Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
Hawthorne, Sir Nigel (1929-2001)

Actor, Producer

Main image of Hawthorne, Sir Nigel (1929-2001)

Perhaps the greatest character star in British films since Alec Guinness, Nigel Hawthorne, raised in South Africa, in Britain from 1951, had a long slow climb to a very assured summit. He was first on stage in Capetown, where he attended university, then on the West End stage in 1962. On TV from the mid-1950s, he came first to popular attention as the endlessly manipulative Sir Humphrey, whose reiterated 'Yes, Minister' (BBC, 1980-82) and later 'Yes, Prime Minister' (BBC, 1986-88) was a sure sign of devious disagreement with his superior.

His first film was Young Winston (d. Richard Attenborough, 1972) and there were a few minor roles over the next decade, including the US film Firefox (d. Clint Eastwood, 1982), and he was becoming well known on TV. It was his playing on screen of his award-winning National Theatre role in The Madness of King George (UK/US, d. Nicholas Hytner, 1994) which led to his being sought for international films. As the loving, demented King, he created an unforgettable portrait and followed this by a moving account of the Duke of Clarence in Richard III (d. Richard Loncraine, 1995) and a superbly haughty, self-deluding Malvolio in Trevor Nunn's perhaps undervalued Twelfth Night (UK/US, 1996). In 1999 (US, d. David Mamet), he gave a definitive account of The Winslow Boy's father, intransigent in seeing right done, but his other 1999 release, The Clandestine Marriage (d. Christopher Miles), got appalling reviews, and allegedly cost him a lot of his own invested money.

It took more than this, though, to obstruct a career so firmly established in all the acting media - and in the public regard. He was awarded a CBE in 1987 and knighted in 1999, to add to the swag of honours bestowed for his acting, including BAFTAs for King George and the TV series, The Fragile Heart (1996), and a Tony for his Broadway role in Shadowlands (1991).

Brian McFarlane, Encyclopedia of British Film

More information


From the BFI's filmographic database

Related media

Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Barchester Chronicles, The (1982)Barchester Chronicles, The (1982)

Beautifully-observed adaptation of Trollope's church intrigue

Thumbnail image of Bill Brand (1976)Bill Brand (1976)

Ambitious series exploring the turmoil of the 1970s Labour Party

Thumbnail image of Knowledge, The (1979)Knowledge, The (1979)

Classic Jack Rosenthal play about four would-be London cabbies

Thumbnail image of Mapp and Lucia (1985-86)Mapp and Lucia (1985-86)

Sprightly adaptations of E.F. Benson's tales of feuding in a 1930s village

Thumbnail image of Trials of Oz, The (1991)Trials of Oz, The (1991)

Dramatisation of the notorious 'Oz' magazine obscenity trial

Thumbnail image of Yes Minister (1980-84)Yes Minister (1980-84)

Political satire about a Cabinet minister and his Machiavellian colleagues

Related collections

Related people and organisations