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Mar 21 / Simon

Tony Haygarth

[The Times, 17-3-2017, Simon Tait]
Versatile Liverpudlian television actor and theatre performer who was also a poet and scholar of Elizabethan drama

The actor Tony Haygarth caused tabloid joy in 1988 when the Queen visited Peter Hall’s famous The Tempest or The Enchanted Island at the National Theatre in which Haygarth appeared as Caliban. He was presented in costume which, in fact, was minimal, being little more than a giant prosthetic penis, vampire teeth and swathes of blood and mud. She told him the outfit was disturbingly hideous, and asked if he had modelled it on anyone: “Yes, Ma’am,” he replied without pause, “my agent”. He was nominated for an Olivier for the role.

Better known for innumerable television appearances, Haygarth, who has died from Altzheimer’s disease aged 72, had the very serviceable ability to switch effortlessly from high drama to comedy without losing credibility, so that at one point he was simultaneously starring in two sitcoms on different channels, was the only actor to appear in the Sharpe historical drama series twice as two different characters, and was in three episodes of Midsomer Murders as both victim and murderer.

But he was also a deeply respected stage actor, and a serious scholar of Elizabethan drama who taught himself Latin to do his research.

George Anthony Haygarth was born in Anfield, Liverpool, the only child of Mary (nee Davies) and Stanley, a bus inspector, and they sent him to a fee-paying day school in West Derby. He was not a good pupil, inclined to scruffiness, and when he asked why the staff called him “Fogpatch” he was told: “Because you are dense and dirty”.

He left at 15 and in a quest for a life path worked as a beach lifeguard, a psychiatric nurse and a circus fire-eater. He was already a poet, however, and having met in a pub the Liverpool Poets – Roger McGough, Adrian Henry and Brian Patten – toured with them. One of his most poignant memories was reading at Pantglas Junior School in Aberfan, South Wales in 1966, shortly before it was engulfed by a shale tip killing 116 children.

After being persuaded by friends to audition for an amateur pantomime his first role was Buttons in Aladdin, and in his mid-20s he and his friend the late Geoffrey Hughes – later familiar in Coronation Street and The Royle Family – went to London with £20 each given them by Haygarth’s father, part of which Haygarth invested in elocution lessons. He got work in theatre-in-education projects but went on to act with companies including the RSC, the Royal Court and particularly the National Theatre.

In 1971 he won a minor role in the farcical film Percy but his major break came with the Roy Clarke sit-com Rosie in 1977 in which he played the shambolic PC Wilmot. In 1981 he was given the title role in the ITV sci-fi comedy Kinvig which for a season was scheduled to coincide with Rosie on the BBC.

He became part of Bill Bryden’s Cottesloe Company at the National Theatre and in 1978 played Pontius Pilate opposite Brian Glover’s God in Tony Harrison’s The Mysteries, along with now famous names such as Brenda Blethyn and Kenneth Cranham who became close friends. Glover’s brash, broad Yorkshire deity inspired the opening piece in Haygarth’s only published book of poems, And God Wore Clogs.

Almost a deity to him had been the actor Paul Schofield and in 1982 he played Sancho Panza to Schofield’s Don Quixote in Keith Dewhurst’s play at the National, Haygarth’s favourite production, directed by Bil Bryden. Thereafter Schofield always affectionately addressed him as “Sanch”.

But he detected an element of snobbery in the theatre which he articulated in one of his poems, Actor, about how he thought he was seen by some in the profession:

He drinks, you know, apparently – a lot
And never learns his lines, he just invents
As for understanding Shakespeare – O what rot
I was there the night the massacred ‘Two Gents’

In fact, he understood Shakespeare’s world profoundly. His 2001 play The Lie examined the circumstances of Christopher Marlowe’s death, the result of deep research, and in 2003 Dark Meaning Mouse followed his discovery in the V&A of a portrait he decoded to be of the actual “Dark Lady of the Sonnets”.

He had a close professional friendship with Harold Pinter. When his wife, the theatre producer Carole Winter, was casting a revival of Reginald Rose’s 12 Angry Men in 1996 with Pinter directing, she was against Haygarth being cast but was over-ruled by Pinter. It won another Olivier nomination.

For his role as Doolittle in Peter Hall’s 2008 production of Pygmalion at the Old Vic critics credited him with drawing out the social realism of the part, but he still found time for pranks. As the housekeeper Mrs Pearce, Una Stubbs habitually plucked specks off Haygarth’s shoulders on stage, and one night he inserted a thread that poked through his jacket but ran all the way down to his feet, so that she had to yank six feet of cotton out before she could continue.

He lived for 30 years with his family near East Peckham, Kent, where Bob Morrell had been a barman in the local pub. When his father died unexpectedly, Haygarth became his mentor and coached Morrell to get him into drama school. Haygarth’s last role in 2013, coincidentally, was in the first play he was ever in, the pantomime Aladdin, this time for a professional Sevenoaks-based company run by Jamie Alexander Wilson, as he had done for several years. “He lifted the company,” Wilson recalls, “and when he became ill they rallied round like another family to support him”. He was diagnosed with Altzheimer’s in 2013 and when his book of poems was published in 2015 he donated the proceeds to dementia research via Red Nose Day. He died at Tunbridge Wells Hospital.

He married Carole Winter in 1985 and they were amicably divorced in 2011. Their two daughters are Becky, an events organiser, and Katie, an actor.

Tony Haygarth, actor, was born 4th February 1945. He died on March 10, 2017.