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Hildegard Neil obituary

The actor Hildegard Neil, who has died aged 84, brought authority to the many roles she took in British theatre and film for more than half a century. She was also prolific on television, where she will be remembered by many viewers for a matriarchal role in a popular children’s adventure series.

As Emma Bulman in Boy Dominic (1974), she is left destitute with her son Dominic (played by Murray Dale) after her seafaring husband, Charles (Richard Todd), goes missing, presumed dead, when his ship runs aground off the coast of Africa. In the 13-episode series she sells their comfortable home in Greenwich, south-east London, and moves to Yorkshire, where she runs a boarding house with a drunken sailor, William Woodcock (Brian Blessed), who had served under her husband at the Battle of Trafalgar.

The series ends with the unexpected return of the “lost” captain. The sequel, simply titled Dominic, began in 1976 with the news that Emma and Charles had been brutally murdered.

Neil previously acted alongside Blessed in the ITV Playhouse production Double Agent in 1969. In real life they married nine years later. Blessed was known for his booming voice, long, bushy beard and spirit of adventure, which took him up Mount Everest and Kilimanjaro, and inspired him to become the oldest man to reach the North Magnetic Pole on foot. While Neil was never happy about the risks involved, she did not try to stop him from going on these expeditions.

Hildegard Neil and Chartlon Heston in Antony and Cleopatra, 1972. ‘I had to search out the other side of my nature, the dark side, and stretch it,’ she said of playing the Egyptian queen.
Hildegard Neil and Charlton Heston in Antony and Cleopatra, 1972. ‘I had to search out the other side of my nature, the dark side, and stretch it,’ she said of playing the Egyptian queen. Photograph: Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

Her film work included parts as Roger Moore’s wife in The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970), and the wife whose adulterous husband (George Segal) is having an affair with a divorcee (Glenda Jackson) in A Touch of Class (1973). It was Neil’s turn to be the “other woman” when she played the lover of a rich German financier played by Peter Finch in England Made Me (1973).

She and Charlton Heston took the title roles in the 1972 epic Antony and Cleopatra, with Heston directing, although the film fared poorly at the box office. Nevertheless, the American trade magazine Variety recognised that “Hildegard Neil proves one of Cleo’s more convincing screen incarnations.”

Talking about preparing for the part, she said: “My life is calm, reserved, stable. Unfortunately, Cleopatra’s was anything but that. I had to search out the other side of my nature, the dark side, and stretch it. Such sensuality as I have and what temperament I have, I worked on and exaggerated to breaking point.”

Neil was born Hildegard Zimmermann in Cape Town to Josephine (nee Seddon) and Carl Zimmermann, a police superintendent. On leaving school she worked as a library assistant and typist.

She travelled to London in 1961 to train at Rada, where she won the Emile Littler award on graduation two years later. Although she landed the part of Calpurnia in a 1963 BBC schools production of Julius Caesar and gained repertory theatre experience in Ipswich, Leatherhead and Worthing – taking Neil as her professional name – work was initially hard to find. “I was never a juvenile,” she said. “I could never play the dizzy blond or the secretary. I’ve been trading in a certain maturity since I was about 10.”

Hildegard Neil with Peter Finch, left, and Michael York in England Made Me, 1973.
Hildegard Neil with Peter Finch, left, and Michael York in England Made Me, 1973. Photograph: Ronald Grant

She eventually found her way as a shining light with the Everyman theatre company in Liverpool (1966-68), admired for roles such as “an impassioned, beautifully spoken” Rosalind, according to one critic, in As You Like It and the title character in Hedda Gabler.

Then came her television breakthrough, playing Gracie Savott, who seduces a hotel magnate played by Roy Dotrice in a BBC adaptation of Arnold Bennett’s novel Imperial Palace (1969). Character roles kept on coming, in action series (Jason King in 1971, The Protectors in 1973, The Professionals in 1978), other dramas (The Main Chance in 1970, Van der Valk in 1977, Hotel Babylon, as the Marchioness of Telford, in 2007) and sci-fi (Doomwatch in 1970, Space: 1999 in 1977).

Hildegard Neil with her husband and fellow actor Brian Blessed and their daugher Rosalind in 1978.
Hildegard Neil with her husband and fellow actor Brian Blessed and their daughter Rosalind in 1978. Photograph: Evening Standard/Getty Images

She also had recurring parts as Colette Hyde in The Early Life of Stephen Hind (1974), Virginia in A Spy at Evening (1981) and Margaret Coleman, wayward wife of a gems merchant boss, acted by John Stride, in Diamonds (1981). She played the fool in the 1997 film version of King Lear, with Blessed taking the title role and directing.

In the theatre she had a 1969 season with the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Aldwych theatre and, among dozens of roles, played Lady Macbeth in Macbeth (Greenwich theatre, 1971), Jennifer Dubedat in The Doctor’s Dilemma (Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, 1981) and Eleanor of Aquitaine (opposite Blessed’s Henry II) in The Lion in Winter (Haymarket theatre, Basingstoke, 1994).

Neil’s first two marriages, to Barry Wenn in 1961 and John Cartmel-Crossley in 1971, ended in divorce. She is survived by Blessed and their daughter, the actor Rosalind Blessed.

• Hildegard Neil (Hildegard Hope Zimmermann), actor, born 20 May 1939; died 19 September 2023