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Jacobi, Sir Derek (1938-)


Main image of Jacobi, Sir Derek (1938-)

Early in his career, Derek Jacobi was advised by Richard Burton to 'roughen up' his mellifluous voice because it might send audiences to sleep. In a profession that Jacobi describes as a compulsion, an obsession and a vocation, he has constantly kept audiences on the edge of their seats with dynamic performances on stage and screen.

After graduating from Cambridge he joined the Birmingham Repertory Theatre. A live broadcast of She Stoops to Conquer (BBC, 1961) gave him his television debut. While at Birmingham he was invited by Laurence Olivier to join the newly-established National Theatre. Apart from the notable role of Don Pedro in a television adaptation of Much Ado about Nothing (BBC, tx. 5/2/1967), he concentrated on his career at the National, where he would remain for eight acclaimed years.

Jacobi made his mark on television in three series: Man of Straw (BBC, 1972), The Strauss Family (ITV, 1972) and The Pallisers (BBC, 1974). His career-defining role came in I, Claudius (BBC, 1976), a 13-part serial based on Robert Graves' novels. The Imperial Rome saga was a masterpiece of British television drama, held together by Jacobi's majestic portrayal of the deranged, stuttering Emperor Claudius. He described the role as "a large canvas for an actor to paint on". Jacobi's superb underplaying won him the BAFTA for Best Actor and brought him to the attention of a worldwide audience.

Enhancing his reputation, he excelled in a variety of serious dramas: as Soviet spy Guy Burgess in Philby, Burgess and Maclean (ITV, tx. 31/5/1977); the title roles in two BBC Shakespeare productions, Richard II (tx. 10/12/1978) and Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (tx. 25/5/1980); as Hitler in Inside the Third Reich (US; 1982). He also recreated his favourite stage role Cyrano de Bergerac (Channel 4, tx. 15/9/1985). He also appeared in populist programmes: Minder (ITV, 1980-94), Tales of the Unexpected (ITV, 1979-88) and the last ever Morecambe and Wise Show special (ITV, tx. 26/12/1983).

He made his big screen debut as Cassio in Othello (d. Laurence Olivier, 1965). The 1970s saw him making occasional forays into film: The Three Sisters (d. Laurence Olivier, 1970), The Day of the Jackal (d. Fred Zinnemann, 1973), The Odessa File (d. Ronald Neame, 1974) and The Medusa Touch (d. Jack Gold, 1978). He received the Evening Standard Best Film Actor award for Little Dorrit (d. Christine Edzard, 1988) and again for his performance as painter Francis Bacon in Love is the Devil (dir. John Maybury, 1998). A close professional relationship with Kenneth Branagh has produced three films: Henry V (1989), Dead Again (US, 1991) and Hamlet (US/UK, 1996). In recent years his films include Gladiator (US, d. Ridley Scott, 2000), Gosford Park (d. Robert Altman, 2001) and Revengers Tragedy (d. Alex Cox, 2002).

Notable leading television roles continued: as the saviour of souls Mr Pye (Channel 4, 1986); an Emmy for Graham Greene's The Tenth Man (1988); In My Defence (BBC, 1991), as Emile Zola; and the triumphant transfer from stage to small screen, Breaking the Code (BBC, tx. 5/2/1997). In 1994 he received a knighthood and embarked on the popular series Cadfael (ITV, 1994-98). Jacobi's quiet and meticulous performance as the 12th Century crime-solving monk struck a chord with television audiences.

Jacobi continues to take diverse roles, including an Emmy-winning turn as an atrocious Shakespearean actor in US sitcom Frasier, as prime minister Stanley Baldwin in The Gathering Storm (BBC, tx. 12/7/2002) and politician Lord Teddy Thursby in the dramatisation of Jake Arnott's crime novel The Long Firm (BBC, 2004).

Graham Rinaldi

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Little Dorrit (1987)Little Dorrit (1987)

Ambitious two-film adaptation of one of Dickens' greatest works

Thumbnail image of Love Is the Devil (1998)Love Is the Devil (1998)

Innovative feature-length biopic of the controversial painter Francis Bacon

Thumbnail image of Cadfael (1994-98)Cadfael (1994-98)

Medieval detective stories, starring Derek Jacobi as Brother Cadfael

Thumbnail image of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (1980)Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (1980)

BBC Television Shakespeare adaptation with Derek Jacobi

Thumbnail image of I, Claudius (1976)I, Claudius (1976)

Epic, gory and salacious drama of murder and intrigue in ancient Rome

Thumbnail image of Much Ado About Nothing (1967)Much Ado About Nothing (1967)

Studio adaptation of a lively National Theatre production with Derek Jacobi

Thumbnail image of Pallisers, The (1974)Pallisers, The (1974)

Mammoth production of Trollope's 'political' series

Thumbnail image of Philby, Burgess and Maclean (1977)Philby, Burgess and Maclean (1977)

Dramatisation of the famous 1950s Cambridge spy scandal

Thumbnail image of Richard II (1978)Richard II (1978)

BBC Shakespeare adaptation with Derek Jacobi and John Gielgud

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