Obituary: Terence Bayler, actor

Director Roman Polanski (right) talking to actor Terence Bayler. Picture: Getty
Director Roman Polanski (right) talking to actor Terence Bayler. Picture: Getty
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Terence Bayler, actor. Born: 
24 January, 1930, in Wanganui, New Zealand. Died: 2 August, 2016, in London, aged 86.

Terence Bayler was never exactly a star, but he had some of the best lines in the classic 1979 comedy Life of Brian and he did appear on a postage stamp, something only a select band of actors could ever claim.

After making the New Zealand film Broken Barrier (1952), whose portrayal of interracial romance was pioneering, he came to London to study at RADA, honed his craft as a member of the Dundee Repertory Theatre company in the mid-1950s and worked both in theatre and TV, appearing with the original Doctor Who, William Hartnell, in 1966.

Although he came from a working-class New Zealand background, Bayler was a tall, distinguished figure and landed a string of roles as upper-class Englishmen and military officers. He also played Macduff in Roman Polanski’s 1971 film of Macbeth. The film was noted for its realistic violence and Bayler had the scars to prove just how real it was, with an injury requiring five stitches, just above his eye, in the climactic fight sequence between Macduff and Macbeth, played by Jon Finch.

He got to know several of the Monty Python team and was particularly friendly with Eric Idle, who wrote on his blog after Bayler’s death: “Terence appeared in my play Pass The Butler in the West End in 1983 and was an important part of the little rep company we gathered to take to Tunisia to film The Life of Brian in 1979.”

Reputedly, Bayler came up with several memorable lines himself. In one scene Brian (Graham Chapman), who is mistaken for Jesus, tells his followers they are all individuals and that they are all different. They repeat “We are all individuals… We are all different,” and Bayler pipes up: “I’m not.”

As the rather posh, bearded Gregory, he finds himself at the back of a crowd where they mishear one of Jesus’s comments as “Blessed are the cheese-makers”. Bayler’s character explains: “Well obviously it’s not meant to be taken literally. It refers to any manufacturer of dairy products.”

At the end of the film he is among the prisoners awaiting crucifixion when news comes through that the prisoner called Brian is to be freed and, Spartacus-like, everyone starts claiming to be Brian. Bayler chips in: “I’m Brian… and so’s my wife.”

The son of a lorry driver, Bayler was born in the town of Wanganui on North Island, New Zealand, in 1930. His father was involved in local theatre and Bayler began acting in theatre there, before making his film debut in Broken Barrier in his early twenties. He played a white journalist who becomes romantically involved with a Maori woman.

It was made on a shoestring budget. Bayler later recalled that when they went on location the cast and crew consisted of four people who travelled around in a Vauxhall, pulling a trailer full of equipment. He was paid £6 a week, plus food and tobacco, and for that he was expected not only to play the lead role, but to help carry camera equipment around.

The film was an unprecedented international success and secured a UK release, by which time Bayler was at RADA. He went to see it at a cinema in London’s Golders Green and tried to blag his way in by pointing out that he was the man on the poster. But they were having none of it and would not even give him a student’s concessionary ticket, so he had to pay full price.

He appeared in several productions at Dundee Rep and was a member of the Prospect Theatre Company, regular visitors to the Edinburgh Festival.

He first worked with Eric Idle in the mid-1970s on Idle’s Rutland Weekend Television series, taking on various roles including an effete SS officer, nicknamed the Pink Panzer.

On his blog, Idle said: “He was a terrific deadpan comedian… I met him early in my ‘first wife time’ with his wife Bridget Armstrong and we became good friends. Then I used him mercilessly on Rutland Weekend Television and memorably as Leggy Mountbatten, the hopping manager of the Rutles.”

Bayler also had small parts in Terry Gilliam’s films Time Bandits (1981) and Brazil (1985). He played a general in Dennis Potter’s Lipstick on Your Collar (1993) and was the “bloody baron ghost” in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001). As the star of Broken Barrier, he appeared on one of the stamps commemorating a centenary of New Zealand cinema in 1996.

Bayler’s first wife was Bridget Armstrong, an actress he met in New Zealand. The marriage ended in divorce. He is survived by his second wife Valerie Cutko, also an actress, and by two children from his first 
marriage.

BRIAN PENDREIGH