Murray Melvin obituary

Actor and director Murray Melvin, who died aged 90, had a rich and varied career in theatre, film and television, his perspective shaped by his experience in the late 1950s working for the Theater Joan Littlewood’s Workshop at Theater Royal, Stratford East. He was a key member of her company, playing pivotal roles in A Taste of Honey, The Hostage and Oh What a Lovely War and passionately believed in passing on the legacy of his work to the next generation. In 1991 he also became archivist of the Theater Royal and collected a mass of priceless material which in 2021 was donated to the British Library.

Over a long career Melvin has worked in many different media and invested everything she did with a physical precision that she attributed to her early training in ballet. In 1962 he won the Best Actor award at Cannes for his portrayal of him in Tony Richardson’s A Taste of Honey and appeared in Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975) and became one of Ken Russell’s favorite actors. His television career has spanned from his expulsion in the first episode of The Avengers (1961) to playing the sinister Bilis Manger in the Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood (2007).

As a director, his work ranged from pantomimes written by Graeme Garden to opera performances in the Royal Albert Hall. But at the heart of everything he did was his devotion to Littlewood and Stratford East theatre: to anyone seeking his story he was a lively, fascinating and unfailingly instructive guide.

Born in St Pancras in central London, Murray was the only child of Maisie (née Driscoll) and Hugh Melvin, an RAF officer. After leaving secondary school aged 14 he held a series of unsatisfying jobs which included work as a clerk and secretary to the director of the RAF sports council. His real joy lay in studying acting, mime and classical ballet at the city’s Literary Institute, and in September 1957 he decided to audition for the prestigious, if meager, Theater Workshop. He was immediately snapped up and, with the help of a small grant from the Cooperative Society, was employed as a body dog, assistant stage manager and bit-part actor.

It made such an impression that when, in May 1958, Littlewood cast Geoff, the boy who lovingly nurses the pregnant heroine of Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey, he knew where to look. “Murray,” he wrote in his memoir of him, “always made tea, tidied the green room, looked after us—Geoff at life.” Particularly striking was Melvin’s compassionate understanding of the quiet gay Geoff: Lindsay Anderson, reviewing the production in a theater magazine, called his performance “a miracle of tact and sincerity.” Dirk Bogarde later told a surprised Melvin, who he didn’t feel playing a particular drum, that his portrayal of him did more for the cause of homosexuality than the entire film Victim.

Melvin’s success in A Taste of Honey made it natural for him to cast six months later as the 18-year-old soldier held captive by the IRA in Brendan Behan’s The Hostage – it was Melvin’s favorite role and his only regret was not being able to appear in the film Transfer to the West End because he was starring in A Taste of Honey. But Oh What a Lovely War in 1963 would prove to be the company’s biggest success. “For the actors,” he said, “it was a journey of discovery as Joan assigned us all the reading lists we needed to report on, and some mornings we walked into the rehearsal room in tears at the horror of it all. But, for all Joan’s air of apparent improvisation, you must remember that her shows were as carefully structured as a Mozart symphony.

THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, Murray Melvin, 2004, (c) Warner Brothers/courtesy Everett CollectionHCJNAF THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, Murray Melvin, 2004, (c) Warner Brothers/courtesy Everett Collection

In The Phantom of the Opera (2004). Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

After Lovely War ended its run in London and New York in 1964, Melvin was quickly employed in other media. His films for Russell included The Devils and The Boy Friend (both 1971) and he became a lifelong friend of the director. For Lewis Gilbert it was in two films: HMS Defiant (1962), where his love of sailing meant he had no qualms when required to pull the rigging up to the crow’s nest, and Alfie (1966) where he played the tightest Michael Caine’s male confidante. He appeared in five films by Peter Medak and two by Christine Edzard (Little Dorrit, 1987 and As You Like It, 1992), and went on to play a conductor and musical director in Joel Schumacher’s The Phantom of the work (2004). .

With his poker frame, slicked-back hair, and handsome hawkish profile, Melvin was also a regular on television. He appeared in one-off plays by Shaw and Pirandello, imaginative films by Russell about Isadora Duncan (1966) and Samuel Coleridge (The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, 1978), and popular hits such as Bugs (1997) and Jonathan Creek (1998). Although he presumably could not read music, he found success conducting Peter Maxwell Davies’ The Martyrdom of St Magnus and Hans Werner Henze’s The Raft of the Medusa in performances at the BBC Proms in 1977.

In my meetings with him I have always been struck by his affability, seeming timelessness and almost Edwardian courtesy. Former Stratford East manager Kerry Kyriacos Michael noted how keen Melvin was to “honour Joan by doing all she can for the next generation. He had great personal integrity and turned down a CBE in protest of the government’s treatment of the Windrush generation. And he was the epitome of style, his friends included choreographer Matthew Bourne and director-designer Philip Prowse.

It also had the dignity of solitude: in the absence of a life partner or surviving relatives, Melvin named Michael as his next of kin.

Murray Melvin, actor, director and archivist, born August 10, 1932; died on April 14, 2023

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