To many, he will always be ‘Genial’ Harry Grout. Others will best remember him as Maester Aemon Targaryen. But Peter Vaughan, who has died at the age of 93, will forever be associated with a gimlet glint of malevolence that suggested his characters were not to be messed with. No wonder he called his recent memoir Once a Villain. Yet, his 75-year career was guided by a piece of advice from his strict banker father: “Always see the ludicrous side of things.”
Born Peter Ewart Olm in Wem, Shropshire on 4 April 1923, Vaughan made his stage debut shortly after leaving school, as Smith the pie boy in a Wolverhampton repertory production of Sweeney Todd! Following war service with the Royal Signals, he returned to acting and became a familiar face on television before making the transition to cinema with two uncredited cop roles in The 39 Steps and Sapphire (both 1959). He had been promoted to chief of the Hungarian police by the time he co-starred with first wife Billie Whitelaw in The Devil’s Agent (1962). But he decided to settle for character roles after making little impact with the lead as a Brighton insurance investigator in the 1964 crime film Smokescreen.
Switching between cinema and television (in the course of amassing 222 credits), Vaughan did a nice line in melancholy and avuncularity. But his imposing physique and aura of lugubrious menace led to him specialising in heavies (“Clearly I wasn’t ever going to play romantic leads”). Following an inspired pairing with Yootha Joyce as Tallulah Bankhead’s servants in Fanatic (1965), Vaughan drew a rare bad notice as the MI5 officer who coerces Frank Sinatra into eliminating a rogue agent in The Naked Runner (1967).
Renowned for his dependability, Vaughan landed prominent supporting parts in The Bofors Gun (1968), Straw Dogs (1971), Zulu Dawn (1979) and The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981). Terry Gilliam cast him as the ogre in Time Bandits (1981) and the deputy minister of information in Brazil (1985). But, even though Harry Grout only appeared in three episodes of Porridge, as well as the 1979 spin-off movie, Vaughan was already synonymous with ruling the roost at HMP Slade – although one of his favourite memories of this period involved dancing with Rudolf Nureyev in the Tower Ballroom in Blackpool for Ken Russell’s Valentino (1977).
Back on the small screen, Vaughan did two series as Cheryl Hall’s intimidating father in the sitcom Citizen Smith (1977-80) before leading a London gangland family in Fox (1980), epitomising fat cat greed in Chancer (1990-91) and contributing deftly Dickensian turns as the sinister lawyer Tulkinghorn to Bleak House (1985) and dustman Nicodemus Boffin to Our Mutual Friend (1998).
But, while he was lauded for his performance as Denethor in a 1981 BBC radio adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, his finest hour came in Our Friends in the North (1996). Vaughan received a BAFTA nomination for best actor for his work as Felix Hutchinson, a martinet trade unionist who is tamed by Alzheimer’s. But he was just as affecting as Anthony Hopkins’s exacting butler father in The Remains of the Day (1993) and, despite being partially blind, he kept stealing scenes in the likes of Face (1997), Kiss Kiss (Bang Bang) (2001) and Death at a Funeral (2007) until he took his final role, as the maester of Castle Black in Game of Thrones (2011-15).
Watch Peter Vaughan in the video for Kate Bush’s ‘Experiment IV’