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Submitted by Roger P Mellor
(23 December 1909 - 24 July 2002)
The Daily Telegraph - July 26, 2002
Maurice Denham, who died on Wednesday aged 92, was one of the most intelligent, expressive, subtle and versatile actors of his generation; he could add a depth to scenes that was far beyond the reach of the dialogue.
After making his name on the wireless in the 1940s with comic voices in ITMA (It's That Man Again) and Much Binding in the Marsh, he went on to appear in all sorts of films, from Huggett comedies to horror melodrama, and to become a commanding presence on television in such plays as John Hopkins's quartet Talking To A Stranger (1968) and the trilogy Behaving Badly (1988).
Tall, bald, bright-eyed, puckish, pixie-faced, gnomish and quizzical, Denham had a remarkably wide range of expression, facial and vocal, which enabled him to convince in all manner of roles, whether as a patrician in Coriolanus or as a pig in Animal Farm.
On the stage he won praise in both classical and modern plays, before and after the Second World War; but his acting always proved most eloquent in close-up. A ruminative glance, a sudden frown, a glare, a grunt could speak volumes as the camera caught each nuance of feeling in his face.
In more than 100 films, twice as many television plays and more than 800 radio broadcasts, Denham's acting was unrivalled in its steady simplicity and power. And he continued to act in his seventies and eighties, giving memorable performances as Klaus Barbie in The Trial of Klaus Barbie (BBC2, 1987), and as Dr Manette in A Tale of Two Cities (Radio 4, 1989).
His ear for accent and dialect, and his gift for inventing voices was astonishing. He used to say that this came from his days at the BBC with Tommy Handley in ITMA - as Lola Tickle, the char, and as the announcer on Radio Fakenberg - and with Kenneth Horne, Sam Costa and Richard Murdoch in Much Binding in the Marsh. "They were always playing themselves," he said, "so I played everyone else."
Maurice Denham, the son of a dental surgeon, was born on December 23 1909 at Beckenham, Kent, and went to Tonbridge School, where he acted in school revues, red-nosed comedies and Shakespeare.
On leaving school, he became an apprentice at Weygood Otis, the lift engineers, and subsequently helped to maintain the lifts at Broadcasting House and at Clarence House. In his free time he acted with Beckenham Amateur Dramatic Society.
In 1934, he resolved to give up lifts and to try for a career on the stage. Two seasons in repertory at Hull and further seasons at Brighton and Croydon led to his first appearance on the London stage in 1936, as George Furness in Rain Before Seven (Arts theatre). That year he also played George in a production of Busman's Honeymoon (Comedy), and in 1937 he was George Lumb in Flying Blind (Arts).
In 1938, besides playing Eddie Norman in Heaven and Charing Cross (Players'), Denham made his first wireless broadcast - a dramatisation of the history of flight, from Icarus onwards. This led to a role, in 1939, in the Tommy Handley radio show ITMA and in numerous other BBC wireless entertainments, among them Lucky Dip, Wings over Ruritania and Elevenses.
He served in the Army throughout the Second World War, first in the Buffs and then in the Royal Artillery, and was mentioned in dispatches in 1946. Demobbed in the rank of captain, he returned to the BBC as a member of the cast of Much Binding in the Marsh. Here he played a host of characters, including Dudley Davenport ("Oh, I say . . . I am no fool"), Ivy Clingbine, and the genteel Fred, who pronounced his name "Fraid" and whose "yes" rhymed with "lace".
In the era before television had taken hold, Much Binding in the Marsh was immensely popular. Denham's vocal powers became familiar to an audience of 20 million.
He also started appearing in films: as the police chief in David Lean's Oliver Twist (1948), and as a dotty Nazi spy irritating British diplomats - Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne among them - in It's Not Cricket (1949). In 1954 he was Flight Lieutenant Blore in the film, starring Gregory Peck, of H E Bates's novel The Purple Plain; the superb performance he gave would long remain one of Denham's own favourite screen roles.
He had returned to the theatre in 1949, to act with the two brilliant Hermiones - Gingold and Baddeley - in a Noel Coward double bill. As Henry Gow in Fumed Oak and Willy Banbury in Fallen Angels (Ambassadors), Denham's ability to be amusingly humourless proved especially apt.
After a season of Shaw plays at the Arts theatre, and John Mortimer's early double bill of one-acters, Dock Brief and What Shall We Tell Caroline? at Hammersmith, Denham landed good parts in Denis Cannan's Who's Your Father? (Cambridge) and The Andersonville Trial (Mermaid).
His plucky attempts at King John and at Macbeth for the Old Vic in 1961 did not bring out the best in Denham's art. W A Darlington, of The Daily Telegraph, felt that his delivery in "a good loud voice" of Macbeth's speeches did not do justice to their beauty.
It was with more success that he took on the title part, at the Mermaid in 1967, in Lessing's Nathan the Wise; and at the same theatre three years' later he brought his beautiful voice control to bear most effectively on Proteus in Shaw's The Apple Cart.
His later stage roles included Uncle Vanya (Hampstead, 1979), and a part in Incident at Tulse Hill (Hampstead, 1981). On television, he appeared as a jailed judge in Porridge, as the Archbishop of Canterbury in Edward and Mrs Simpson, and in episodes of The Professionals, Sherlock Holmes, Inspector Morse, Pie in the Sky and Peak Practice.
In 1992, for BBC2, he joined an exceptionally strong cast - Maggie Smith, Michael Hordern, Renee Asherson, Thora Hurd, Cyril Cusack and others - for an adaptation of Muriel Spark's Memento Mori, a brilliant comic satire on the quirks and perils of old age. Many of the actors, including Denham, were themselves already in their eighties.
As time passed, Denham came to regret the growth of recording of both wireless and television drama. Whereas plays had once been acted "live" over the air, in one go from start to finish, Denham felt that the modern practice of rehearsing in segments, each one separately recorded, made the experience of acting in them less exciting.
His many film credits include Fame is the Spur; Here Come The Huggetts; The Blue Lagoon; Our Man in Havana; Doctor at Sea; Nicholas and Alexandra; Day of the Jackal; and 84 Charing Cross Road.
Denham was appointed OBE in 1992.
He married, in 1936, Margaret Dunn, who died in 1971. They had two sons and a daughter.
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