Stephen Moore obituary

Michael Coveney
Photograph: Fremantle Media/Rex/Shutterstock

It is perhaps ironic that the vastly experienced, smooth as silk, inherently funny stage actor Stephen Moore, who has died aged 81, should be remembered mostly for voicing a robot, the paranoid android Marvin in the original radio series of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Douglas Adams’s hilarious science-fiction adventure began in 1978 and Moore stayed with it through four more series, the television show (still just the voice), the records and the audio books.

In a general sense, he was the voice of the show, as he picked off other roles when something different was needed – these included a mouse, a whale, and the ruler of the universe – and recorded the entire run of Hitchhiker books, on his own, for EMI. But even just vocally his range was considerable, as demonstrated in his regular appearances on BBC Radio 4’s Poetry Please, or his leading roles in radio versions of Madame Bovary (with Nicola Pagett and Roger Allam), Dostoevsky’s The Idiot and Marlowe’s Dr Faustus.

Then again, on television, where he was first noted in a 1962 version of Jean Anouilh’s Dinner With the Family – “and introducing Stephen Moore” read the cast list headed by Jeremy Brett and Renée Houston – he was as adept in comedy as he was in classic serials. In the 1980s, he was Felicity Kendal’s live-in boyfriend in the first series of Solo written by Carla Lane (his character was thrown out for sleeping with Kendal’s best friend), Adrian Mole’s dad in two series of Sue Townsend’s saga and David Lodge’s flustered academic Philip Swallow in Small World.

Stephen Moore in the 1986 film Clockwise. Photograph: Studio Canal/Rex/Shutterstock

Later, he appealed to wider audiences as Kevin’s dad in Harry Enfield and Chums (1997-98) and as Eldane, the scaly-skinned leader of the Silurians in Doctor Who (2010).

To many of these roles he brought the same brand of casual insouciance that became his trademark over three decades at both the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company. For Moore, the quietest and least lauded of all leading actors, was a star by stealth, an actor’s actor admired equally by peers and critics.

He was tall, rangy, and curiously similar to a walking question mark. His remarkable career embraced the last efflorescence of the Old Vic (1959-61) before the Olivier National supplanted it, the RSC and Royal Court heydays in the 1970s and then the reviving influx of the fringe; he was as much at home, and as charmingly revelatory, in the plays of Alan Ayckbourn as he was in those of Sam Shepard, David Hare and Howard Brenton. At the National he featured significantly in Hare’s brilliant Plenty (1978) and Brenton’s controversial The Romans in Britain (1980), as well as in Ayckbourn’s epic comedies Bedroom Farce (1977) and A Small Family Business (1987).

Stephen Moore, seated, in Harold Pinter’s The Hothouse at the Lyttelton theatre, London, in 2007. Photograph: Alastair Muir/Rex/Shutterstock

Moore’s grounding was at the Bristol Old Vic and the Central School of Speech and Drama, where he trained and won the Laurence Olivier medal. He was born in Brixton, south London, to the solicitor Stanley Moore and his wife, Mary (nee Bruce-Anderson), and was educated at the Archbishop Tenison’s grammar school in Kennington. After Central (1956-59), he went straight into the Old Vic, where he played William in As You Like It, Slender in The Merry Wives of Windsor, Flute in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Andrew Aguecheek in Twelfth Night.

His comic, slightly gauche and tender stage personality was thus established, and he developed further in Jacobean comedy, Dostoevsky’s The Possessed and The Trojan Wars (as Achilles and Polymestor) at Bernard Miles’s Mermaid in Puddle Dock. He then went into regional rep at Windsor and Colchester before returning to Bristol where, under the directorship of Val May, he achieved prominence in The Iceman Cometh and Hedda Gabler, and as Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew.

He appeared with Ralph Richardson and Jill Bennett in John Osborne’s West of Suez at the Royal Court in 1971 and formed a tingling love triangle with Jane Asher and James Bolam in Christopher Hampton’s underrated Treats, which transferred from the Court to the Mayfair in 1976.

His television profile sharpened, too, in this decade, with stand-out performances in Tom Stoppard’s 1975 adaptation of Three Men in a Boat (alongside Tim Curry and Michael Palin in Stephen Frears’s film) and as the morose leftwing teacher married to Julie Covington in the first 1976 series of Rock Follies.

At the National in the 1980s he was a notable Cassio to Paul Scofield’s magisterial Othello; an insinuating Grand Inquisitor to Michael Gambon’s breakthrough triumph as Brecht’s Galileo; a villainous lank-haired magistrate in Howard Davies’s glorious revival of Dion Boucicault’s The Shaughraun (in which the theatre’s great revolve was properly used for the first time, conjuring the landscapes of County Sligo); and a grinning booby in Richard Eyre’s large-hearted version of Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair, enunciated with relish.

In the same period he did not forget the RSC, supporting Judi Dench’s shock-haired Mother Courage as the sardonic chaplain, winning an Olivier best actor award as Torvald in Adrian Noble’s staging of A Doll’s House, succeeding John Thaw as Cardinal Wolsey in Henry VIII (with the title role played by Richard Griffiths) when Davies’s production moved from Stratford-upon-Avon to the Barbican and playing to stylish perfection the worldly-wise cynic Hallam Matthews in a brave revival of John Whiting’s A Penny for a Song.

One of Moore’s great abilities was to create a performance of subtlety and nuance and expand into a large arena like the Olivier at the NT without any sign of strain or loss of ease; and this he did as the older Peer Gynt in 1990, though on reflection he felt that he could equally have been entrusted with the younger Peer, whom David Morrissey projected as a Scouse tearaway in Declan Donnellan’s production.

In between his last NT appearances – as the Mayor in Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People (with Ian McKellen and Penny Downie) in 1998 and the savagely exasperated Roote in Harold Pinter’s The Hothouse in 2007 – he toured as Colonel Pickering in My Fair Lady and as the inspirational teacher Hector in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys.

He was always a reassuring presence on film, even as a military bigwig in Richard Attenborough’s blockbuster war movie A Bridge Too Far (1977) with Dirk Bogarde and Michael Caine, but he was a better fit in a handful of quirky, even eccentric British movies ranging from Lindsay Anderson’s The White Bus (1967) to Christopher Morahan’s Clockwise (1986) and Richard Curtis’s The Boat That Rocked (2009), in which he led a right-wing government trying to close down a pirate radio station run by Bill Nighy and his tempestuous, mid-Atlantic deejay, Philip Seymour Hoffman, channelling Emperor Rosko.

Moore was married four times, thrice divorced. He had three children – Robyn, Guy and Hedda – with his first wife, Barbara Mognaz; one, Charlotte, with his second, Celestine Randall; and another, Sophie, with his fourth wife, Noelyn George, who died in 2010. His children survive him.

• Stephen Vincent Moore, actor, born 11 December 1937; died 4 October 2019