Guest Actor Biography
Page 53 of 127

   

Peter Jeffrey

Varnals, Room Without a View
Prendergast, The Joker
Bristow, Game
Perov, House of Cards

by Pete Stampede

Unquestionably one of the finest villains to have graced The Avengers, Peter Jeffrey was one of the backbones of the acting profession in Britain, and through his constant appearances on television, a major contributor to drama in that medium. Immediately recognisable, with sleek dark hair crowning a distinctive nose and somewhat unfortunate complexion (plus the occasional moustache), he could be just as effective as a stolid, "veddy British" establishment figure, or an otherworldly obsessive, oozing menace. Over a year after his death, his quiet professionalism is still much missed; it really is true to say that he was rarely off screen and never gave a bad performance.

He was born in Bristol on 18 April 1929, and after attending Harrow public school, went up to Pembroke College, Cambridge. Several newspaper obituaries mistakenly listed his university as Oxford; it was most definitely Cambridge, as while there, he got his entry into acting via the famous Cambridge Footlights revue society. Robert Hewison's book on the club, Footlights!, includes a startling photo of Jeffrey pulling a face while taking part in an incredibly campy-looking routine titled "Gosh I Love My Cloche." In the pre-Peter Cook Footlights of the 50's, there was a stronger emphasis on musical numbers (much like genuine West End revues of the time), but it seems that Footlights members who did go into show business, like the late Daniel Massey, were straight actors, rather than the comedy writer-performers the society is today associated with. Jeffrey may have already done some acting by this point; the British Film Institute lists him as having been in Sports Day (1945), a short film with Jean Simmons, when he would have been sixteen, as I haven't seen the film, I'm not 100% sure whether this is correct.

Definitely, his London stage debut was in the title role of Julius Caesar (he certainly had the right profile), directed by Peter Hall, in 1953. Later, again for Hall, he supported Peter O'Toole and Peggy Ashcroft in The Taming Of The Shrew, at the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-on-Avon, and staying with the RSC, appeared in Troilus And Cressida, The Winter's Tale, Macbeth (as Banquo) and Peter Brook's famous version of King Lear, as Albany to Paul Scofield's Lear. He was later well cast as the upright Malvolio in Twelfth Night, with Vanessa Redgrave, at the Bristol Old Vic. His TV debut was as Camillo in The Castiglioni Brothers (BBC, 1958), clearly already cast for his "foreign" looks in an adaptation from Alberto Colantuoni, directed by Frank Dunlop, whose work has largely been in the theatre rather than TV.

Jeffrey was then in the BBC's sequence of Shakespeare's Roman plays, The Spread Of The Eagle (BBC, 1963), starring Peter Cushing, Paul Eddington and Keith Michell amongst others; he was Sicinius Velutus in the episodes derived from Coriolanus. One-off roles included Armchair Theatre, "Old Man's Fancy" (ABC, 1964); two in The Saint, "The High Fence" (ATV/ITC, 1964), also with Stanley Meadows and directed by James Hill, helmer of so many of the best Avengers, and "The Crime of the Century", with Andre Morell ("Death of a Batman" and "Death at Bargain Prices") and Carol Cleveland; Triangle, "Courtship" (Granada, 1964), an anthology series from respected producer Philip Mackie, and nothing to do with the tacky 80's soap with the same title; and Public Eye, "You Have To Draw The Line Somewhere" (ABC, 1965). The latter raised some eyebrows at the time, with seedy detective Marker (Alfred Burke, seen in "Dragonsfield", "The Mauritius Penny" and "The Girl from Auntie") hired to keep tabs on Jeffrey's character by wife Zena Walker, who suspects him of infidelity. A crucial scene had Marker informing her that Jeffrey's character has indeed been having a relationship, with someone called Pat; when Walker demands "Tell me all about her!", Marker explains that Pat is actually a man—cue shocked looks and caption, "End of Act One"... Along with Gordon Jackson, Jeffrey provided a more serious element to ABC of Britain (BBC, 1964), a special which was a kind of unofficial sequel to That Was The Week That Was, being a supposedly satirical look at the country, produced and directed by the egregious Ned Sherrin, using two of his TW3 favourites, Millicent Martin and David Kernan, and written by the rather frightening future MP Gerald Kaufman.

