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An original and eccentric comic actor, he was a favourite of Jonathan Miller and Charles Marowitz
Peter Barnes: August 5th, 2002
Peter Bayliss, who has died aged 80, was one of the most extraordinary, idiosyncratic comic actors of his generation. He died in his top floor flat in Jermyn Street. They had to break down the door to get to his body. He would have liked that. His last words for me were: "Tell Peter, my space suit has developed a fault." For years his answering machine had him mimicking a parrot: "Peter Bayliss is not available. He's gone out to get my bird seed."
Then there was the night he was playing Captain Solyony in Chekhov's Three Sisters (Cambridge Theatre, 1976) and appeared in Red Indian war paint with feathers stuck in his bandana. The topper to this joke was that the audience did not notice anything was wrong. One of the many reasons we became friends was that I shared Bayliss's blasphemous belief that Chekhov needed more Red Indians to liven things up.
To play comedy, you have to have a circus inside you; Bayliss's circus was three-ringed. He was an eccentric. Not a wild eccentric, but a dedicated and totally English one.
Despite his flamboyance on stage and his eccentricity off, he was a private, secretive man. There was a time when he went everywhere with an invisible dog. He could throw his voice slightly and his barking was uncannily accurate. Legend has it, he took the "dog" with him to Fortnum and Mason's tea room to negotiate a contract with Cameron Mackintosh - to play Doolittle in My Fair Lady (Adelphi, 1979). He asked the waitress for a saucer of water for his dog, and included the canine in negotiations. Every time Mackintosh suggested a salary the dog would bark. Bayliss would say: "My dog doesn't think that's enough." He came away with a lucrative contract.
Bayliss was born in Kingston-upon-Thames and trained at the Italia Conti Stage School and the John Gielgud Company. More than six feet tall, with a voice to match, he supplemented it with a barrage of wheezings, croakings, mutterings and, as the opera singer in Frontiers Of Farce (Old Vic, 1977), garglings.
His 20 films ranged from The Red Shoes (1947) to Darling (1965). He acted in more than 40 television productions including The Sweeney, Coronation Street, Lovejoy and The Bill, plus dramas like Bye, Bye Columbus (1990), Alice In Wonderland (1998) and The Arabian Nights (1999). On radio he was particularly good in Jacobean adaptations, playing characters with names such as Sir Moth-Interest and Walter Whorehound. But he was a stage actor. The space offered on screen was too narrow for his expansive gifts.
He appeared in more than 100 theatre productions. Yet he was underused. Bayliss did not work at the National Theatre or the Royal Shakespeare Company. Those institutions are director/designer-orientated. Unbuttoned actors like Bayliss would be considered unsuitable. But directors Jonathan Miller and Charles Marowitz recognised his worth and remained loyal.
Bayliss had a good grounding in comedy. He worked with Tommy Handley in the 1940s, and with Frankie Howerd, and he appeared in comedy sketches on the Ed Sullivan Show. Two performances, out of hundreds, deserve mention. He played the Porter in a dire production of Macbeth (Queen's, 1999). Bayliss believed the Porter scene was shoved into the play to give time for all the other actors to wash the blood off their hands and was written for a comedian. He scored a triumph, proving that the Porter scene was the source of knock-knock jokes. After the second knock-knock on the gate, Bayliss appealed to the audience and they roared: "Who's there?!"
As Justice Overdo in Bartholomew Fair (Regent's Park, 1987), he would come into the stalls to talk with the customers. It sounded like improvisation, but it was not. He stuck to the text but turned an Elizabethan theatrical device into something new and strange.
Peter asked for his ashes to be put in a shoe-box. His friends will ensure it will be the most expensive in London. He deserves no less for the memories he left for all those who knew him or saw him perform. I know he will appreciate my saying: they broke the mould before they made Peter.
Leslie Phillips writes:
Peter was a delightful eccentric. In the league of well-respected character actors he was primus inter pares: he was never a conventional star, but he was an actor's actor. Reputed to be the actor with most West End credits, he produced many supremely original performances. At least three of them, the Guardsman in Exit The King (Royal Court, 1963), Solyony in Three Sisters and the Porter in Macbeth, may stand as landmarks.
We were both at the Italia Conti Stage School, but my first clear memory of him was over a poker table just after the war - he was an enthusiastic and daring player. We became great friends and for many years members of a poker school to which Peter's complex personality was well-suited. He was a good loser - a rare thing - but more often a good winner, as I found out to my cost.
He was not necessarily a director's dream, but at his best when given his head. I directed him in the role of Martin Morley in my play The Man Most Likely To ... (Vaudeville, 1969), and this occasioned our only serious row. He conceived the idea of wearing a grotesque moustache - to which I objected. He got into a state about it and argued his case with such ferocity that I was shaken. I backed down, but in the end he didn't wear it. Left alone, he could always make the right choices and produce magic.
Was he gregarious or a loner? I think both. He was an incredible mixture, never joining his life together. Intricate, anarchic, subversive, outstandingly humorous, amazingly witty and well-loved, he will always be seriously remembered, talked about and missed. I am not aware of any incredibly close partners or even family, unless he was related to the famous Lilian Baylis, a rumour he could well have started himself - dear Peter!
- Peter Bayliss, actor, born June 27 1922; died July 29 2002
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