ryall took over the role of Elphias Doge, previously played by the late Peter Cartwright. He wrote Dumbledore’s obituary and defended his honour, before disappearing just before an attack by Death Eaters at Bill Weasley’s wedding.

One of his last films was Dustin Hoffman’s Quartet two years ago, with Maggie Smith, Billy Connolly and his old friend Michael Gambon. They played residents in a home for retired musicians and he recreated Flanagan and Allen’s famous duet of Underneath the Arches with Trevor Peacock.

But theatre remained his first love and he played King Lear in a small-scale production in London earlier this year, despite suffering from cancer and having undergone chemotherapy. He was physically frail and had difficulty remembering his lines. Confined to a wheelchair he performed with script in hand, letting the pages drop as the character died.

His younger daughter Charlie, who is a professional actress, played Cordelia. Elder daughter Imogen, a jazz singer, played the doctor.

Ryall’s first marriage ended in divorce and his second wife died a few years ago.

He is survived by his two daughters and a son Jonathan, a manager in the music business.