Clifford Rose obituary

Well graced, well spoken and (usually) well dressed on the stage, Clifford Rose, who has died aged 92, was a founder member of the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1960 and one of its most prominent “second leads” over many seasons.

He initially spent nine years with the company, appearing in such landmark productions as Michael Elliott’s As You Like It, with Vanessa Redgrave; the Wars of the Roses, with Peggy Ashcroft, Donald Sinden, Janet Suzman and Ian Holm; Peter Brook’s King Lear, with Paul Scofield; and Brook’s Marat/Sade, with Glenda Jackson and Patrick Magee, in which he played the asylum director, a role he reprised at the National Theatre in 1997.

He took an unofficial RSC “sabbatical” in the 1970s when he became a familiar face on television, notably in three series of Secret Army, playing a Gestapo officer, Standartenführer Ludwig Kessler, investigating an escape plan for British pilots in occupied Belgium; this yielded, in 1981, a “name-above-the-title” six-part serial, Kessler, now a wealthy industrialist and wanted war criminal in a contemporary setting.

For a time, and before returning to the RSC, he was a household face, reaching even larger audiences in the 1981 Doctor Who story Warriors’ Gate, as the maverick starship trooper Captain Rorvik, who is transporting the enslaved, time-sensitive Tharils, a pride of leonine aliens – until the fourth Doctor, Tom Baker, intervenes.

Clifford Rose and Kenneth Branagh in Hamlet
Clifford Rose as the Ghost with Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet at the Barbican theatre in 1992. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Even here, there was something Teutonic about Rose’s uniform and epaulettes. This was an odd development for a British “heart of oak” actor, whose clean-cut features, classic haircut and affable but not invulnerable demeanour brought to mind the abdicating Edward VIII, the Duke of Windsor, not least when he played the duke’s father, George V, in a 2005 television film, Wallis and Edward.

Clifford – the name was that of a Herefordshire village adjacent to his birthplace, Hamnish – was the eldest son of Percival Rose, a gentleman farmer and lay preacher, and his wife, Violet (nee Pratt), who ran the local volunteer nurses service during the war. He was educated at the King’s school, Worcester, and at King’s College London, where he took a degree in English and developed his passion for the stage.

On graduating, he auditioned for the Elizabethan theatre company, a touring set-up whose directors included John Barton and Peter Hall. They recruited him a few years later at the RSC. He made a London debut in Shakespeare (Julius Caesar and Henry V) at the Westminster theatre in 1953 and spent the next few years in weekly and fortnightly rep, and in a touring company, the Penguin Players, where he met his wife, also an actor (and teacher), Celia Ryder.

What he learned from Barton about Shakespearean verse, said Rose, stayed with him all his life. In those early RSC years he was an imposing Priam in Barton’s first version of his favourite play, Troilus and Cressida (Holm and Dorothy Tutin; Peter O’Toole as Thersites); King Duncan in the Macbeth of Eric Porter and Irene Worth; and Dromio of Ephesus in the Clifford Williams production of The Comedy of Errors in 1962, hailed by Kenneth Tynan as defining the birth of a great new ensemble company. That tumultuously hilarious show was in the repertoire for several years.

Rose had made a television debut in 1959 as Second Dandy in Hilda Lessways, adapted in six parts from Arnold Bennett’s Clayhanger novels, with Judi Dench and Eileen Atkins. From the RSC, apart from his Kessler saga, which occupied five years of his working life, he sprang prominently into several of the BBC’s biggest 1970s series: Jean-Paul Sartre’s The Roads to Freedom, as the brother of lead actor Michael Bryant; Simon Raven’s blockbuster adaptation of Anthony Trollope’s The Pallisers, as Quintus Slide, the editor of a scandal sheet; and Richard Llewellyn’s How Green Was My Valley, starring Stanley Baker and Siân Phillips, as the teacher Mr Jonas, given a revenge corporal punishment lesson – with fists – in front of his own class.

Clifford Rose and Susan Hampshire in Married Love
Clifford Rose as the Lord Chief Justice and Susan Hampshire as Marie Stopes in Married Love at Wyndham’s theatre in 1988. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Hall cast him in Work is a Four-Letter Word (1968), a film version of Henry Livings’s Eh?, which had been presented on stage by the RSC in 1964, alongside other RSC alumni David Warner, Elizabeth Spriggs and Alan Howard … and Cilla Black.

And in the 1980s Rose cropped up in some interesting, if less than outstanding, movies such as The Wall (1982) about the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto; as a magistrate in Terry on the Fence (1985), about “mixed-up” teenagers; and as a judge in Mike Newell’s The Good Father (1985), written by Christopher Hampton and starring Anthony Hopkins. He always worked, as they say, with “the quality”.

His return to the RSC in 1989 – he became an associate, and an honorary associate, of the company – led to performances as fraternal dukes, good and bad, in As You Like It; the Ghost of Hamlet’s father in Kenneth Branagh’s electrifying non-princely interpretation; a dignified and involving Antonio in a modern-dress Merchant of Venice; and the Archbishop of York in Henry IV. In Shakespeare outside the RSC, he most enjoyed playing Polonius – “outstanding as an icy paterfamilias and court fixer” said Nicholas de Jongh – to Michael Maloney’s spring-heeled Hamlet at Greenwich in 1996.

For the fourth and final time he donned swastikas in the million-dollar television miniseries War and Remembrance, starring Robert Mitchum and Jane Seymour, covering the US involvement in the war from Pearl Harbor through to Hiroshima. He played Hans Kammler, the engineer who supervised the construction of the Nazi concentration camps and then disappeared off the face of the earth. Closer to home, he was Judge Critchley in four episodes of Alan Bleasdale’s politically ambitious and controversial GBH (1991), starring Robert Lindsay, Lindsay Duncan and Michael Palin, for Channel 4.

On his third reincarnation at the RSC, he played a notable double as the Earl of Worcester and the Lord Chief Justice in Henry IV, directed by Michael Attenborough in 2000, and the Duke of Venice in Othello in 2004. And, in 2008, he was a slinky high court judge in Michael Grandage’s superb Donmar Warehouse revival of Enid Bagnold’s The Chalk Garden – with Margaret Tyzack, Penelope Wilton and the sensational newcomer Felicity Jones – for which he won the Clarence Derwent award as best supporting actor.

That was his last major stage appearance. On film, he played nice cameos in 2011, in the fourth of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, On Stranger Tides (in a neat scene with Johnny Depp, he plays bailiff to Depp’s “pretend” judge), and in Phyllida Lloyd’s underrated The Iron Lady, with Meryl Streep as the best ever Mrs Thatcher, Jim Broadbent her gobsmacked loyal husband, Denis.

He continued doing recitals by invitation until last year, having signed off as the Dean of Windsor in The Crown in 2011, with Olivia Colman on the throne. He and Celia moved back to Stratford-upon-Avon 20 years ago, and he continued to follow the RSC with interest.

Celia died in 2012. He is survived by his children, Rosalind and Duncan, his grandson, Charlie, and his brother Bob. His younger brother, David, also an actor, predeceased him.

• John Clifford Rose, actor, born 24 October 1929; died 6 November 2021