Obituary: Bernard Kay, actor

Born: 23 February, 1928 in Bolton. Died: 29 December, 2014 in London, aged 86
Bernard Kay: Respected actor whose work spanned Z Cars to Dr ZhivagoBernard Kay: Respected actor whose work spanned Z Cars to Dr Zhivago
Bernard Kay: Respected actor whose work spanned Z Cars to Dr Zhivago

Bernard Kay’s distinctive face and rather gruff no-nonsense voice were well known on British television and on film. His appearances in various soaps, four times in Dr Who and Z Cars brought him a reputation for capturing a character with a rare subtlety and a refined accuracy. On the big screen it was his performance as the hard-bitten Bolshevik leader in the epic movie Dr Zhivago that is most fondly remembered.

Kay had a busy career and in 1965 commuted between Pinewood Studios and Madrid. At the former he was filming The Dalek Invasion of the Earth in Dr Who while at the latter he was leading the Russian Revolution in Spain.

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Kay was often seen on stage in Scotland – most notably at the Glasgow Citizens. In 1960 he was cast in a significant revival of Ben Johnson’s comedy The Alchemist at the Citz directed by Peter Duguid and designed by David Jones. Kay’s character (Face) was, one critic wrote, “a very smooth customer indeed”. Also in the cast were Una Maclean and Russell Hunter. He scored a considerable success with Janet Suzman in the European premiere of Craig Higginson’s Dream of the Dog: the play contrasted the old and the new South Africa.

At the Lyceum in Edinburgh Kay was in Robin Hawdon’s The Hero with Roy Dotrice and Elizabeth Sellars directed by Peter Coe. Kay also came to the Edinburgh Festival in 1957 for the English Stage Company’s production of Sartre’s Nekrassov with an international cast led by Robert Helpmann.

Kay attended Chetham’s School in Manchester and started acting while doing his National Service. He then found work as a journalist with the Bolton Evening News and the Manchester Guardian. He won a scholarship to study drama at the Old Vic Theatre School in Bristol and joined the company in its first season in the refurbished theatre after the war.

Kay was often cast in popular television drama series (Maigret, Dixon of Dock Green, The Avengers etc) but he made a particular impact in Dr Who opposite the original Doctor (William Hartnell) as Saladin in the classic 1965 episode The Crusade. He later appeared with Patrick Troughton in The Faceless Ones (1967) and Jon Pertwee in Colony in Space (1971). Kay’s last appearances in the series came in the 2006 audio adventure Night Thoughts in which he made a guest appearance.

Kay’s most memorable soap appearance was in 1994 as Clive Phillips, a relative who attended the colourful Reg Holdsworth’s wedding. In full morning dress the two had an argument in the Gents and the honeymoon was abandoned. Kay was careful to find a fine balance between the farce of the situation and the domestic turmoil.

In 1974 Kay joined Emmerdale as Robert Sharp, the rather cantankerous father of daughter Christine. Kay returned in 1987 to play the dishevelled farmer Mr Metcalfe – whose first name was never revealed.

Dr Zhivago provided Kay with his most significant role in the movies. He played Kuril (sometimes credited as just The Bolshevik) and it is this character that represents the Communist ideals of the Revolution. In one of the iconic moments of the film Kay triumphantly shouts to the demoralised troops: “No more Czars!”

On stage he made a strong impression, aged 20, at the Nottingham Playhouse. He learned, rehearsed, and performed the title role in Macbeth in less than 24 hours. At the start of his career Kay had appeared in Peter Brook’s production for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Titus Andronicus (1957) and in 1991 returned to the company to play Glendower in Adrian Nobles’ production of Henry 1V parts 1 and 11 with Robert Stephens and Denys Hawthorne.

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In 2001 he was in the acclaimed production of Chekhov’s Platonov at London’s Almeida Theatre with Helen McCrory directed by Jonathan Kent. As the wicked financier Kay, a critic wrote: “Delivered his speech with much dignity.”

His early love of words never left him and in 2006 Kay won an award in the New Writing Ventures scheme run by the University of East Anglia.

The book (Maybe a Bastard?) was an account of his difficult childhood in pre-war Bolton. It was described by the judge as “a perfect piece of explication”.

He was an actor who remained in demand by directors throughout his career. He had the ability to play villains, officers and chief executives with a cunning ease.

In his later years he remained much in demand and was seen in Jonathan Creek (1997), in Casualty and Foyle’s War and various characters in the mid-afternoon soap Doctors (all from 2002).

Kay was married to Patricia Haines, the first wife of Michael Caine, from 1963 until her death in 1977.