Guest Actor Biography
by Pete Stampede
A fantastically boisterous scheming swine in "You Have Just Been Murdered," resembling some kind of experiment fusing Orson Welles with Ronnie Barker, George Murcell was indeed one of the series' best ever villains IMHO. He was also a regular presence in Lew Grade's filmed action series for ITC, which were The Avengers' contemporaries, in which he again frequently provided a touch of exotic maliciousness. Rotund in face and body, hirsute and usually bearded (he'd have looked like my friend Barney Agnew if he'd shaved), with a generously-shaped mouth that could either imply bemusement or resolve itself into a smugly villainous expression, Murcell had a brief but praiseworthy period as an old-fashioned stage actor-manager (he'd have probably made a perfect Vincent Crummles in Nicholas Nickleby). Therefore, his TV and film roles were clearly undertaken to provide funding for his more artistically worthwhile endeavours, but in each one, he seized the role with lip-smacking relish and gave an impression of hugely enjoying himself.
Murcell was born in 1925, and somewhat startlingly in Naples—maybe that explains his frequent presence in Mediterranean-lensed films, later on. His earliest traceable television role was "A Policeman" in Time Slip (BBC, 1953), a half-hour original piece that was also one of the first science fiction productions on record, concerning a dead man who is brought back to life, but finds himself to be a short time in the future—4.7 seconds, to be precise. Not to be confused with an early 70s ITV children's programme of the same name, the producer of this was Andrew Osborn, who would later oversee the highly successful Maigret, with Rupert Davies. Then, The Adventures Of Robin Hood, "The Trap" (ATV/ITC/Sapphire, 1956), with Richard Greene as Robin being plotted against by Alan Wheatley (from "Who Was That Man I Saw You With?") as the Sheriff of Nottingham, and a guesting Alfred Burke (seen in "Dragonsfield," "The Mauritius Penny" and "The Girl from Auntie"), while Murcell played the Sheriff's guard. In similar vein, the latter was a ruffian in The Adventures Of Sir Lancelot, "Caledon" (ATV/ITC, 1957), also with Nigel Green, and near the end of 1957, Sunday Night Theatre, "The Trial of Mary Lafarge" (BBC, 1957) starred the compelling, major television actress Yvonne Mitchell in the title role, supported by Murcell as her uncaring husband, and John LeMesurier. Despite his bulky figure, Murcell did more swashbuckling in Sword Of Freedom (ATV/ITC/Sapphire, 1959), as different characters in the similarly titled "Caterina" and "Cristina", in the former as a corrupt general. However, by now ITC's output was becoming more contemporary, and Murcell followed this development in The Four Just Men, "The Godfather" (ATV/ITC, 1959), as a character called Ernst Frenke in one of the episodes featuring Honor Blackman as aide to Dan Dailey; and Danger Man, "Bury the Dead" (ATV/ITC, 1959; shown 1960), with Patrick McGoohan supported by imported starlet Beverly Garland, a clean-shaven Murcell, the ubiquitous Patrick Troughton, and a cameo from Robert Shaw, getting killed off before the opening titles.
For effectively the same company, but on domestic videotape rather than ITC's filmed transatlantic product, Murcell was a regular in Epilogue To Capricorn (ATV, 1959), a mystery 'serial' whose broadcast dates spanned the end of the 50s and start of the 60s; the cast also included Peter Wyngarde, 40s film star Jean Kent, and Richard Johnson (a respected classical actor on stage, but also in some highly schlocky films). Then, Murcell made TV history in a small way by providing voices for Supercar (ATV/ITC/APF, 1961), Gerry and Sylvia Anderson's first proper foray into sci-fi puppetry. This looks highly rudimentary compared to the Andersons' later work—the puppets' facial features are so exaggerated as to be almost frightening—but the intricate model vehicles and stirring score by Barry Gray are already present, as well as the rather charming habit of giving the puppet hero Mike Mercury star billing on the opening titles, like a real actor. Murcell's voices included the avuncular Professor Popkiss (who looked and sounded rather like Hollywood oldie S.Z. "Cuddles" Sakall), and the bald, evil Masterspy; the latter character, and his weedy assistant Friend Zarin (voice by David Graham) were clearly the models for the villains in Peter Cook and Dudley Moore's hysterical Anderson parody in Not Only But Also ("You are a genius, Master!"—"You are an idiot, Kraut!"). In Supercar's second series, Murcell was replaced by Cyril Shaps, another early TV veteran (still going now); however, Gerry Anderson's only real film as director, a live action, non-SF thriller called Crossroads To Crime (1960), as short in the budget department as in its running time, had Murcell in the cast. (Much as Anderson frequently voiced his desire to break away from puppets and the small screen, attempts by himself, or his then wife, to do either never quite worked out.)
