In an exclusive interview, Sam Westerby talks to veteran actor Peter Vaughan.
He’s used to playing villains and hard men and now Peter Vaughan has enchanted a new Game of Thrones generation who may have missed his legendary baddies.
He was Tom Hedden in Sam Peckinpah’s thriller Straw Dogs and the terrifying (for a situation comedy) signature villain Harry Grout in the BBC’s Porridge. I asked him when it all began.
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The Horsham-based character actor caught the acting bug when he was a child.
“At the end of term at the infant school I was given a poem to recite to the parents and their friends, and all the women went ‘Aww’ and all the men applauded. I thought ‘ello this is gonna be useful.”
Vaughan’s debut as a baddie came with Bill Sikes in BBC1’s Oliver Twist in 1962. So shocking was his performance that the programme provoked much discussion in the Houses of Parliament.
“When he came to kill Nancy, Parliament thought it was violence that would not be suitable. What they did not realise was that I was not killing anybody. I was in shot, but out of shot was the sack which I was hitting, which sounded as if I was doing a killing job.”
Another stand-out performances was as Tom Hedden in the 1971 movie Straw Dogs, which was directed by critically acclaimed filmmaker Sam Peckinpah.
“Peckinpah was a wonderful director. He was seemingly very casual, but the whole film was in his head and he knew exactly how to get you to do what he wanted to do, which is really perfect direction. A fun man as well. It was a great eight months working with him.”
His film CV also includes The Remains of the Day which saw the Shropshire-born performer act alongside Sir Anthony Hopkins, and The Naked Runner where he was second in the billing to Frank Sinatra whose company made the movie.
“I hadn’t met Frank but on the first day we had an eight-page scene to do together. He was in charge as you might say. He said ‘I want to do this. I want to do that. I’m not gonna say this. I’m gonna say that. I’m not gonna do that’.
“I said ‘You’ve got to’.
“He said ‘What?’
“I said ‘You have to otherwise it doesn’t make sense with what’s coming next’.
“There was a tremendous pause while he looked at me and I looked back at him for about 10 seconds. He then said ‘Okay I see what you mean’. From there on in we were ok. We got on well together.
“Getting towards the end of the film the paparazzi had been following him about at night and so on when he didn’t want it. He was a bit of a night marauder.
“He said ‘Okay if you’re gonna follow me like this, I’m going home’. So the film’s director and I wrote the end of it and shot it.
“I have tremendous respect for him. He was a hugely talented man. He was a sight reader. When he did his numbers as a singer the band would rehearse for a couple of weeks and get the whole of his next album out. Frank would come in and just sing the lot in one day.”
Perhaps Peter’s best-known characterisation is Harry Grout in Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais’ prison comedy Porridge.
“The writers gave me this wonderful role and I only actually appeared in three episodes plus the feature film.
“All the other inmates lived in fear of him. So he didn’t have to appear to carry weight in the series.”
“Ronnie Barker and Richard Beckinsale were an absolute joy to work with. They were both great. To lose Beckinsale at 31 years of age was an absolute disaster. He would have become a really great actor. The sitcom is a classic. It was a great pleasure to be in it.”
Between 2011 and 2015 Vaughan portrayed Maester Aemon in HBO’s Emmy award-winning Game of Thrones.
“Game of Thrones is an incredibly successful production and probably the biggest for many years. So to be in it was a great privilege.
“I had a marvellous time on it. As a portrayal of a 100-year old blind man it was almost a straight part.”
His TV portfolio also takes in Citizen Smith, Bleak House, Chancer and Our Friends in The North where his performance of Alzheimer’s sufferer Felix Hutchinson received a Bafta nomination for best supporting actor.
“It was the first time that the Alzheimer’s disease had been shown in great detail. Somebody going from first getting it, right the way through to their death. I worked with Chris Eccleston who played my son. Chris and I worked tremendously well together.”
Vaughan has now handwritten his memoirs. He says he enjoyed the writing process.
“It just flowed out of my head. I didn’t have to do any great researching of any sort. It just flowed, one thing to the other, quite naturally as I went through my life.
“I started writing it originally for the younger members of the family to know what the old man was like and what life was like before their time.
“I wrote it over a period of a couple of years. Whenever I wasn’t working I’d write for a couple of hours in the morning. If I was working, and I had a big gap in between scenes, I’d get the pen out and write for a couple of hours.”
I asked him if he was likely to do more acting?
“I’m not at all sure because Game of Thrones would be a very, very hard act to follow.”