Right in between his Avengers roles, Jeffrey was, unsurprisingly, another diabolical mastermind, called Sinoda, obsessed with beauty and threatening to plant a virus in London's water supply, opposing Gerald Harper as Adam Adamant Lives!, "Beauty Is An Ugly Word" (BBC, 1966), also with Annette Andre. He had also been making semi-regular appearances, as an MP, in The Plane Makers (ATV, 64-1965), a factory-set series which as such was quite popular, until Lew Grade ordered that its focus switched to the boardroom, on the grounds that the last thing the working-class viewers wanted to see at night was the kind of thing they'd been living all day; as a result, it became The Power Game and was far more successful (co-starring Clifford Evans). Impressed by his Plane Makers work, Innes Lloyd, then producer of Doctor Who (and who would later reach the front rank of BBC drama producers, particularly for his work with Alan Bennett), actually offered Jeffrey the chance to play the Doctor, when William Hartnell's health dictated his leaving the show. (Hartnell famously stated that Doctor Who would run forever, and that he would play the role for five years; he was wrong on both counts.) Jeffrey turned down the role, saying that he didn't want to be tied to a series; just for the record, Lloyd, who adopted a deliberate policy of using fine 'name' actors on Who—as opposed to its 80's producer John Nathan-Turner's habit of casting showbiz has-beens, which arguably helped ruin the series—also approached Ron Moody (seen in "Honey for the Prince" and "The Bird Who Knew Too Much"), Sir Michael Hordern and even Trevor Howard to play the Doctor, before Patrick Troughton got the job. However, Jeffrey did agree to play The Pilot in "The Macra Terror" (BBC, 1967), a Prisoner-ish tale with Troughton and chums encountering a holiday camp-type community with a sinister underlying purpose; and years later, he was suitably sneeringly regal as Count Grendel in "The Androids of Tara" (1978), with Tom Baker as the Doctor (and Declan Mulholland), one of the Key to Time sequences, with deliberate references to The Prisoner Of Zenda.

Still resisting being linked to a series, Jeffrey's guest roles continued; the much-loved Dr. Finlay's Casebook, "The Conscience Clause" (BBC, 1968), tales of an older and younger pair of Scottish doctors; A Man Of Our Times, "Long Time Since You've Got My Breakfast" (Rediffusion, 1968), with George Cole; the sadly forgotten Strange Report, "Report 8319; Grenade; 'What Price Change?'" (ATV/ITC, 1968), as a superintendent who calls on Strange (Anthony Quayle) to sort out a student protest (very 1968!), directed by Charles Crichton; Out Of The Unknown, "Get Off My Cloud" (BBC, 1969), with Donal Donnelly; Chronicle, "Thomas Becket" (BBC, 1969), in the title role of a drama-documentary—he actually had a small role, as 'Fouth Baron,' in the Burton-O'Toole film of Becket; Fraud Squad, "The White Abyss" (ATV, 1970), a routine cop show, as a man who fakes his own death then turns up in Switzerland; and a doctor in Play For Today, "Rainbirds" (BBC, 1971), by Clive Exton, one of the first in what was The Wednesday Play under a new name (and obviously, shown on a different day of the week).

Jeffrey's performances as King Philip of Spain in Elizabeth R (BBC, 1971), with Glenda Jackson in the title role, and as a major in another Play For Today, "O Fat White Woman" (BBC, 1971) by William Trevor, are still well recalled by those who saw them (a pity only the former is freely available today). He never seemed to be out of the TV studios; Crime Of Passion, "Therese" (ATV, 1972), one of an anthology series set in France, created by pioneering TV writer Ted Willis; The Onedin Line, "Cry of the Blackbird" (BBC, 1972), the hugely popular Sunday night costume saga about a shipping firm, with Philip Bond; Dead Of Night, "Two in the Morning" (1972), another anthology series, again produced by Innes Lloyd, and not to be confused with the famous Ealing semi-horror film of the same name; and two below average ITC series, both in the half-hour format for some reason, The Adventurer, "Full Fathom Five" (ATV/ITC, 1972), also guest-starring Andre Morell, and The Protectors, "Blockbuster" (ATV/ITC, 1974). He was a police officer in the latter, and in the next three; New Scotland Yard, "Exchange Is No Robbery" (LWT, 1973), a self-explanatory series, as a superintendent from the rival Serious Crime Squad; as a detective sergeant taking orders from Stratford Johns as Barlow At Large, "Review" (BBC, 1973), and Menace, "Boys and Girls Come Out To Play" (BBC, 1973), yet another anthology series.

