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Peter Woodthorpe Obituary

The Telegraph, 25 August, 2004

Peter Woodthorpe, who has died aged 72, was one of the most distinctive and arresting character actors to appear on the post-war London stage.

A meticulous exponent of poised and vibrant speech, mannered eccentricity, wry insinuation and pathetic comedy, he created two of the most remarkable roles in 20th-century avant-garde drama.

The first was Estragon, one of the tramps in Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot (1953). The second was Aston, the stolid, pathetic brother in The Caretaker (1960), by Harold Pinter, for which Woodthorpe won the Clarence Derwent Award for the season's best male supporting performance.

Woodthorpe was fleshy-faced, bright-eyed, square-jawed and plump, with a rasping, reverberative and nasal voice and a capacity for stillness which commanded attention. To all his acting he brought an air of sexual ambiguity and, sometimes, of almost sinister power.

In a stage career lasting more than 40 years, he ranged from the avant garde to Shakespeare; Sheridan and the Restoration dramatists; Ibsen, Gorki, Brecht and - a Christmas favourite with both children and adults - A A Milne's Toad of Toad Hall. He also worked in films and television.

Peter Woodthorpe was born at York on September 25 1931 and educated at Archbishop Holgate's School, York, and Magdalene, Cambridge, where he appeared in the Footlights Revue and for the Marlowe Society.

In his first year he played the title part in King Lear - "very finely," according to a senior London critic, "and with remarkable assumption of senility".

After National Service in the intelligence branch of the Navy, he made his first professional appearance on the stage in 1955 at the Arts Theatre Club in the English premiere of Waiting for Godot, directed by Peter Hall, which transferred to the Criterion.

Woodthorpe recalled: "When we arrived for the first rehearsal Peter Hall said: 'I'm not sure what this play means: I cannot pretend. I think it's probably a great work . . . we will explore . . . I have no scheme or plan.' The play was booed and the critics were very savage."

Of Woodthorpe, though, one wrote: "That clever young actor from Cambridge, Peter Woodthorpe, as Estragon, transmitted a mixture of the saturnine and the plaintive with first-rate competence, continually making play with the donning of a pair of battered boots - deep symbolism there, no doubt: the aching feet spoke of the constricted life."

During the English Stage Company's first season at the Royal Court Theatre, Woodthorpe played Wang, the Water Seller, to Peggy Ashcroft's Shen Te in Brecht's The Good Woman of Setzuan (1956).

In the musical comedy derived from Max Beerbohm's novel, Zuleika (Saville 1957), he drew more praise from the critics as the Yorkshireman Noakes: "He acted the others into insignificance by his rendering of that sweet lout," one declared. "Here was gentle, wistful comedy, delivered with professional timing and assurance."

After touring the provinces as Professor Muller in Peter Brook's first production of Friedrich Durrenmatt's Time and Time Again, with Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontanne, Woodthorpe made his first appearance in the same part in 1958 on Broadway, where the play was renamed The Visit.

Back in England he joined Shakespeare Memorial Theatre Company at Stratford-upon-Avon just before it changed its name, under Peter Hall, to the Royal Shakespeare Company.

His roles included Flute in Hall's revival of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Roderigo in Paul Robeson's Othello and Junius Brutus to Laurence Olivier's Coriolanus.

In 1962 he joined Laurence Olivier's company to open the Chichester Festival Theatre. His roles included The Clown in Fletcher's The Chances, Phulas in Ford's The Broken Heart and Yefim in Uncle Vanya; and that Christmas in the West End he played, for the first time, the title role in Toad of Toad Hall (Comedy).

After performances in two classical comedies - Bob Acres in Sheridan's The Rivals (Lyric, Hammersmith, 1967) and Lord Foppington in Vanbrugh's The Relapse (Glasgow Citizens' Theatre 1964) - Woodthorpe took over from Donald Pleasance in the title role of Jean Anouilh's Poor Bitos (Duke of York's).

In 1970 he rejoined the RSC for two years, playing Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing, the Dauphin in Henry V, and the Duke in The Merchant of Venice.

He then returned to the West End playing Nils Krogstad to Claire Bloom's Nora in Ibsen's A Doll's House (Criterion 1973), and later that year went to the Lyceum, Edinburgh, appearing as Sir Jolly Jumble in Otway's The Soldier's Fortune.

After John Mortimer's double bill, Heaven and Hell (Greenwich 1976), Woodthorpe reappeared in its West End version, The Bells of Hell (Garrick 1977), as a trendy, quirky rector; and he played August Strindberg in The Tribades (Hampstead 1978).

Among more recent stage credits were O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra (Glasgow Citizens') and, for the National Theatre, Rodney Ackland's Absolute Hell (Lyttleton 1995), as a benevolent if emphatically homosexual London film producer.

On television he appeared in The Government Inspector; The Fight Against Death; Only Fools and Horses; Minder; Singles; Chance in a Million; The Trial of Klaus Barbie; Coronation Street; Three of a Kind; Bonjour Le Class; and Inspector Morse - as the pathologist Max.

His films included The Evil of Frankenstein (1964); The Blue Max (1966); The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968); Eleni (1985); and The Madness of King George (1994).

Peter Woodthorpe died on August 13.