Murcell's own film career had begun with The Battle Of The River Plate (1956), the last proper film from the unique partnership of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, shown in the US as Pursuit Of The Graf Spee; as one of many familiar faces in support including Patrick Macnee, Christopher Lee, Michael Goodliffe, Roger Delgado and Nigel Stock, Murcell is hard to spot (unless you've got a widescreen TV) as a below-decks officer due to the constant use of long shots with people crammed together, but was recalled in Powell's autobiography Million Dollar Movie as "a pugnacious, bearded character". I'm willing to bet that Hell Drivers (1957) has been on afternoon television more times than any other movie; it's always worth a look, though, for its remarkable, then largely unknown cast. Stanley Baker, as an honest truck driver stumbling into corruption, had a large role and Sean Connery (whose career could easily have been Baker's, really) had a small one, Patrick McGoohan (in memorably deranged form) and an already veteran William Hartnell were the bad guys; also on hand were David McCallum and then wife Jill Ireland, Herbert Lom, Gordon Jackson, Alfie Bass and even Sid James. It's tempting to say that Murcell, who played one of the other drivers, had a similar position in this to Brad Dexter in The Magnificent Seven. McGoohan, and Peter Arne, joined Murcell in supporting the bland Michael Craig in High Tide At Noon (1957), a soft-centred drama set in Canada, as was Campbell's Kingdom (1957), with Dirk Bogarde; while Sea Of Sand (1958), a war film indistinguishable from other British efforts of the type and time, had Murcell and Ray McAnally among those supporting Richard Attenborough.
The majority of Murcell's film work seems to have consisted of standing around in various epics made on European locations, in which he was recognisable but the roles were small: The Fall Of The Roman Empire (1964), whose starry line-up included James Mason, with whom Murcell was friendly in real life; The Heroes Of Telemark (1965) as a Nazi, a casting echoed much later in the TV mini-series Inside The Third Reich (ABC, 1982), which had him as Hermann Goering and, taking its cue from Holocaust, had mainly British actors playing the Nazis, for some reason; and John Huston's little-seen A Walk With Love And Death (1969). The teaser for You Only Live Twice (1967) featured Murcell, as an implacable Soviet representative, trading insults with David Bauer as his American opposite number over their countries' disappearing spacecraft, and the urbane comic actor Robin Bailey trying to keep the peace as the British delegate; oddly, despite all three actors being pretty well known, none of them were credited on screen. Somewhat less serious film assignments included Don't Panic Chaps! (1959), again as a Nazi but in a farce about uneasy co-operation between British and German battalions in WW2, headlining Dennis Price and George Cole; Disney's In Search Of The Castaways (1962), as partner in crime to George Sanders; Kaleidoscope (1966) starring Warren Beatty and Susannah York; The Year Of The Sex Olympics (1968) with Leonard Rossiter; and Diana Rigg's period black comedy The Assassination Bureau (1969), glimpsed towards the end as a pompous pilot.
