|Subject: British actor Hugh Dickson has died. He was 91.
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Date Posted: Thursday, January 03, 01:59:28pm
Hugh Dickson, who has died aged 91, was one of a small band of actors: the select few whom writers, poets in particular, are grateful and relieved to have reading their work to audiences when they have not been engaged to read it themselves – and who sometimes make a better job of it.
Most actors, poets believe, read poetry badly, adopting the dreaded “poetry voice” or simply over-dramatising the material. Hugh’s skill and intelligence – and marvellous voice – made him one of the finest of exceptions.
His early development of a talent for delivering poetry and prose fiction with near-perfect understanding and sympathy, with vigour yet without the wrong kind of “drama” or inappropriate emotion, meant that radio became his principal occupation, much as he enjoyed television, film and live theatre.
An offshoot of this was his recording of lengthy works of literature as audiobooks, notably a solo rendering of Dickens’s Bleak House in its entirety in 2002. But his range of performances in all the other media was equally remarkable.
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On television he featured in numerous roles, large or small, playing Sir Robert Cecil in Elizabeth R (1971) with Glenda Jackson, and Dr Behenna in Poldark (1977). Later he was Dr Christian in House of Cards (1990) and Major Dickson in Midsomer Murders (2005).
The last of his many film appearances was as the judge in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011). But he was probably most familiar for turning up in every kind of drama on Radio 3 and Radio 4, from Shakespeare to The Archers (as Guy Pemberton, 1995-96) and with regular renderings of poetry, working with writer-directors such as George MacBeth, Piers Plowright and Anthony Thwaite.
Hugh’s clear, incisive and instantly recognisable voice brought interest and authority to every character he portrayed and to every poem he was employed to interpret.
At the same time as the radio work he would be teaching verse-speaking at the Actors Centre in Covent Garden, running a poetry performance group, the Cool Web (named after a Robert Graves poem), and collaborating in touring programmes such as the one about Walter de la Mare, which he undertook with the scholar and anthologist Anne Harvey. She described him as “the poet’s best ever reader”.
Born in Worthing, West Sussex, Hugh was the son of Annan Dickson, a bank manager and travel writer, and his wife, Jessie, a teacher of domestic science. One of his uncles was the stage comedian Gillie Potter. Hugh attended the local grammar school and, after national service (in the army’s Education Corps), went on to study English at Exeter College, Oxford, where Nevill Coghill was one of his tutors.
Active in the Oxford University Dramatic Society, he played in student productions of Romeo and Juliet and The Duchess of Malfi, and took the title role in a Peer Gynt directed by Tony Richardson. After that he was never to have any occupation apart from acting.
His early stage work after university involved the testing experience of weekly rep (often rehearsing the next play while playing the present one) and making festival fringe appearances with small touring companies.
From these he graduated to a spell with Bernard Miles’s recently founded Mermaid theatre, in London, engagements with the Royal Shakespeare Company in plays transferred from Stratford-upon-Avon to the Aldwych, in London, and then to the BBC Radio Drama Company, which was to be his home for most of his later career.
Regularly in demand for leading or major roles on radio, he will be remembered especially for his Guy Crouchback in the 1974 dramatisation of Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour, Sunny Farebrother in Frederick Bradnum’s adaptation of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time (four series, 1979-82) and as Elrond in Lord of the Rings (1981).
But it was with poetry that he excelled, especially in making “difficult” contemporary verse or new material accessible for the listener. Plowright, who directed him on numerous occasions, praised the way in which Hugh “got the sense [of a poem] and cut out the posturing performance which often eclipses the sense. He was light on his feet, whether with comedy or tragedy, and never ‘sounded off’”.
Thwaite employed him to give the first ever broadcast, in 1961, of Philip Larkin’s poem Ambulances. Not easy to please, hardly ever a public performer of his own verse and scathing about the way poetry was usually presented, Larkin, much to Thwaite’s relief, was very happy with Hugh’s interpretation of the piece, which counted as the highest of praise.
Hugh’s marriage to Dorothy White ended in divorce; she died in 1998. He is survived by his partner, Marian Diamond, by a son from his marriage and two grandchildren.
• Hugh Dickson, actor, born 19 August 1927; died 26 November 2018
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