Raise a glass also to one of Britain’s finest character actors, Nigel Hawthorne, who departed the theatre of life recently.


Nigel was born in Coventry on April 5th 1929 but by the time he was three years old the family uprooted to South Africa. Whilst at the University of Cape Town he took the decision that he wanted to become an actor. This apparent revelation did not please his parents, especially his father, a rather elderly and very Victorian gentleman who was exceedingly hostile towards any form of the arts. Despite parental opposition he made his theatrical debut at the age of 21 in a small Cape Town production called "The Shop at Sly Corner" which was followed up with endless tours with a rep company, before departing to try his luck in England.


Upon arrival in London he found it hard to get work. Rejection followed rejection until, forced to work as an assistant stage manager at a small provincial theatre in Buxton, Derbyshire, he eventually gave up and went home to Cape Town. Back home came a complete reversal of fortune, finding himself in roles he could only have dreamed of in England, in productions by the likes of Harold Pinter, John Osborne and Cocteau.


Returning to England in 1962, alas it would be several years before he landed anything worthwhile. Joan Littlewood noticed him and he became a member of her Theatre Workshop and, from this, the Royal Court showed interest and he then worked for them for a number of years.


Like with so many theatrical actors, Hawthorne's big break came via television – his portrayal of Sir Humphrey Appleby in ‘Yes, Minister’ made him a star. Likewise with its highly successful follow up series, ‘Yes, Prime Minister’. Now, with all doors open to him, major productions were his, including George Bernard Shaw's ‘The Millionairess’, Chekov's ‘Uncle Vanya’, Tom Stoppard's ‘Hapgood’ and the part for which he won the Tony Best Actor Award, his portrayal of C.S. Lewis in ‘Shadowlands’, which he performed both in London and on Broadway.


Hawthorne’s outstanding performance made him the choice for the part of King George III in Alan Bennett's play ‘The Madness of George III’ and, when made into a film, earned him an Oscar nomination. In the humble view of the 'Tales From The Woods' editorial board this was his finest performance and the film has seen regular showings at Bromley artisan Cinema Queen Anne.


Hawthorne’s film triumphs include ‘Richard III’ with Ian McKellen, ‘Twelfth Night’ and Stephen Spielberg's ‘Amistad’. He was awarded a knighthood In the 1999 New Year's Honours List.


Keith Woods



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