Obituary: Alan Mackenzie Howard, CBE, actor

Born: 5 August, 1937, in London. Died: 14 February, 2015, in London, aged 77

Alan Howard: Eminent actor with a classic pedigree who graced stage and screen
Alan Howard: Eminent actor with a classic pedigree who graced stage and screen

ALAN Howard was one of the most eminent Shakespearean actors of his generation and his partnership with the director Terry Hands at the Royal Shakespeare Company is fondly remembered as a golden age for the company. Their productions were visually and vocally exciting, while keeping the focus rooted in the text. Howard’s delivery was always exactly in keeping with the rhythm of the original and his melodious voice had a musical quality that enhanced both the heroic (Henry V) or tragic roles (Coriolanus). No other actor – neither Gielgud, nor Olivier – has played so many Shakespearean kings.

Howard’s family was closely connected with past theatrical greats. Both his parents were actors and the distinguished actress Fay Compton was a great aunt and Uncle Leslie starred in Gone With The Wind. Then there was great uncle Monty – the novelist Sir Compton Mackenzie – who was a long-time resident in Edinburgh and whose surname Howard was given as a middle name.

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His connections with Edinburgh went back some years. Passing the Lyceum Theatre one day he told a friend, rather nonchalantly, with a broad smile, “A relation of mine sold the lease of the Lyceum to Henry Irving.”

Howard came to Scotland on several ­occasions. At the Traverse during the 1972 Festival he was in CP Taylor’s satirical play, The Black and White Minstrels, which explored the relationship between Cyril (Howard) and two girl students. A critic wrote of his performance: “Howard’s playing of Cyril is marvellously perceptive and intelligent.” The cast included Tom Conti and was directed by Michael Rudman.

In 1984 he recorded for the radio Chris­topher Logue’s War Music, a translation of two books of the Iliad. He and Logue brought the show to the Edinburgh Fringe in 1991. It was a remarkable feat of learning and there were huge demands made on his vocal dexterity – critics acclaimed Howard as a marvellous speaker of verse.

He returned for an odd event in 1992. Described as a “rehearsal reading” of Harley Granville-Barker’s rarely seen The Secret Life in the Lyceum Theatre Howard read, with gusto, the role of the protagonist Strowde.

Alan MacKenzie Howard attended Ardingly College in Sussex and in 1958 joined the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, where he was cast in small roles graduating to a major part in Wesker’s Roots, which transferred to London’s West End. Various other engagements included a tour of South America and Europe led by Ralph Richardson with Howard appearing in both the Merchant of Venice and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

In 1966 he joined the RSC and made his debut as Duke Orsino in Twelfth Night with a cast led by Diana Rigg and David Warner. For the next decade Howard was an integral and important member of the company, playing Hippolyta and Theseus in Peter Brook’s historic Midsummer Night’s Dream, an electrifying Hamlet with Helen Mirren as his Ophelia and The Tempest with Ian Richardson and Patrick Stewart.

His Henry V in 1975 avoided the barn-storming hero warrior. Instead Howard was more reflective and sensitive: when informed of the French losses he appeared downcast and sad. His final appearance with the RSC was in 1978 in a historic production by Brook of Antony and Cleopatra. Howard’s Antony was a grizzled man of action while Glenda Jackson’s Cleopatra was all majesty with a finely tuned sensual allure. The two brought an energy and drive to their scenes that greatly enhanced the play

At the National Theatre Howard was in Macbeth directed by Richard Eyre and as Henry Higgins in Pygmalion. He played the title role of King Lear at the Old Vic directed by Peter Hall.

His portrayal of the irascible Higgins marked a return to the stage after some years away. He was afforded rave reviews and his director, Richard Eyre, described his performance of Higgins as “definitive.”

Howard was often seen on television – notably in John le Carre’s Parade’s End (2012) co-starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Miranda Richardson and Rupert Everett. He was also in The Perfect Spy (1987), Jute City (1991) and was the Voice of the Ring in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of The Rings (2001). He was often cast in such leading dramas as Foyle’s War, Poirot and Midsomer Murders.

When John Nettles said farewell to the role of the rural detective he reminisced about the actors with whom he had appeared over the years. With a broad smile he commented, “I remember the lovely Alan Howard, that great Shakespearean actor, playing a wickedly funny, sexually dysfunctional, village squire.”

Howard, who was made a CBE in 1998, received many theatrical awards including two Best Actor awards from the Evening Standard.

His 1965 marriage to Stephanie Davies was dissolved and in 2004 he married his long-time partner, the author Sally Beauman. She and their son, James, survive him.