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Hill, Bernard (1944-)


Main image of Hill, Bernard (1944-)

A versatile and infallibly watchable character actor, Bernard Hill is undoubtedly a familiar face to most, not least because he has appeared in some of the biggest blockbusters ever made. He was born on the 17th December 1944 in Manchester, and, after some early stage work, made an inauspicious film debut in the bit part of 'Syph' in the forgotten teen drama It Could Happen To You (d. Stanley A Long, 1975). His next significant projects were another small role in the seminal I, Claudius (BBC, 1976), and a larger part in Tom Stoppard's Cold War espionage and academia drama Professional Foul (BBC, 1977), which indicated his enthusiasm for well-written projects.

After a few years in which he did little of any note, save a wry appearance as Malcolm McDowell's manservant in Tom Sharpe's Dornford Yates adaptation She Fell Among Thieves (BBC, 1978), he found the part which was to define his early career. Yosser Hughes was a disenchanted, unemployed working-class man whose catchphrase, echoing throughout the Thatcher era and beyond, was 'Gizza job!' The character, as scripted by Alan Bleasdale, first appeared in the one-off play The Black Stuff (BBC, 1980), but, realising its potential, Bleasdale expanded it into a seminal series, Boys from the Blackstuff (BBC, 1982), with Hill again dominating as the tragic, yet dimly self-aware, Yosser, a role for which he was BAFTA-nominated.

He had an unbilled bit part in Gandhi (UK/India, d. Richard Attenborough, 1982) and was a key member of Jane Howell's repertory company in the BBC Television Shakespeare's ambitious Henry VI/Richard III cycle (1983)). He reunited with Stoppard for the highly political Squaring The Circle (BBC, 1984), and had a significant supporting role in The Bounty (UK, d. Roger Donaldson, 1984), alongside the likes of Anthony Hopkins, Laurence Olivier and Mel Gibson. He had another collaboration with Bleasdale in No Surrender (UK/Canada, d. Peter Smith, 1985), and his first proper lead role, as a computer expert planning a heist, in Bellman and True (ITV, 1987). A wryly comic turn as an accommodating undertaker anchored Peter Greenaway's Drowning By Numbers (UK/Netherlands, 1988) in some kind of reality, and he was wonderfully subtle as Pauline Collins' thoughtless but ultimately loving husband in Shirley Valentine (UK/US, d. Lewis Gilbert, 1989).

He was enormous fun as Dr Livingstone in Mountains of the Moon (US, 1990), at one point stripping to compare scars with Patrick Bergin's Sir Richard Burton, and even an appearance in the legendarily terrible Double X (UK/US, d. Shani S.Grewal, 1992) did little harm. He was effective in the Dennis Potter fantasia Lipstick On Your Collar (Channel 4, 1993), indicating his long-standing relationship with great dramatists, and very good in the overlooked disability drama Skallagrigg (BBC, 1994). He was also a welcome presence in such literary adaptations as The Mill on the Floss (BBC, 1997) and as Magwitch in Great Expectations (BBC, 1999).

Inevitably, Hollywood beckoned. His first significant appearance was in The Ghost and the Darkness (US, 1996), but his role as the doomed Captain Smith in James Cameron's Titanic (US, 1997) took him to greater prominence, including appearances in films as varied as Clint Eastwood's True Crime (US, 1999), A Midsummer Night's Dream (US/Italy/UK, 1999) and, perhaps to his detriment, The Scorpion King (US/Germany, 2002). In a return to home turf, he was good value as the laconic detective in The Criminal (d. Julian Simpson, 1999).

The role which has defined him for many is King Theoden in the Lord of The Rings films, The Two Towers and The Return of the King (US/New Zealand/Germany, 2002/3), which at least required him to act rather than look overwhelmed by the numerous special effects. While his film roles since have included the occasional misfire, such as Gothika (US, 2003), he has been a welcome presence in supporting roles in such projects as The Grid (BBC, 2004), Wimbledon (UK/France, d. Richard Loncraine, 2004) and The League of Gentlemen's Apocalypse (UK/US, d. Steve Bendelack, 2005). He was rather more tested as former Home Secretary David Blunkett in Alistair Beaton's satirical account of his downfall, A Very Social Secretary (Channel 4, 2005), but rose to the occasion, turning Blunkett into a somewhat tragic figure amidst the fun.

Alexander Larman

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Gandhi (1982)Gandhi (1982)

Large-scale Oscar-winning biopic of the great Indian spiritual leader

Thumbnail image of Boys from the Blackstuff (1982)Boys from the Blackstuff (1982)

Pivotal drama about unemployment and desperation in 1980s Liverpool

Thumbnail image of Fox (1980)Fox (1980)

Ambitious 13-part drama following a South London family

Thumbnail image of Hard Labour (1973)Hard Labour (1973)

Mike Leigh's first TV drama, about the travails of domestic drudgery

Thumbnail image of Henry VI Part I (1983)Henry VI Part I (1983)

The bright and gaudy first part of Jane Howell's acclaimed history cycle

Thumbnail image of Henry VI Part II (1983)Henry VI Part II (1983)

As Henry's grip on power weakens, the Wars of the Roses begin in earnest

Thumbnail image of Henry VI Part III (1983)Henry VI Part III (1983)

England is torn apart by civil war in the third part of Shakespeare's trilogy

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

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

Thumbnail image of Lipstick On Your Collar (1993)Lipstick On Your Collar (1993)

Dennis Potter's third and final 'serial with music', set during the Suez crisis

Thumbnail image of Skallagrigg (1994)Skallagrigg (1994)

Ambitious drama confronting attitudes to disability

Thumbnail image of Spongers, The (1978)Spongers, The (1978)

Acclaimed dramadoc showing the tragic impact of welfare cuts on a family

Thumbnail image of Tragedy of Richard III, The (1983)Tragedy of Richard III, The (1983)

Near-complete BBC version of Shakespeare's tale of villainy

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