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Tribute to Tim Pigott-Smith OBE (BA 1967, Hon 2008) 1946 - 2017

Tim Pigott-Smith OBE (BA 1967, Hon 2008) 1946 - 2017

Professor Martin White

Emeritus Professor Martin White

22 May 2017

Bristol alumnus Tim Pigott-Smith (BA Drama 1967), an acclaimed stage, film and television actor, has died at the age of 70. Martin White, Emeritus Professor of Theatre, recalls Tim’s life and work and his personal connection with the University.

Tim was a superb classical actor, especially in Shakespeare, which always seemed to me to be his greatest love. When he was 16 his family moved to Stratford-upon-Avon. Tim was enrolled at the King Edward VI grammar school (where Shakespeare had been a pupil), and the Royal Shakespeare Theatre was just down the road. He became an avid theatre-goer, and often spoke of seeing John Barton and Peter Hall’s Wars of the Roses and the lasting impact it had on him. Given all this there was, in Tim’s own words, ‘really no way back’ from becoming an actor.

Tim came to study at the University of Bristol Drama Department, which gave him his first experience of “…professionalism: working on shoestring budgets with dedication and respect for the text; the thought that went into the work; the attention to detail. These were lessons I have never forgotten.” After graduating he trained at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, and then began his professional career in 1969 as an acting ASM with the Bristol Old Vic company. All three of these Bristol institutions remained central to Tim throughout his life, and he was a staunch supporter of the Drama Department, keeping in touch with many who had taught him and, particularly Glynne Wickham, who had founded the Department (the first in the UK) in 1947. His ongoing support for, and engagement with, the University and its students as well as his distinguished career were acknowledged with the award of an Honorary Degree in 2008.

To list all Tim’s successes as an actor on stage, TV and films, would make this tribute a very lengthy one. So I’ve just cherry-picked some examples that I think show not just the quality of his work but its range. Across his career, working with the RSC (who in 1973 gave him his first major part, understudying Nicol Williamson’s Coriolanus), the Royal National Theatre and many other major companies, his roles included Laertes (to Ian McKellen’s Hamlet), Postumus (in the RSC Cymbeline), King Lear, Prospero, Leontes, Caesar (in Antony and Cleopatra with Anthony Hopkins and Judi Dench), and, on TV, Hotspur (Henry IV, Part I) and Angelo (Measure for Measure).

But he didn’t stop at acting. In 1989 he took over the leadership of the Compass Theatre Company, directing a wide range of productions as well as playing leading roles including Brutus, and Salieri in Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus. And I need to mention his outstanding performances in two plays by the American writer Eugene O’Neill: starring opposite Kevin Spacey in The Iceman Cometh (1998) and with Helen Mirren in Mourning Becomes Electra (2003).

In the 1970s he began to work in television, and it was his performance as the sadistic chief-of-police, Ronald Merrick, in Granada TV’s 13-part adaptation of The Jewel in the Crown (1984), set in India in the last years of the Raj, for which he recived a BAFTA for Best Actor that brought him to the attention of a vast audience. The praise heaped upon both the series and Tim, brought further TV successes, including, in 1987, Life Story, the award-winning film about the discovery of the structure of DNA: Tim played Francis Crick, alongside Jeff Goldblum, Juliet Stephenson and Alan Howard. 

Photography by Johan Persson

One of my own favourites of Tim’s many TV roles was in the BBC2 adaptation of John Ford’s seventeenth century tragedy, ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, in which (perhaps with an echo of Merrick) he played the malevolent Vasques – a masterly performance of cold-hearted malice. And when I came to write about the play and this production of it, Tim, as always, willingly provided insights of all kinds into its making, recollections always spiced with his eye for detail and the fun of performing.

Tim and I often saw each other when he was performing nearby, and we had a regular and enjoyable email correspondence. Earlier this year he emailed me about some of the niceties of protocol in an Oxford College. I pointed out to him that as neither of us had been there we were similarly ignorant, but we tried to come up with what we thought seemed right. Emails went to-and-fro for some time, without my knowing exactly why he was so interested, but all became clear when I saw him giving a fabulously exuberant performance as Mr Sniggs, the junior dean of Scone College, in the recent TV version of Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall. And I was touched that when I retired from the University a few years ago Tim rounded off the event with a moving performance of a speech from The Tempest in which Prospero bids farewell to his revels.

Tim’s death, sudden and unexpected, came as a complete shock. He had been in rehearsal to play Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, alongside his real-life wife, Pamela Miles, as Willy’s wife, Linda (although she had already had to withdraw from the production following an accident). For me, one of the saddest aspects of Tim’s death is that he will not have the chance to build on all the experience and success of his long career, which has culminated in recent years in an astonishing body of work, and, in January this year, saw him awarded an OBE for his services to theatre.

He was at the height of his powers. He had enjoyed enormous success playing the lead role in Mike Bartlett’s hit play, King Charles III, which was clever, contemporary, relevant, witty and dazzlingly inventive in its use of iambic pentameters - all attractive qualities for Tim. He was very proud of the stage production, seen in London and New York and which brought Tim Olivier and Tony award nominations for his vibrant performance, and he thoroughly enjoyed making the BBC TV film of the play which was completed only a short time before his death.

Tim was as engaging in real life as on stage: passionate, funny, a brilliant raconteur, and great company with a palpable enjoyment of life and the theatre. He died far too soon, but at least in the midst of what he had loved doing, and doing so brilliantly, for nearly 50 years.