Obituary: David Swift, actor in Drop the Dead Donkey

David Swift (centre), actor in Drop the Dead Donkey. Picture: Contributed
David Swift (centre), actor in Drop the Dead Donkey. Picture: Contributed
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Born: 3 April 1931 in Liverpool. Died: 8 April 2016 in London. Aged 85.

David Swift found wide-spread fame in the Ninties when Channel 4 transmitted Drop the Dead Donkey, their behind the scenes sitcom set in a television news studio. It captured the tensions – personal and political – of working to deadlines by some abrasive and ambitious characters. Swift’s character (Henry Davenport) was the avuncular news presenter at GlobeLink News and considered himself the star of the station. However, he was vain and riddled with personal anxieties; wore a toupee which caused much ribald remarks from his colleagues – most of whom Davenport despised and never really rated. It was a wonderful role for an actor of Swift’s experience to play and he did so with an enthusiastic venom – clearly enjoying himself.

Swift was given some of the best lines of the show delivering them with a withering insouciance that captured its underlying satire and irony. When the company had its computers hacked into and demands for money were made (by a Panamanian bank) Davenport railed against the world of cyber. “You can’t rely on these computer gadgets,” he pontificated. “They are basically typewriters above their station. When I started in journalism I kept information in my head.”

Davenport was a flawed character which greatly appealed to Swift as an actor. Hints were dropped that Davenport had a drink problem, was a womaniser, gambled heavily and had had several former wives. The zany nature of Drop the Dead Donkey proved hugely popular with viewers and it ran for six series (1990-98). One of its endearing charms was that the script was often rejigged at the last moment to include genuine breaking news stories – thus giving it a rare topicality.

David Bernard Swift was the son of a prosperous businessman and after Clifton College he read law at Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge. He qualified as a barrister but entered business working for a textile business in Lancashire. His younger brother Clive was carving out a successful career in the theatre (he was later to achieve considerable fame as Hyacinth Bucket’s (or Bouquet) henpecked husband in Keeping up Appearances) and David followed him into acting.

He went to learn the business of the theatre at the Dundee Repertory in 1963 where he worked as an assistant stage manager and was occasionally cast in cameo roles. One of the other young assistant stage managers was Brian Cox. It was not an easy period for the Rep as, after an extensive refurbishment of the building (with a mural specially created by Richard Demarco) in June of that year the theatre was destroyed by fire and the company had to perform in a temporary space (for 18 years) in a converted church in the Lochee Road.

Dundee proved an excellent grounding and Swift soon established himself with the Royal Shakespeare Company in the 70s and later in the west end where he played to critical acclaim Frank Doel in Helene Hanff’s 84 Charing Cross Road co-starring with Rosemary Leach. In 1983 Alan Strachan directed him in a memorable production of JB Priestley’s An Inspector Calls at Greenwich with Peter Woodward and Margaret Tyzack.

It was through his work in television that Swift became best known by the public. As early as 1964 he was in the BBC’s first soap, Compact, and that was followed by appearances in dramas such as Softly Softly, War and Peace (in which Swift played a strident Napoleon opposite the young Anthony Hopkins’ outstanding Pierre), Rising Damp, Winston Churchill, The Wilderness Years (playing Professor Lindemann), Vanity Fair and the Ruth Rendell Mysteries.

Swift was seldom cast in movies although an important role was as Montclair, the money man who funded Edward Fox’s attempt to kill General de Gaulle in The Day of the Jackal.

But it was Drop the Dead Donkey for which he shall be fondly remembered. The relationship between Davenport, in his imposing red braces, and his co-anchor on the news bulletins, Sally Smedley (Victoria Wicks), was never easy. Davenport considered her a “brainless bimbo” and not in the same professional league as him. Swift constantly delivered uncivil and acerbic asides about her to colleagues: often referring to her through gritted teeth as “Miss Mediocrity”.

Earlier in his career Swift had set up a successful business in sound recording and film-editing. Preview 1 and Preview 2 also produced several television documentaries and later he co-founded Tempest Films.

He was a member of a distinguished theatrical family. His brother was formerly married to the novelist Margaret Drabble and his own daughter Julia is the actress Joe Swift who, in turn, is married to the actor David Bamber.

Swift is survived by his wife Paula Jacobs, whom he married in 1953, and their two children.