Obituary: John Horsley, actor

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Born: 21 July, 1920, in Southend, Essex. Died: 12 January, 2014, in Northwood, Middlesex, aged 93

John Horsley appeared in hundreds of plays, television shows and films, turning up in pretty much everything from the 1959 Oscar-winner Ben-Hur to Coronation Street, on which he played a minister in 1983.

A shambling, slightly anachronistic figure, whose characters would sometimes teeter between dignity and disgrace, Horsley was especially popular with producers of period dramas and those looking for actors to play aristocrats, officers, lawyers and clerics.

But it was in the classic sitcom The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin in the mid-1970s that Horsley found the role for which he undoubtedly remains best known, that of the bumbling physician Doc Morrissey at Sunshine Desserts, where Reggie (Leonard Rossiter) works.

“Do you find you can’t finish the crossword like you used to?” Doc Morrissey asks Reggie, who is forever on the brink of nervous breakdown. “Nasty taste in the mouth in the mornings? Can’t stop thinking about sex? Can’t start doing anything about sex? Wake up in a sweat in the mornings? Keep falling asleep during Play for Today?”

“Extraordinary, Doc, that’s exactly how I’ve been feeling,” replies Reggie hopefully.

“So do I,” says the doctor. “I wonder what it is.” And then Doc Morrissey prescribes two Aspirin, which is what he always prescribes.

Horsley also played the Bishop of Tatchester in the BBC adaptation of John Masefield’s children’s fantasy The Box of Delights in 1984 and had the recurring role of Sir Ralph Shawcross in the sitcom You Rang, M’Lord? in the early 1990s.

The son of a doctor and a professional opera singer, Horsley was born in Southend, Essex in 1920. The family moved to London when he was an infant and he grew up there, developed an interest in acting at school and made his professional debut at the Theatre Royal Bournemouth in his late teens. During the Second World War Horsley served in the Devon Yeomanry in Italy, but contracted hepatitis and was transferred to a unit that staged plays for the troops, touring England, France and Germany.

After the war he returned to repertory theatre and met his wife June Marshall, who was an actress, while working in Salisbury. They had two daughters and were married for 40 years. She predeceased him.

In the early 1950s, he began appearing in small roles in films, playing military officers, policemen and doctors. He was Superintendent Whitelaw in more than 50 episodes of the series Shadow Squad. Most of his early films are long since forgotten, but the better-known ones include the Sean Connery film Hell Drivers, in which Horsley was a doctor; Ben-Hur, in the uncredited role of Spintho; and Sink the Bismarck!, as the captain of HMS Sheffield.

His first love remained theatre and he saw films simply as a way to plug the gaps between theatrical engagements. He came to Stirling’s MacRobert Arts Centre in the Oxford Playhouse Company’s production of Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera in 1977.

The first series of The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin had gone out the previous year and Horsley made an impact right at the outset on a show that is still regarded as one of the high water marks of British situation comedy.

Doc Morrissey was friendly, but hopelessly incompetent. On one occasion CJ (John Barron), the boss at Sunshine Desserts, collapses and Doc Morrissey pronounces him dead, only for CJ to immediately come round again and fire him, and not for the last time.

Doc Morrissey is obsessed with Reggie’s secretary’s chest and forever suggesting he examine it.

Horsley said: “He’s a great chap to play and, funnily enough, popular with real-life doctors, particularly with the constant worrying about his own health.”

Rossiter died in 1984, but Horsley would later reprise his character in The Legacy of Reginald Perrin in 1996. It followed the fortunes of the other characters. Reggie has passed away, but left them a fortune, with strings attached of course.

Despite the strong cast and the quality of David Nobbs’s writing, Leonard Rossiter had been the heart of the show and the sequel proved short-lived, running for only seven episodes.

However, Reggie Perrin was revived a few years ago with Martin Clunes as Reggie, though Doc Morrissey was replaced with a new “wellness” expert called Sue, who is equally incompetent.

Nobbs told The Scotsman yesterday: “He was a lovely man and a wonderful actor. His scenes as Doc Morrissey with Leonard Rossiter in Reggie Perrin were as good as it gets.

Horsley’s other credits include a couple of episodes of The Avengers in the 1960s, the period drama series Love Among the Artists, Hi-de-Hi!, The Professionals, Crown Court – on which he had a recurring role as Justice Mowbray in the 1970s and 1980s, Last of the Summer Wine, The Jewel in the Crown, Terry and June, Hot Metal, Miss Marple, The Bill and Rumpole of the Bailey. His last screen credit was a 1997 television adaptation of Rebecca with Charles Dance, Diana Rigg and Faye Dunaway.

John Horsley died peacefully at Denville Hall, the home for actors over the age of 70.

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