Ronald Pickup: Versatile actor who gave depth to historical figures on stage and screen

In London’s Trafalgar Square in 1983 (Stefano Archetti/Shutterstock)
In London’s Trafalgar Square in 1983 (Stefano Archetti/Shutterstock)

Ronald Pickup, who has died aged 80, was an actor who switched effortlessly between stage and screen, often playing historical figures, from Henry IV, William Pitt and Neville Chamberlain to Walter Raleigh, Albert Einstein and Giuseppe Verdi, when he was not seen in modern authority roles as colonels, earls, doctors and detectives.

In recent years, his most famous film part bucked that trend. He acted ageing lothario Norman Cousins, one of the British pensioners seeing out their final days in India, in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011) and its sequel, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2015).

He was attracted by the opportunity to give depth to the character, a lounge lizard looking for love but cringing in his attempts at finding it.

“He tries these awful chat-up lines and things that he thinks are in some way attractive, but he is just really bad at it,” said Pickup. “He tries too hard and that gives him a vulnerability that I found appealing and there is something kind of desperate.”

One of the actor’s finest television performances was as a literary great in the 1983 drama The Crystal Spirit: Orwell on Jura, written by Alan Plater.

He portrayed the very human side of George Orwell – to whom the actor bore an uncanny resemblance – as the author was seen seeking peace and quiet in a remote farmhouse on the Hebridean island while writing his final, classic work, Nineteen Eighty-Four, and battling ill health.

When Plater adapted Olivia Manning’s Fortunes of War novels for a seven-part 1987 series, Pickup brought a dishevelled charm to his portrayal of conniving but lovable Prince Yakimov, an aristocratic Russian emigre, alongside Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson’s newlyweds caught in the crossfire of conflict.

More controversially, he acted a middle-aged “respectable” bank manager having an affair with Dervla Kirwan’s fiery 18-year-old in a serialisation of Melvyn Bragg’s novel A Time to Dance (1992).

Although the couple’s love scenes attracted lurid newspaper headlines, Pickup brought sensitivity and believability to the role.

“Playing him involved a kind of emotional exposure about which people could make snide remarks,” he said. “Nonetheless, acting is an act of the imagination. Also, once you stop daring to do something that involves a bit of risk, you kind of go dead.”

He reached a whole new generation of TV viewers in 2016 when he made a rare appearance in spectacles for early episodes of The Crown as the Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher, marrying Princess Elizabeth to Prince Philip, then officiating at her coronation as Queen.

Pickup’s early stage career with Laurence Olivier’s National Theatre Company brought him a reputation as a classical actor.

From 1964 to 1975, during the company’s years at the Old Vic, his many parts included Don John in Much Ado About Nothing (1966), Fedotik in The Three Sisters (1967) and Rosalind in an all-male production of As You Like It (1967), a portrayal described by The Stage as “a memorable performance, human and poetic”. He also took the title roles in Oedipus Rex (1970) and Richard II (1972).

Ronald Alfred Pickup was born in Chester in 1940 to Daisy (née Williams) and Eric Pickup, a college lecturer.

He once described himself as “a very dull, staid person” who felt lucky to be an actor – his ambition since his days at the King’s School, Chester.

After gaining a degree in English from the University of Leeds – “something to fall back on”, his father told him – Pickup trained at Rada, receiving the silver Bancroft Medal on his graduation in 1964.

He went straight into TV as a physician in the 1964 Doctor Who French Revolution story “The Reign of Terror” but spent most of the decade on stage.

His London debut came at the Royal Court Theatre, where he stayed for two years (1964-66).

After playing Octavius in its production of Julius Caesar, he took the title role in Shelley, Ann Jellicoe’s portrait of the poet as a misogynist, and Pete, one of the baby-stoning gang, in Saved, Edward Bond’s play that was instrumental in ending theatre censorship.

Later, on the West End stage, he starred as Norman in The Norman Conquests (Globe and Apollo theatres, 1975-76), Gayev in The Cherry Orchard (Aldwych Theatre, 1990) and, at the Haymarket Theatre Royal, both Mikhail Astrov in Uncle Vanya (1982) and Lucky, opposite Ian McKellen, in Waiting for Godot (2009).

Pickup, who frequently sported a moustache, returned to the National Theatre Company, at its new home on London’s South Bank, to play Cassius opposite John Gielgud’s Julius Caesar in 1977 and, 23 years later, Capulet in Romeo and Juliet and the Button Moulder in Peer Gynt.


His breakthrough TV role was as Winston Churchill’s father alongside Lee Remick’s title character in Jennie: Lady Randolph Churchill (1974).

He then acted William Pitt in The Fight Against Slavery (1975), Thomas Cranmer in Henry VIII (1979), the Italian opera composer in Verdi (1982), German philosopher and rival musician Friedrich Nietzsche in Wagner (1983), Hitler’s friend Putzi Hanfstaengl in The Nightmare Years (1989) and the new dean, Daniel Byrne, in The Rector’s Wife (1994).

More recently, he was seen on television in episodes of Holby City as Charles Byrne, cardiothoracic consultant and father of registrar Joseph (between 2002 and 2007); Atlantis as Orpheus (second series, 2014); and Downton Abbey as Sir Michael Reresby, owner of the nearby Dryden Park estate (in 2015).

His film roles included the assassin’s document forger in The Day of the Jackal (1973), government agent Elliott in the James Bond film Never Say Never Again (1983), Neville Chamberlain in Darkest Hour (2017) and the judge in the Oscar Wilde biopic The Happy Prince (2018).

He is survived by his wife, Lans Traverse, an actor whom he married in 1964 after meeting her at Rada, and their children, Simon, a TV art director and construction manager, and Rachel, an actor.

Ronald Pickup, actor, born 7 June 1940, died 24 February 2021

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