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Davenport, Nigel (1928-2013)


Main image of Davenport, Nigel (1928-2013)

Nigel Davenport's striking, hawk-nosed features have graced British films since his debut as a policeman in Peeping Tom (d. Michael Powell, 1960). Despite starring roles in films as diverse as Play Dirty (d. Andre de Toth, 1968), The Royal Hunt of the Sun (d. Irving Lerner, 1969) and The Virgin Soldiers (d. John Dexter, 1969), Davenport is mainly known as one of Britain's leading character actors. Like many of his generation, he brings a solid theatrical background to his screen roles.

He was born in Cambridge, the son of a university don, but was educated at Cheltenham College (Lindsay Anderson was a fellow pupil), before going up to Oxford. His contemporaries in the famous Oxford University Dramatic Society (OUDS) included John Schlesinger, Kenneth Tynan and Tony Richardson. He spent some years in repertory theatre and at Stratford before undertaking a number of small roles for the emerging independent television of the 1950s, including the series The Adventures of Robin Hood (ATV, 1955-1959). Davenport then became part of the burgeoning English Stage Company at the Royal Court Theatre, as well as achieving his first real fame in Joan Littlewood's production of A Taste of Honey, which transferred to Broadway.

He made his impact on the big screen with A Man for All Seasons (d. Fred Zinnemann, 1966), in which he played the well-meaning but dim Duke of Norfolk. International recognition followed, although much of Davenport's work at this time restricted to him to a variety of military types, for which his brand of rugged masculinity was well-suited. An interesting exception was the apocalyptic No Blade of Grass (US, d. Cornel Wilde, 1970) in which he led a grim family odyssey to find food and sanctuary in an over-populated and famine stricken world. In the 1970s he returned to the small screen, most notably with a moving and subtle study of poor mad King George III in the series Prince Regent (BBC, 1979). Another seldom-seen triumph was as the lonely and beleaguered Councillor Robert Carne in a TV dramatisation of Winifred Holtby's famous novel South Riding (ITV, 1974).

With his strong physical presence, upright bearing and powerful voice, Davenport has always been well cast as an aristocratic or authoritative type, and as he aged, he assumed more and more 'establishment' roles. In 1987 he found unexpected new fame as Sir Edward Frere in the saucy sailing soap Howard's Way (BBC, 1985-90), and as another toff in the BBC's hopeful, but short-lived follow-up series, Trainer (BBC, 1991-92). Apparently a well-read and witty man in private, Davenport has had few opportunities to play comedy in his career. Two of his children are actors, including current favourite Jack Davenport (by his second wife, actress Maria Aitken). He has not appeared on screen since 2000.

Janet Moat

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Caravaggio (1986)Caravaggio (1986)

Derek Jarman's stunningly beautiful portrait of the gay Renaissance painter

Thumbnail image of Chariots of Fire (1981)Chariots of Fire (1981)

Oscar-winning story of two British Olympic athletes

Thumbnail image of Entertainer, The (1960)Entertainer, The (1960)

Olivier shatters his Shakespearean image as a seedy music-hall artiste

Thumbnail image of Look Back in Anger (1959)Look Back in Anger (1959)

Richard Burton stars as archetypal disaffected youth Jimmy Porter

Thumbnail image of Man for All Seasons, A (1966)Man for All Seasons, A (1966)

Oscar-laden story of Sir Thomas More's defiance of Henry VIII

Thumbnail image of Peeping Tom (1960)Peeping Tom (1960)

Notorious horror film which all but ended Michael Powell's career

Thumbnail image of Villain (1971)Villain (1971)

Underrated gangster drama starring Richard Burton

Thumbnail image of Adventures of Robin Hood, The (1955-59)Adventures of Robin Hood, The (1955-59)

Hugely popular series that gave a ratings boost to the early ITV

Thumbnail image of Bird of Prey (1982)Bird of Prey (1982)

Paranoid drama of computer conspiracy and European intrigue

Thumbnail image of News-Benders, The (1968)News-Benders, The (1968)

Short drama set in a near-future world where news is determined in advance

Thumbnail image of Shotgun (1966)Shotgun (1966)

Poetic drama offering different perspectives on a love affair

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