Back on the box, Murcell did Ghost Squad, "The Big Time" (ATV, 1963) with Neil Hallett, written by the future creator of Minder, the late Leon Griffiths, then three turns on The Saint: "The Saint Bids Diamonds" (ATV/ITC, 1964), bizarrely cast as an Arab in a tale from early Carry On scriptwriter Norman Hudis, into colour for "The Death Game" (1966), as a slippery operator called Vogler, also with Angela Douglas from "Requiem," and John Steiner, a tall, elegant actor who later made some pretty inelegant films in Italy; and "The Power Artist" (1967), as the same character. Kittens Are Brave (BBC, 1965) was a half-hour single play by Giles Cooper, with Murcell as a flamboyant lawyer and TV personality whose robust opinions bring him into conflict with a harassed vicar (Geoffrey Bayldon, seen in "The Deadly Air" and "Escape in Time"); Cooper, a prolific playwright and adapter of detective novels for TV, died shortly afterwards, in strange circumstances involving a drunken awards ceremony and a moving train. One of ITC's more realistic series (still in black and white) was Gideon's Way, "The Great Plane Robbery" (ATV/ITC, 1965), starring the once very famous John Gregson, with Alexander Davion, and here guesting Murcell, George Baker and Avengers writer-actor Jeremy Burnham. In superficially glossy colour (it looked like cinema commercials of that time), Murcell gave his usual ebullient performance in The Baron, "The Legions of Ammak" (ATV/ITC, 1966), as a character called Cossackian, but even he had to concede the scene-stealing honours here to Peter Wyngarde, at the top of his commandingly camp game in two roles, including a not very PC Arab king; Wyngarde's fellow "Epic" guest Isa Miranda was also on hand, and all concerned made imported star Steve Forrest look even more wooden by comparison. Later in the same series, Murcell did "Time to Kill" (also 1966), as a Spanish police captain, with Sue Lloyd assisting Forrest (she hadn't been in the previous episode) and Peter Bowles as a villain.
Again turning up twice in the same series, Murcell did double duty in The Champions, a series I've always thought of as dodgy and dated, which is certainly true of his role as what would then have been termed a 'half-caste' in "Reply Box No. 666" (ATV/ITC, 1968). Supposedly taking place in the Caribbean (cue the stock footage and phoney sets), with Imogen Hassall in the cast, it's hard to say which was more ludicrous, Murcell in this make-up, or Anton Rodgers in a toupee pretending to be French. Murcell did better in "The Iron Man" (also 1968), as an exiled South American dictator, given to clay-pigeon shooting and slapping girls' behinds while laughing heartily, and whom the insipid trio of heroes have to protect; the great Patrick Magee (seen in "Killer Whale" and "The Gilded Cage") played an edgy aide, while Steven Berkoff was in his usual part as a revolutionary heavy. Randall And Hopkirk (Deceased), "Somebody Just Walked Over My Grave" (ATV/ITC, 1969; shown 1970), wasn't the most thrilling episode of the original series, but had enough outsize characters to go round, not least Murcell as an amiable, tweed-suited country squire, the normally sombre Nigel Terry in an incredible frizzy wig as his artist son, constantly saying "Crazy, man!" in a deadpan upper-class accent, Patricia Haines as Murcell's glamorous German, er, home help, and an early sighting of comic actor Geoffrey Hughes (long on Coronation Street, then the twee Keeping Up Appearances and the gutsy The Royle Family) as a devious undertaker. And, in a scene where the ghost Hopkirk manifests himself in the middle of a genuine soccer match, one of the commentators was Andrew Sachs (he's from Barcelona). Murcell played against type again, as a benevolent, waistcoated character in The Persuaders, "Nuisance Value" (ATV/ITC, 1971), a weak entry in that series in which the tag scene consisted of Tony Curtis and Roger Moore escaping the prospect of having him as their father-in-law. Jason King, "That Isn't Me, It's Somebody Else" (ATV/ITC, 1972), generally listed as Peter Wyngarde's last throw as the wide-lapelled adventurer, re-used the idea of a villainous King double (already used in one episode, "Uneasy Lies the Head"), and wasted an all too strong cast including Murcell as an Italian big-time villain, Patrick Troughton (again), Steed's stage incarnation Simon Oates, and John Junkin.
