Obituaries: Bernard Hill, star of Titanic, Lord of the Rings and Boys from the Blackstuff

Bernard Hill, actor. Born: 17 December, 1944 in Manchester. Died: 5 May, 2024 in London, aged 79

No one summed up the despair of the Thatcher years better than Bernard Hill as unemployed labourer Yosser Hughes, crystallising the plight of many of the underprivileged and dispossessed in just two words – “Gizza job”.

Yosser is a good man driven to the point of madness by the loss of employment as a labourer, wandering the streets, pleading for work, any work at all: “Gizza job… I can do that.”

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Hill played him with a gruff, manic quality in Alan Bleasdale’s landmark 1982 tragicomic series Boys from the Blackstuff in 1982. Yosser visits a priest. “I’m desperate, father,” he tells him. The sympathetic priest invites him to call him by his first name Dan. “I’m desperate Dan,” says Yosser. But Yosser is by now so far gone that he cannot see the joke in his own comment.

Bernard Hill with his Scene of the Year award for Lord of the Rings: The Ride of the Rohirrim at the Sony Ericsson Empire Film Awards in 2004. (Picture: Steve Finn/Getty Images)Bernard Hill with his Scene of the Year award for Lord of the Rings: The Ride of the Rohirrim at the Sony Ericsson Empire Film Awards in 2004. (Picture: Steve Finn/Getty Images)
Bernard Hill with his Scene of the Year award for Lord of the Rings: The Ride of the Rohirrim at the Sony Ericsson Empire Film Awards in 2004. (Picture: Steve Finn/Getty Images)

Beyond words, Yosser’s gesture of choice becomes the headbutt, administered to policemen and to walls alike. At one point Yosser tries to kill himself, but he is not even a success at that.

As Yosser, Hughes became an almost totemic symbol of the era, his refrain of “Gizza job” became a cultural catchphrase of the age.

Hughes went on to major Shakespearean roles and appeared in some of the biggest Hollywood blockbusters of all time, playing the ship’s captain Edward Smith in Titanic, alongside Leonardo DiCaprio, and King Theoden in The Lord of the Rings saga.

Ironically perhaps producers and directors were lining up to give Hill jobs after Yosser, but it irked him that in the eyes of the British public and indeed interviewers he remained forever Yosser Hughes. He even considered giving up acting for a while because he got so bored with talking about Yosser.

I met him once at the Edinburgh Film Festival and recall he was not quite as taciturn as Yosser, but nor was he the chattiest of interviewees.

Although Boys from the Blackstuff was firmly set in Liverpool, Hughes was born and grew up along the road in Manchester in 1944. His family was Irish on both sides and so poor that he had to share a bed with his parents during his early childhood.

His father served in the Royal Navy during the Second World War and subsequently worked as a miner, an industry that would later be virtually closed down by Margaret Thatcher. His mother worked in the kitchens at a local factory.

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Hughes went to a Roman Catholic grammar school, began acting in amateur productions and after initially studying to become a quantity surveyor changed direction and attended De La Salle College in Manchester to train as a teacher.

It was at this time that he met Mike Leigh, who ran drama courses and would later make his mark in British television and cinema as a writer and director. Leigh encouraged him to think about acting as a career.

So after false starts in quantity surveying and teaching Hughes studied theatre at Manchester Polytechnic and made his screen debut as a working man with few prospects in Mike Leigh’s 1973 television drama Hard Labour.

Hard Labour was set in Salford in Greater Manchester, but Hill’s association with Liverpool was established with a two-year stint at the city’s Everyman Theatre, where he played John Lennon in Willy Russell’s John, Paul, George, Ringo… and Bert. It hardly gets more Liverpool than the Beatles.

The play took him to the London West End, leading to a string of small roles on television, in such varied shows as Crown Court and I, Claudius, before he appeared in Bleasdale’s television drama The Black Stuff, which followed the adventures of a group of tarmac workers.

It was broadcast in 1980, the year after Thatcher’s election, though it was written before the election, and it was intended a stand-alone drama.

The subsequent series Boys from the Black Stuff picked up on the same characters a couple of years later in a Britain where it was proving increasingly difficult to find work, with unemployment rising to three million. Yosser’s story and Hill’s characterisation were far and away the most memorable elements.

He played the Polish trade union leader Lech Walesa in Tom Stoppard’s Squaring the Circle, the coroner in Peter Greenaway’s playful murder mystery Drowning by Numbers and the left-behind husband in Willy Russell’s comedy Shirley Valentine, with Pauline Collins and Tom Conti.

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But an early attempt to conquer Hollywood came adrift when he was sacked from the Madonna movie Shanghai Surprise after clashing with her co-star and new husband Sean Penn.

Like the Titanic, Shanghai Surprise sank without trace, but Hill’s turn as the captain in the film Titanic did much to raise his profile in the United States when it became the highest grossing film of all time.

As well as playing the King of Rohan in the second and third Lord of the Rings movies, The Two Towers and The Return of the King, Hughes appeared with Clint Eastwood in True Crime, playing the warden of San Quentin Prison, with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in the Mummy movie The Scorpion King and with Tom Cruise in the Second World War drama Valkyrie, in which he played a German general.

In recent years, back on the small screen in Britain, he was widely acclaimed as the blind Labour politician David Blunkett in A Very Social Secretary, with Robert Lindsay as Tony Blair, he was the Duke of Norfolk in the television adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and he plays Martin Freeman’s father in the current series of the BBC crime drama The Responder, which once more took Hill back to Liverpool to film.

Hill is survived by a daughter and by a son from two different relationships.


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