He next did two in the prestige strand Play Of The Month, first Peter Nichols' wry The Common (BBC, 1973), as one of a snobbish Tory-voting family looking down on their neighbours, with a pre-Sweeney Dennis Waterman, and Harold Pinter's then wife Vivien Merchant; then, one of a very strong cast in a version of Bertolt Brecht's "The Caucasian Chalk Circle" (BBC, 1973), headed by Leo McKern, and also including John Thaw, Patrick Magee, Robert Powell and, in a rare post-Tara role on British TV, Linda Thorson. As a character called Alroy Kear, Jeffrey supported Sir Michael Hordern in a BBC2 classic serial version of Somerset Maugham's Cakes And Ale (BBC, 1974), then played Talleyrand in several episodes of the unsuccessful Napoleon And Love (Thames, 1974), also with Peter Bowles. Surprisingly, his turn on The Sweeney, "Thin Ice" (Thames, 1975) didn't have him as a villain, but a smarmy superintendent called Pringle (sporting a bizarre pudding-basin hairstyle) who constantly butts heads with Jack Regan (John Thaw again) when both go on the trail of dog-loving crook Alfred Marks, who has fled to France. Then, The Aweful Mr. Goodall, "Indiscretion" (LWT, 1974), a low-key spy series starring Robert Urquhart from "Castle De'ath" and "Wish You Were Here"; Survivors, "Garland's War" (BBC, 1975), in Terry Nation's series about a new Britain following an apocalypse, and the resulting struggles; Porridge, "Disturbing the Peace" (BBC, 1975) as Wainwright, a nasty new "screw" at Slade Prison, aptly described by old enemy Fletch (Ronnie Barker) as a "right bastard"; Bill Brand, "August For The Party" (Thames, 1976), Trevor Griffiths' series starring key 70's TV actor Jack Shepherd as the dogged but determined MP of the title; Killers, "The Chalkpit Murder" (Thames, 1976), one of a series of reconstructions of genuine homicide cases, and London Belongs To Me (LWT, 1977), an adaptation of the previously filmed 30's novel by Norman Collins (one of the founders of ITV), with Madge Ryan. A well-remembered satire on red tape was a Play Of The Week, "Mr and Ms Bureaucrat" (BBC, 1978) from Willis Hall, helmed by future film director Mike Newell, and again with Jack Shepherd.

Jeffrey's schedule left him, understandably, with little time for films. He was wasted in the typically weak Norman Wisdom vehicle The Early Bird (1965), as a fireman falling down a lift shaft, and while Morecambe and Wise's That Riviera Touch (1966) actually had some location shooting in the South of France, Jeffrey was one of several British actors pretending to be French. Most notably, he was one of the few actors to go through all three of Lindsay Anderson's scabrous trio on modern Britain, all written by David Sherwin; If (1968), as the gormless, well-meaning Headmaster who, at the end, tries to quell an armed rooftop rebellion by crying, "Boys, boys, I understand you", before receiving a bullet between the eyes for his trouble; O Lucky Man! (1973), in more than one role, like most of the cast; and Britannia Hospital (1982), as a knighted, snobbish medic. Later, on TV, he was in Anderson's self-consciously televisual, critically mangled production of Alan Bennett's The Old Crowd (LWT, 1979), as another of his dinner-table smoothies. Sherwin's autobiography Going Mad In Hollywood illustrates Anderson as a highly exacting director and person, with quite a low opinion of most actors; it says something about Jeffrey's abilities that the director used him so often.

Along with Nigel Green, he supported Ingrid Pitt as Countess Dracula (1970), for Hammer, but his most notable horror credits were as the bemused Inspector Trout, on the trail of Vincent Price's classic mad doctor in The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) and Dr. Phibes Rises Again (1972). Both for AIP and directed with a fine sense of Guignol slapstick by Avengers man Robert Fuest, there were plenty of gruesomely comic moments, and guest victims including Peter Cushing, Joseph Cotten, Terry-Thomas, John Thaw and Beryl Reid, plus an unbilled but unmistakable Caroline Munro as Mrs Phibes' well-preserved corpse. As a Middle Eastern top brass called General Wadafi, Jeffrey was prominently credited in The Return Of The Pink Panther (1974), but was only in a couple of scenes, arguing with Peter Arne in his first; knowing Blake Edwards' profligacy with scenes discarded and out-takes (especially of Peter Sellers having supposedly spontaneous bouts of corpsing on camera), it's quite possible that Jeffrey originally had more screen time, that ended up being cut from the final result. Deadly Strangers (1974) was a pretty routine thriller, starring Hayley Mills of all people with Jeffrey as her lecherous uncle, eventually strangled while wearing pyjamas; however, it was from Avengers people, written by Philip Levene and directed by Sidney Hayers. He was a superficially cheerful inmate, called Ahmet, of Billy Hayes' in Midnight Express (1978), from a British producer and director, but overwhelmingly pro-American. Years later, he was heavily padded as the Sultan, torturing people while singing songs penned by Eric Idle—"a eunuch's life is harrrd"—in Terry Gilliam's The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen (1989), the second film from the Pythons' film company Prominent Features; I much preferred it to their first, A Fish Called Wanda, but sadly the movie-going public didn't, and Gilliam's struggles making it have been well-documented.

