Obituary: David Lyon, actor

Born: 16 May, 1941, in Sierra Leone. Died: 7 June, 2013 in Brighton, aged 72

David Lyon was an actor with a remarkable versatility both for classic and contemporary plays. He had a distinguished career with the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) where he was in companies led by some of the major actors of recent years. He was a devoted and loyal member of the RSC and much respected by generations of actors.

Lyon made his first appearance with the company in 1977 and performed regularly with it until 2001. On television he was often cast as respectable, kindly characters in drama series and was particularly acclaimed for his subtle portrayal of the deposed primes minister in House of Cards. To this wide variety of characters Lyon brought much flair and elegance.

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David Lawrie Lyon was the only child of a diamond merchant and grew up initially in Sierra Leone, where his father worked. He was sent back to Scotland for his education and attended firstly prep school at Crofton House School in Dumfriesshire. He won a scholarship to Merchiston Castle School where he distinguished himself as a promising scrum half in the school’s 1st XV.

When he was 16 his life was disrupted when his father’s business went bankrupt and his parents returned to Scotland to run a guest house on the Isle of Cumbrae at Millport, near Largs.

Lyon was forced to find work and worked for Royal Insurance in Glasgow where his interest in the theatre flourished – principally through his membership of the long-established Old Grammarians Amateur Dramatic Society, where he learnt the rudiments of back-stage work, rehearsals and eventually being cast in small roles. This enthusiasm was continued when Lyon took a job as a salesman in Birmingham where he joined the Crescent Theatre.

Aged 30 he decided to study to be an actor and got into the Central School of Speech and Drama in London and after three years gained further experience with repertory companies in, amongst other venues, Oxford, Leeds and Sheffield. Within a year he was noticed by the RSC.

He was to appear in more than 70 of the company’s most renowned productions, playing alongside Donald Sinden in King Lear, Judi Dench in Much Ado About Nothing, Glenda Jackson in Antony and Cleopatra, in Deborah Warner’s production of King John and in Henry V1 starring Ralph Fiennes. His record with the company was unsurpassed for its longevity and diversity. Contemporary plays in which he played with the RSC included Pam Gems’ Piaf.

In London’s West End Lyon was seen in After Aida, Julian Mitchell’s play on Verdi’s opera, which also starred Ian Charleson and Richard Griffiths; Tartuffe, directed by Jonathan Kent; Becket with Derek Jacobi and finally King Lear with Ian Holm at the National Theatre.

On television Lyon was best known for playing respectable and reliable characters that the audience could trust. Such a character was the prime minister Henry “Hall” Collingridge, in the BBC’s 1990 political thriller, House of Cards. The twists and turns of Michael Dobbs’ plot gripped the nation and Lyon’s playing of the thoroughly decent leader was made all the more real in his confrontations with the devious Francis Urquhart (Ian Richardson). The scene they played out when Lyon refused to sack half the Cabinet was instrumental to the plot and reflected politics at its most duplicitous. Lyon won much praise for the role.

In 1992 he played a shady Glasgow jeweller in a vintage two-part edition of Taggart – Ring of Deceit. He brought to Albert Newman a mounting concern as a result of his son’s strange behaviour on the night of a murder on Glasgow’s Southside.

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He also appeared in Poirot, Midsummer Murders, Lovejoy, The Gemini Factor, Doctor Finlay, Monarch of the Glen (in the episode when wolves are introduced to the estate) and finally a restrained but so accurate interpretation of General Eisenhower in D-day 1944.

Lyon met his wife, Sandra Clark, when they were both on their first job in Manchester in 1975. Their marriage was dissolved after some years and Lyon then lived with the actress Zoe Wanamaker.

In 1989 he met Clarke again and they were re-married while at the RSC in a production of Romeo and Juliet at Stratford.

They were cast as Capulet and Lady Montagu and were affectionately known throughout the company as “Lord and Lady Lyon”. Their honeymoon was spent touring the production throughout the UK.

Lyon retained a keen interest in sport all his life – especially for rugby and cricket.

He was a man of much courtesy and charm and retained a delightful and whimsical sense of humour. He is survived by Sandra and his two stepchildren.