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The Times (15/Sep/1993) - Obituary: Harold Innocent

(c) The Times (15/Sep/1993)

Obituary: Harold Innocent

Harold Innocent, actor, died in London on September 12 aged 60. He was born in Coventry on April 18, 1933.

Harold Innocent was the sort of hard-working character actor who, as is often the case with someone of his talents, never became a household name. Yet his fine, manly figure and crumpled features made him instantly recognisable to film and theatre audiences.

He was an adaptable player, equally at home with farce and tragedy, though he often seemed to have cornered the market in villains and despots. These he played as convincingly complex figures. Even in his last screen role as the corrupt Bishop of Hereford alongside Kevin Costner and Alan Rickman in the lightweight Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991), Innocent managed to appear both sinister and at the same time almost touchingly naive in his greed. That same ability with character was evident when he played the university bursar in Porterhouse Blue (1987).

Harold Sidney Innocent was educated at Broad Street Secondary Modern School in Coventry. After school he was briefly employed as an office clerk, a role in which he admitted to having been "absolutely hopeless".

He decided to switch to a career in acting, studying at the Birmingham School of Speech Training and Dramatic Art, and after his National Service in the RAF, went into repertory. A few years later he made the leap to Hollywood, appearing first in Alfred Hitchcock Presents in 1959, before landing roles in television series such as The Barbara Stanwyck Show.

But it was not until he returned to Britain that Innocent's career really took off. Professional and well-liked in the business, he was for three decades at the centre of important theatre productions at the Nottingham Playhouse, the Lyceum in Edinburgh, the Young Vic, the National, the RSC and the Bristol Young Vic. In his season at the RSC in 1984 he played Edward IV in Richard III and Boyet, attendant on the Princess of France, in Love's Labour's Lost. In Henry V he played both the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Duke of Burgundy (a role he successfully recreated for Kenneth Branagh's 1989 film version).

It was in Nicholas Hytner's production of Alan Bennett's The Madness of George III that he was last seen on the London stage, playing the part of Sir George Baker, one of the king's doctors. The mad king was a subject he was well-acquainted with. He himself played George III in the Bristol New Vic production of In the Ruins (1989).

Unlike many distinguished theatre actors, Innocent's talents adapted easily to the small screen and he found employment in many of the television series of his day Crown Court, The Professionals, Minder, Inspector Morse and EastEnders (in the last of which he played the part of a child-hating Father Christmas to great comic effect).

As a film actor he was seen in, among other productions, Brazil (1984), The Tall Guy (1988), Henry V and Prince of Thieves. But as a jobbing actor, he was willing to turn his hand to most things, whether it was playing a tetchy caterpillar in a musical version of Alice in Wonderland at the Lyric, Hammersmith, in 1986, or making his opera debut in the part of Sir Despard Murgatroyd in Ruddigore (1987) at Sadler's Wells. Innocent had first thought that the part was beyond him "but then I heard that Vincent Price had once played it, so suddenly it seemed to be possible". His expressive voice brought him much radio work.

Innocent was a civilised and gentle man who enjoyed the ballet, opera and visiting country hotels with friends (he never married). Michael Rudman, the artistic director of the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield, directed him eight times, and remembered him only once getting cross. Rudman was spending slightly too much time talking to another actor and Innocent eventually, in desperation, raised his voice to complain. "Go away, Harold," Rudman said. "Come back when you feel better." Innocent turned on his heel and said petulantly: "I will go away but I will not come back and I will not feel better." From one of the least temperamental actors in the business, this tiny sulk was as near as he ever got to bad behaviour.