Showing no signs of letting up, he returned to the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1975, for Charles Wood's Jingo, as a comically monstrous old soldier; later, again for the RSC, he was Falstaff in an updated setting of The Merry Wives Of Windsor. Plays for the National Theatre included King Lear again, this time as Gloucester, and the Duke of Clarence opposite Sir Ian McKellen as Richard III, plus the Inquisitor in a West End revival of Shaw's St. Joan in 1994. And he continued in plays and one-offs for TV, increasingly as Establishment types now. Play For Today, "Destiny" (BBC, 1978), by David Edgar, dealt with racial tensions surrounding a by-election in a West Midlands town, with Nigel Hawthorne, Colin Jeavons, Alan Lake and Jeffrey in a large cast. The latter then came up against Leo McKern as Rumpole Of The Bailey, "Rumpole and the Alternative Society" (Thames, 1978); then stayed in the legal mode, as a QC himself, for a case in Crown Court, "Common Sense" (Granada, 1978), a modest but absolutely gripping daytime drama, based on real-life court cases, with members of the public as the jury, delivering an unscripted verdict, and stripped over weekdays. (I remember dodging school a few times, to see how cases on this turned out; it's a bit reassuring to find older friends of mine have admitted going sick at work to do the same!) One of the best late episodes of Rising Damp, "Under the Influence" (YTV, 1978), had Jeffrey as a new tenant, a gypsy called Ambrose who claims to have mystic powers, and causes Rigsby (Leonard Rossiter) to act even sillier than usual; in the scene where Ambrose takes Rigsby back to his childhood, the latter says, "A boy's best friend is his mother!", I wonder if writer Eric Chappell, or perhaps Rossiter himself, intended this as a nod to Psycho. Then, in Minder, "A Nice Little Wine" (Thames, 1980) Jeffrey was a smooth talker called Clive, who makes a deal with Arthur Daley (George Cole) that seems to ensure Arthur's moving upmarket for once; but when Clive is robbed by a young lady providing him with a, uh, relaxing massage, poor old Terry (Dennis Waterman) has to sort it out as usual.

Jeffrey was then Parolles in All's Well That Ends Well (BBC, 1981), one of the BBC's marathon productions of all Shakespeare's plays (the Bardathon, it was called at the time). He then supported in Bognor, "Deadline" (Thames, 1981), one of several serialised attempts to create a new TV detective, who didn't catch on, and the same could be said for David Horovitch, who played Bognor and was in "The Last of the Cybernauts...??". Jeffrey then did episodes of Nanny, "Other People's Babies" (BBC, 1981), a twee little filler with Wendy Craig as the nanny of the title; one of the endless Tales Of The Unexpected, "Skeleton Key" (Anglia, 1983); the last episode of The Jewel In The Crown (Granada, 1984), as a racist major on board a train through India; and another last episode, this time of Yes Minister, "Party Games" (BBC, 1984), as a Chancellor of the Exchequer whose dodgy private life (so unlike a real politician!) leaves the way open for Jim Hacker (Paul Eddington) to become Prime Minister. The best kept secret of Jeffrey's career, and of everyone else involved, was The Illustrated Wednesday Revue (Central, 1984), a comedy show (presumably a pilot) with the late dwarf actor David Rappaport, and Jeffrey billed as a guest star; it was shown once, around midnight, and was never heard of again.

Jeffrey's next three series were, curiously, all Sunday night dramas on BBC1. One By One (BBC, 1985) was an easy-going series about a young vet, which wasn't quite another All Creatures Great And Small, while several episodes of the Civil War-set By The Sword Divided (BBC, 1985), starring Julian Glover, had Jeffrey as Oliver Cromwell. His only starring role was in Chelworth (BBC, 1989), a middlebrow series, as Michael Hincham, not an aristocrat but who nevertheless inherits the stately home of the title; it only ran for one series, though. Simon Gray's Quartermaine's Terms (Screen Two; BBC, 1987) starred Sir John Gielgud as another of his charming, elderly eccentrics, with Edward Fox and Jeffrey supporting.

