Timothy Peter Pigott-Smith
Doctor of Letters
19 February 2008 – Orator: Professor Sarah Street
In many ways we have before us today the ideal product of the University’s Drama Department and the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. Tim Pigott-Smith has demonstrated the highest accomplishments in many areas of the dramatic arts – from Shakespeare to soap; from fringe theatre to the West End and Broadway; from the BBC to Hollywood. He is an acclaimed theatre director and we honour him last, but not least, for his exceptional acting career.
Tim’s love of theatre began during his school days at Wyggeston Boys’ School, Leicester. His first role was as the mother-in-law in The Caucasian Chalk Circle, an experience which he now remembers principally for the second night when the elastic that held up his petticoat snapped, a misfortune we are grateful didn’t deter him from wanting to pursue drama at University. He came to the Drama Department in 1964 where he acted in a number of plays including The Devils and The Entertainer. The BA degree involved three subjects – Drama, French and English. These stood him in good stead for his future career and he has since used his French working on screen in French films. On graduation his training continued at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. It was here that a momentous decision was made. Mark Ostler, Chairman of the Society for Theatre Research, tells that he advised the young Timothy Pigott-Smith to change his name, as if it was displayed on the marquee outside the theatre the letters would be too small for anyone to read. Timothy came back and said that he had decided to take this advice – from now on he would be known as TIM Pigott-Smith. As Tim Pigott-Smith he has had a wonderful career which we are celebrating here today with the award of the honorary degree.
Tim spent the rest of the decade in Bristol, beginning his professional career as an actor at the Old Vic in 1969. During the 1970s he worked extensively in regional and repertory theatre in Birmingham, Nottingham, Cambridge, at the Royal Court and with the Prospect Theatre Company and the Royal Shakespeare Company. It was the RSC that first took him to Broadway where he played Dr Watson in 1974. It was at this time that he also began working in television. His first role was as Captain Harker in Dr Who, and he went on to appear in numerous acclaimed dramas such as The Glittering Prizes, The Lost Boys and North and South. As a reflection of the longevity of his career in television he has, in fact, appeared twice in North and South for the BBC, playing the son Frederick in 1975 and then his father Richard in 2004. Film roles also followed including in Joseph Andrews, The Remains of the Day, Clash of the Titans and Escape to Victory. He has worked alongside the most eminent directors including Tony Richardson, John Huston, James Ivory and Bernard Tavernier. In 2005 he appeared as the militiaman Creedy in V for Vendetta, an adaptation of David Lloyd’s futuristic graphic novel.
In these roles Tim demonstrated the full range of his performance skills that proved to be as powerful in front of the camera as when devoted to the intensity of appearing in a one-man play such as The Bengal Lancer in 1985. Based on the memoir by Francis Yeats-Brown who served in India, Tim’s casting in this role connected thematically with his award-winning performance the previous year in Granada Television’s The Jewel in the Crown. During the serial’s fourteen episodes, Tim’s portrayal of the character Ronald Merrick is memorable for its compelling performance of the complex, brutal and emotionally repressed chief-of-police in Mayapore, India during the last years of the Raj. During the location filming of the series Tim kept a diary and began to collect a wide range of poetry and prose by both Indian and European writers which articulated in their different ways the many varied experiences of India. Together with entries from the diary, extracts from these writings were published in Out of India, an anthology which communicates Tim’s fascination with the country, its history, customs, literature and curious timelessness.
The host of awards for The Jewel in the Crown lead to other notable television appearances in series including The Chief, The Vice, Kavanagh QC and, most recently, Holby Blue. In Life Story, the BAFTA-winning TV film about the race to find the structure of DNA, Tim played Francis Crick. The film was directed by Mick Jackson, another graduate from the Drama Department with whom Tim worked on his first film while they were students. The legacy of Merrick has tended to favour his casting as mean, troubled and sinister characters. On the other hand, and as his stage performances attest, he has inhabited a range of roles that demonstrate his versatility. In Howard Davies’s production of The Iceman Cometh in 1998 Tim played Larry Slade at the Almeida, The Old Vic and then on Broadway. This represented another collaboration between Bristol alumni, since director Howard Davies also studied here. Michael Billington’s review of the production conveys something of the extraordinary range of Tim’s abilities when he describes him as ‘barely recognisable…he catches exactly the wearying nihilism of the lapsed agitator’. Working with the RSC has also produced extremely distinguished performances. When he played Cassius in Julius Caesar in 2001-02 his performance was described by reviewer John Peter as capturing the essence of the character perfectly: ‘Far from thinking too much, Cassius is a man of instinct and intuition…he is big, heavy, hugely authoritative…It is not the body but the body language that speaks. Of such casting are great performances born’. His performance in Christmas Carol at the Lyric Hammersmith in 2002 was described as ‘the perfect Scrooge…More fool than villain, Tim Pigott-Smith is never ingratiating, and he succeeds in making your heart crack for a man it is impossible to really like’.
As well as winning many accolades for his stage performances, Tim is also an award-winning theatre director. This became a major strand of his activities from the mid-1980s with productions including Krapp’s Last Tape, a national tour of Royal Hunt of the Sun and an adaptation of Samuel Beckett’sCompany which won a Fringe First Award at the 1998 Edinburgh Festival. He has toured the UK with his own company, Compass, for which he was artistic director 1989-92. Later this year he will direct a play called Stragglers that will open in Guildford and then go to the West End. We will also see him as the Foreign Secretary in the next Bond movie, Quantum of Solace. As if these achievements aren’t enough, he also narrates audio books and the tones of his distinctive soft, yet precise voice have been heard many times on Radio 4’s drama productions.
Tim’s connection with Bristol and the region is a crucial reminder of what is possible when a special talent is facilitated. One of his most recent performances was as Henry Higgins in Peter Hall’s production of Pygmalion in the Theatre Royal, Bath, shortly to open at the Old Vic in London. His standing in the profession, the way his work has encompassed so many expressions of dramatic art that have been enjoyed by millions of people contribute to a heightened awareness of the importance of the arts in contemporary life. As a leading regional theatre, the Bristol Old Vic’s future has been far from certain in the current financial climate. A career such as Tim’s shows how vital such institutions are for training the actors, directors and writers of tomorrow. Mr Vice-Chancellor, I present to you Timothy Peter Pigott-Smith, a jewel in Bristol’s crown of whom we are justly proud, as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Letters honoris causa.