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August 4th, 2002
Peter Bayliss, who has died aged 79, was one of the most original, charming and versatile character actors on the post-war British stage; by some estimates, he had appeared in the West End more often than any other actor - he was certainly seldom short of work, appearing in numerous television programmes and series, and in films.
Capable from the start of playing characters considerably older than himself, Bayliss was noted for his be-whiskered manner, flowing moustaches or copious sideburns, which gave his wheezings and comic croakings an authority to which his patrician voice - humming, murmuring, hesitant, or breathing heavily - added depth.
If a streak of pomposity, selfishness or fuss added colour or interest to a querulous character Bayliss usually knew exactly how far to apply it without stealing the limelight, though - in the opinion of some - he went further than he should when he realised that an audience was "with" him.
His television credits included appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show in New York in 1957, and Pc Codge in Dixon of Dock Green, as well as parts in successful series such as Crown Court, The Avengers, Lovejoy, Minder, and The Sweeney.
He was Montague Tigg in the BBC's Martin Chuzzlewit and the Dodo in Alice in Wonderland (1998), as well as playing Lockit in Jonathan Miller's production of The Beggar's Opera for the BBC. In 1991, he was Charlie Bracewell in Coronation Street (for six episodes); his last television role was as Peter Parkin in The Bill last year.
But he was best-known for his stage work, excelling in roles as varied as crusty colonels, uppish manservants, self-absorbed police inspectors, bumbling church dignitaries, familiar cabmen or alcoholic subalterns. A case in point was his Doolittle in a revival of the musical My Fair Lady (Adelphi, 1979) which some critics found "too music hall cockney", though the performance proved extremely popular both on tour and in the West End.
More generally admired was his Russian subaltern, Capt Solyony, in Jonathan Miller's revival of Chekhov's Three Sisters (Cambridge, 1976), especially when he said yes to another brandy, which he secretly poured into the one he already had.
Many actors are deceitful about their dates of birth; often because they are understandably reluctant to deprive themselves of roles thought too far from their actual age. Even by this benchmark, Bayliss was exceptionally cagey about his origins; but quizzed by his agent in May last year, he claimed to be 78.
Certainly, during his training at the Italia Conti School, he was a contemporary of Leslie Phillips (born 1924), and one of his earliest stage appearances was in 1944, understudying the Ghost during Gielgud's last production of Hamlet.
Bayliss made one of his earliest West End appearances in 1951 in Charles Lincoln's Storks Don't Talk (Comedy) in which he acted opposite the Hollywood comedian Mischa Auer as a Russian prince; and later that year he made enough impression as the cabman in Thornton Wilder's farce, The Merchant of Yonkers (Embassy), to be cast three years later in the same role in the Edinburgh Festival production, which transferred (under the new title of The Matchmaker) to the West End, and then in 1955 to Broadway.
Meanwhile at the Haymarket Bayliss appeared opposite Noel Coward in Shaw's Apple Cart (1953); and after a stint as "Roofie" Williams in Ronald Millar's light comedy The Big Tickle (Duke of York's, 1958) returned to the Haymarket as Aircraftman Parsons opposite Alec Guinness, in the title role of Terence Rattigan's Ross (1960).
In Fry's adaptation of Giraudoux's Judith (Her Majesty's, 1962) he played Egon and in Brecht's Life of Galileo (Mermaid) Cardinal Barberini. Ionesco's Exit The King (Royal Court, 1963) brought critical acclaim for his "excellently controlled and imaginative performance as the decaying guardsman", and that Christmas he was back at the Mermaid as Long John Silver in Treasure Island.
Bayliss then took three parts - a bluff colonel, a sophisticated man and a homely type - in Roger Milner's oddball comedy How's The World Treating You? opposite Patricia Routledge (Hampstead, Arts, Wyndham's and Comedy, 1965-66). He also played the same parts on Broadway.
At the Mermaid Theatre he again had three parts, this time in a Shaw triple bill called Trifles and Tomfooleries (1967), before appearing as Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream (at Regent's Park in 1967).
After a stint on Broadway as Doc in Rockefeller and the Red Indians he returned to the West End, briefly, as Sgt Match in Joe Orton's farce What The Butler Saw (Queen's, 1969).
In Hobson's Choice (Young Vic, 1973) he had the title role. He was Gilda's old flame Ernest in Coward's Design for Living (Phoenix), Watson in Sherlock's Last Case (Open Space, 1974) and Squeers and Mr Crummies in Nickleby and Me (at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East).
He followed Christopher Sly in The Taming of the Shrew (Shaw) with tours abroad: in South Africa in Who Saw Him Die? and then Japan as the narrator in The Rocky Horror Show, later seen at the Piccadilly.
Other West End credits included Mr Bumble in Oliver (Aldwych), Lord Brockhurst in The Boy Friend (Albery), The Frontiers of Farce (Criterion), Something's Afoot (Ambassadors, 1977), Bartholomew Fair (Round House 1978), the absurdist comedy One-Way Pendulum (at the Old Vic, 1988), and Trelawny of the Wells (at the Comedy, 1993).
He appeared with Imelda Staunton in Tony Kushner's Slavs (Hampstead, 1995) and returned to the part of Bottom in 1997 for Jonathan Miller's production at the Almeida, which also toured Europe. One of his final roles was as the porter in Macbeth (Queen's, 1999), in which he played the "Knock, knock" speech as a low comic. Audiences cried out "Who's there?".
Bayliss's film work included House of Cards, with Orson Welles and George Peppard, Lord Grant in John Schlesinger's Darling (1965) with Julie Christie and Dirk Bogarde, Victor in the disappointing Dudley Moore vehicle Thirty is a Dangerous Age, Cynthia, Benz in From Russia with Love (1964) and Evans in The Red Shoes (1947).
Bayliss was a highly convivial and eccentric character away from the theatre - although he found it hard to leave his larger than life persona at the stage door. He never married, and left instructions that he should be cremated, and his ashes flushed down the lavatory.
Jonathan Cecil writes: Peter Bayliss was as eccentric off stage as on. I first met him when playing in A Midsummer Night's Dream in Regent's Park: him as Bottom and myself as Flute. He could be a wicked man with whom to share a stage, often muttering comments - never unkind - about other actors whilst they were performing. He remained a close friend, being an inspired telephone virtuoso, often assuming different false identities.
He was a very kind man; he followed his friends' performances faithfully - always encouraging, and his criticism always constructive. My wife, Anna Sharkey, with whom he attended several of my first nights, said he was the perfect (and frequently a hilarious) escort, often baffling people by imitating the barking of an imaginary dog. This favourite practical joke once resulted in the ejection of an entire theatre company from an aeroplane shortly before take-off.
Peter Benedict, who directed him several times during his latter years, recalls Peter being asked by the Japanese director Ninagawa to appear in a production scheduled for 2004. "2004?" growled Peter. "It's all I can do to make it to next week." In fact he seemed totally to defy the ageing process. This was largely due to his voracious curiosity, and when recently asked if he feared death, he replied: "I only fear missing out on all the latest technology."
He wanted no memorial, but his near-lunatic appetite for life will be impossible to forget.
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