Given that Murcell had appeared so often for ITC, the film-based subsidiary of ATV, it was logical that he also worked for Euston Films, set up by Thames with the same aims. He played Frenchmen in both Special Branch, "Entente Cordiale" (Thames/Euston, 1974), Euston's first series, with Paul Eddington as a semi-regular, and in The Prison (Thames/Euston, 1975), a TV movie adaptation of one of Georges Simenon's (many) non-Maigret novels, also with Andre Morell (from "Death of a Batman" and "Death at Bargain Prices"), James Maxwell and Philip Madoc. The latter was shown in Thames' Armchair Cinema strand, the natural but short-lived progression from Armchair Theatre. In 1977, Murcell was in 1990, which looks like a typo but isn't; made by the BBC, it was dismissed by Clive James in The Observer as "the Nth series about Britain's totalitarian future, which will apparently consist of Barbara Kellermann standing haughtily around while Edward Woodward and other luckless males try to stop the script from reaching her." Other regulars included John Savident and Paul Hardwick, while there was a second season in 1978, in which Murcell did not appear. He did another of his smooth Soviet representatives in Brian Clemens' The Professionals, "A Stirring Of Dust" (LWT/Avengers Mark 1, 1978) with Gordon Jackson and C.I.5 put on alert when an ageing defector, all too clearly based on Kim Philby, makes one last visit to Britain; Robert Urquhart, from "Castle De'ath" and "Wish You Were Here," played 'Thomas Darby', while Andre Morell, again, also turned up. Smuggler (HTV/Gatetarn, 1981) was a well-made (on film) period action series from the experienced team of writer Richard Carpenter and producer Paul Knight (also responsible for Dick Turpin and Robin Of Sherwood); Murcell was a regular foe as the head of a family of villains, while the title role was played by the smouldering Oliver Tobias, never to live down the appalling Joan Collins romp The Stud.
In real life, Murcell acquired a Victorian church in an unglamorous area of north London, which he converted into an Elizabethan-styled theatre, seating 450; in 1973, he opened it as St. George's Theatre, making it his mission to bring classical plays to an audience which wouldn't otherwise have had the chance. One newspaper obituary of Murcell described him as "Shakespeare's man in Tufnell Park". Throughout the 70s and 80s, he continued there as actor and director, often with his wife, actress Elvi Hale; I just about recall seeing their names in a newspaper listing for a production of The Taming Of The Shrew, around 1984, so presumably it was at St. George's. However, by the end of the 80s, continued cuts in government funding for the arts forced the noble project, and the venue, to close. Keeping busy for others in the medium, Murcell was a spy in a 1983 revival of John Osborne's long and (originally) controversial A Patriot For Me, starring Alan Bates as the real-life, pre-WW1 Austrian double agent Alfred Redl, who was betrayed by his homosexuality; after premiering at the prestigious Chichester Festival Theatre, this transferred to the West End.
Returning to films and in an accustomed mode, Murcell was a pompous, weighty spymaster, reported to by Ben Kingsley as ferrety Turkish agent Basil Pascali, in the decent period drama Pascali's Island (1988), also starring Helen Mirren. His last few credits were in multi-national mishmashes, mainly supporting star actresses. Year Of The Gun (1991) was a hackneyed big-screen thriller from the once great John Frankenheimer, and one of Sharon Stone's last roles before her big break, with Murcell as a middle-European power broker. He was then in the big-budget disaster Cutthroat Island (1995) with Geena Davis, directed by her then husband Renny Harlin; possibly, Murcell's was the role Oliver Reed managed to get himself fired from, due to his usual drinking and pratting about. Catherine The Great (1995) was a mini-series with Catherine Zeta-Jones in the title role, one of the various 'international' projects she did which eventually attracted Hollywood's notice, but as they were never shown in Britain (and this was no exception, despite a largely British cast including the always excellent Ian Richardson), resulted in smug media-watchers there wrongly predicting she'd peaked with the twee TV series The Darling Buds Of May. The final credit for Murcell appears to have been The Ice Princess (HBO, 1995), a made-for-cable romance directed by John Huston's son Danny, with a seasoned Europudding cast including the prolific, multi-lingual Vernon Dobtcheff (seen in "Room Without a View," "The Living Dead" and "Thingumajig"). Murcell died towards the end of 1998; in 2001, it was reported that his son Jamie had undertaken an extensive restoration of St. George's Theatre, and had put it on the market with an asking price of over a million pounds.
materials copyrighted per their respective copyright holders.