Obituary: Keith Michell, actor

Keith Michell: Australian-born actor best known for his 1970 TV portrayal of King Henry VIII. Picture: Getty
Keith Michell: Australian-born actor best known for his 1970 TV portrayal of King Henry VIII. Picture: Getty
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Born. 1 December, 1926, in Adelaide. Died: 20 November, 2015, in London, aged 89

Keith Michell was best known for his outstanding portrayal of Henry VIII on BBC television in 1970. The series with Michell ageing in manner, voice and regal behaviour was hailed as a major drama series and has often been reshown. The Six Wives of Henry VIII benefited from a superb cast and Michell never resorted to depicting the stereotypical gruff king. Michell subtly aged from a naive teenager to a grumpy, corpulent monarch and his interpretation is considered the definitive portrait of the complex king. It was an all-embracing performance and established Michell as a major figure in British theatre. The series won large audiences and Michell collected both the Bafta and Emmy awards.

The handsome Michell had a commanding presence on stage and he was seen in many roles – both the classics and musicals – in a distinguished career. He was also recognised as artistic director of the Chichester Festival succeeding Laurence Olivier in the post and playing many roles – not least Oedipus opposite Diana Dors as Jocasta.

Michell was seen in Scotland as early as 1955 when the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) did seasons in Edinburgh and Glasgow. In 1973 he was at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, in a new play by Jerome Kilty, Dear Love, co-starring with Geraldine McEwan. He came to the 1967 Edinburgh Festival as the narrator in a memorable performance in the Usher Hall of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex. The London Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Claudio Abbado.

Keith Joseph Michell was teaching in Adelaide when he did some work for ABC Radio and decided in 1949 to apply to join the Old Vic Theatre School in London. He was first seen on the West End stage in 1951 as Charles II in a musical, And So To Bed. He then joined the RSC on a tour of Australia before returning to play leading roles with the company at Stratford. In 1954 he was a powerful Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew opposite Barbara Jefford’s Katherine and Michell was in both Olivier’s Macbeth and Twelfth Night. He was also a memorable Tybalt in the 1954 Romeo and Juliet and was described by one critic as the “king of panthers”.

After seasons with the Old Vic Company, Michell did his first major musical, Irma La Douce, both in the West End and on Broadway. It was directed by Peter Brook and became a smash hit. Michell was now a star and was seen in many television dramas on BBC TV (The Spread of the Eagle, about the Roman Empire) and, in 1964, had his own television programme devoted to music from the shows which featured him with a star guest each week. He was seen in other stage musicals, Robert and Elizabeth with June Bronhill and Man of La Mancha (1968) in which he scored a great personal success for his singing of the hit number The Impossible Dream, performed in the screen version by Peter O’Toole.

In 1970 Michell and Diana Rigg had a huge success when they appeared in Abelard and Heloise: the play caused controversy as it was the first time that major stars appeared on stage nude – albeit very dimly lit. He had appeared at the first Chichester Festival in 1962 – Olivier had asked him to play the lead, Don John, in John Fletcher’s little known drama The Chances. After assuming its direction in 1974 Michell mounted a bold series of plays, notably Turgenev’s A Month in the Country with Dorothy Tutin, Timothy West and Derek Jacobi, and Joan Plowright in Shaw’s ­Doctor’s Dilemma.

Michell continued to be seen on screen notably as Henry VIII in 1996 in the BBC mini-series, The Prince and the Pauper, written by Julian Fellowes. He also appeared in several of the BBC’s films of the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas: Michell made a particularly spritely “Model of a modern Major General” in Pirates of Penzance and was often seen in television’s Murder She Wrote as Dennis Stanton, an ex-jewel thief.

Michell was a talented artist and had several solo exhibitions. He provided the illustrations for Captain Beaky and His Band, a series of poems by Jeremy Lloyd, and in 1980 appeared on Top Of The Pops to sing a top-five hit based on the stories. He was a keen photographer, swimmer and cook.

The six-part drama devoted to the life of Henry VIII will be the performance for which Michell will be rightly remembered. It was strongly cast with Annette Crosbie as Catherine of Aragon and Dorothy Tutin as Anne Boleyn. Michell delivered a spell-binding performance as the King and that commanding performance is a fitting legacy for a fine actor.

In 1956, he married the actress Jeanette Sterke. She survives him, along with their son and daughter.