The latter was next in; The Nightmare Years (1989), a rather turgid Europudding of a mini-series, set in WW2; Hands Of A Murderer (YTV, 1990), a rather disappointing US co-production, with the corpulent Edward Woodward as Sherlock Holmes, and the lean Jeffrey as the possibly smarter brother Mycroft (reading the books, it should have been the other way round); Theatre Night, "Bingo—Scenes of Money and Death" (BBC, 1990), a TV version of Edward Bond's stage play, presenting an ageing, dissolute Shakespeare; and Lovejoy, "The Judgement of Solomon" (BBC, 1993), one of the adventures of Ian McShane's supposedly charming antique dealer (which Joanna Lumley was a semi-regular in, around this time). Dennis Potter's Lipstick On Your Collar (C4/Whistling Gypsy, 1993), centring on National Service recruits in the 50's and starring a young Ewan McGregor, was, frankly, not one of Potter's greatest (and largely recycled from a much earlier play of his, Lay Down Your Arms (1970)), though it deserved better than the sneering reaction from the gutter press that all Potter's work seemed to receive, at this point. At least, Potter's usual device of incorporating period songs was still a delight; the sight of Jeffrey, as a colonel, miming to Elvis' Blue Suede Shoes in the House of Commons, was really something. Jeffrey later participated in Potter's memorial service at St. James' Church in Piccadilly, in 1994, where he read from the essays of Hazlitt, one of the few writers Potter cited as an influence. Next, Jeffrey played the superficially upright banker Bulstrode in George Eliot's Middlemarch (BBC, 1994), the first and IMHO the most bearable of the renewed rash of costume dramas on TV, with John Savident turning up as an unwelcome associate from Bulstrode's disreputable past, eventually disposed of by him.

It was followed by one of the last episodes of Bergerac, "Treasure Hunt" (BBC, 1994); Performance, "Henry IV" (BBC, 1995) as the Lord Chief Justice in one of the now rare stagings of Shakespeare on TV, which also saw the last performance of Paul Eddington, as Justice Shallow; and Paul Merton In Galton And Simpson's..., "Twelve Angry Men" (Carlton, 1996), the first of a series of remakes in which Merton (who's funny, admittedly, when being himself) tried hard but was quite wrong here in Tony Hancock's old roles, with Jeffrey playing the Judge, instructed "you carry on, mush" by Hancock/Merton's jury foreman. He then supported in Rasputin (1995), with Alan Rickman in the title role, and Sweeney Todd (1997), directed by John Schlesinger, with Ben Kingsley as the demon barber and Joanna Lumley as his landlady; these had mainly British casts, and were publicised in the British press as being films, but were actually made for US cable TV, and neither has been shown on UK terrestrial TV yet. Another upper-case drama credit came through several episodes of Our Friends In The North (BBC, 1996), as a corruptible police commissioner in Peter Flannery's saga of a disparate group of young people; with a very strong cast headed by Christopher Eccleston, and even rescuing Malcolm McDowell from the Hollywood B-list to play a Soho villain, it was the kind of series that wins awards and gets exemplary reviews, but doesn't seem to get shown in the US as readily as the kind of costume flim-flammery discussed earlier. Then, an episode of The Bill, "Hedging Your Bets" (Thames, 1996); The Prince And The Pauper (BBC, 1996), as the Duke of Norfolk in another backward-looking Sunday teatime serial (it even had Keith Michell, years after The Six Wives Of Henry VIII, in the same role); The Treasure Seekers (Carlton, 1996), a one-off from E. Nesbit's novel for children; and The Moonstone (BBC, 1996), a two-part version of Wilkie Collins' early novel.

It was back to the present day for Jeffrey in Breakout (BBC, 1997), as a professor in an SF one-shot about a virus, then back to the 60's (dramatically speaking, of course) in Heartbeat, "Where There's a Will" (YTV, 1998). He appeared as busy as ever, in his last years, doing two children's comedy series, Knight School (Granada, 1997), as the headmaster of a medieval academy in a sort of junior Blackadder, and Magic With Everything (1998), as Uncle Oz. He was then a French aristocrat in The Scarlet Pimpernel (BBC, 1999) with Richard E. Grant, which Americans seem to like but which was annihilated in the ratings in Britain—by series like Kavanagh Q.C., "End Games" (Carlton, 1999), John Thaw's legal drama, with Jeffrey also in a wig and gown here, and the rather soppy, rural-based Where The Heart Is, "Expansions" (Anglia, 1999). I'm prepared to be corrected, but the latter looks like it was Jeffrey's final credit. Jeffrey died of prostate cancer, and of all days on 25 December, 1999, at his home in Oxhill; his four daughters, and one son (all from the first of his two marriages) were at his side. He may have never become a star, but he probably had no desire to be one. Instead, he simply served his profession well.

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