…they were wrong!
The convention hall at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham was heaving with fans, all eager to meet their favourite stars. The queue’s at the ‘Star Wars’, ‘Red Dwarf’ and ‘Game of Thrones’ tables were particularly long, with each person standing in them clutching a cherished item of memorabilia that they hoped to have signed.
Suddenly, a gentleman wearing a white goatee and baseball cap sauntered past the lines of waiting devotees, and took his place behind the table denoted by a poster of ‘Flash Gordon’s’ General Klytus. As he does so, the majority of people who’d been waiting patiently at the other tables shift en masse to pay homage to the man behind the gold mask.
The dumbfounded ‘Game of Thrones’ star, Josef Altin, turns to Thomas Bowington, PETER WYNGARDE’s agent, and asks what had just happened. Bowington replies, with a grin:
“You’ve just been upstaged by The King!”
As a PETER WYNGARDE fan, we must’ve all been frustrated at some time or another on reading that his career crashed and burned after ‘Jason King’ ended its run in 1973. And whilst in the past I personally would get myself into a lather over such an invalid statement, I now realise that instead of professing to enlighten us as a newspaper or Internet article is meant to do, the author of such editorials are merely exhibiting their own ignorance.
This kind of languid journalism has, by and large, been commonplace in the UK for decades. Instead of getting up off his or her ample backside and actually researching a subject, the contemporary hack is prone merely to consult a well-known online encyclopaedia with all its unconfirmed and flawed content, and base his/her story around that. Indeed, the more negative the content, the better they appear to like it.
Whilst the ‘papers prefer to put a negative slant on just about every celebrity-related commentary they publish, the average man on the street will tend to judge the success or failure of an actor’s career solely on the number of times he or she has appeared on television in a given period of time. In other words, few people have either the intelligence or imagination to consider that there are other mediums for an actor to ply his trade.
Throughout his career, PETER has never made any secret of the fact that his first love as a performer was the stage. He also made it clear that he had no desire to commit to another long-running television series once ‘Jason King’ had run its course. In fact, he grabbed the opportunity to play Ben Butley in Charles Dyer’s play, ‘Butley’ at the Metro Theatre in Melbourne, during the pause between the shooting of ‘Department S’ and ‘Jason King’ in 1971, to much acclaim.
Yet in spite of the often barbed comments of the resentful and misinformed, who continue to insist that PETER’s best days were over by 1972, in actual fact he was enhancing his standing as both an actor and director whilst treading the boards, and receiving glowing critical acclaim from some of the most respected critics in the business.
His first real post-Jason King outing was in Charles Dyer’s ‘Mother Adam’, in which he played a lonely museum curator who was still sharing a home with his mother. His performance drew praise from across the board, with one of the theatre’s most revered columnists, Harold Hobson, declaring: “PETER WYNGARDE gives a performance of near genius – a great actor in the very best sense of the word.” and The Times in-house authority stating, “…as for PETER WYNGARDE, in this play he approaches with a quiet, unassuming step, very close to greatness.”
For his next trick, PETER took on the role made famous by Yul Brynner in a revival of ‘The King and I’. He portrayed the King in all 260 performances of the show – playing to packed houses from Scotland to the south coast of England. Demand for tickets was so fierce that when the production reached the West End of London that it had to be extended by a further two months.
“PETER WYNGARDE touches depths of understanding not always encountered in a musical. This is a spectacle indeed.” The Daily Express
“…PETER WYNGARDE is personal, charming and finally moving. It wouldn’t surprise me if the show announced limited run stretches on and on well into the New Year, and beyond.” The Daily Telegraph
Hardly the description of an actor whose best days were behind him!
PETER was to both direct and take the lead in his next play – Noel Coward’s ‘Present Laugher’, for which he again won high praise from notoriously hard-to-please critics, with the London Evening Standard declaring:
“WYNGARDE himself bears no relation to his famous Jason King, with the possible exception of his immaculate wardrobe. Instead he produces some masterful touches sometimes by a word, an action, or as in one possible case, an expression.”
Whilst Plays and Players exclaimed: “PETER WYNGARDE, who directed as well as starred, added to his reputation for professionalism with his deft handling of the play. He proved in this particular work to be the complete actor, using it as a vehicle to manoever with dazzling carioation of pace. His own playing of the flamboyant lead was a first-class modernisation of itself. Not only had he adapted it to the style of Jason King, who had, of course, given him the kind of following such as Garry Essendine would lividly envy, but enough individuality and magnetism of his own…”
Success followed success, as the one-time king of television proved that he could also be the sovereign of the box office.“You could’ve heard a pin drop as WYNGARDE moved menacingly down centre stage and then in powerful ascended tones introduced himself with a click of his heels and courtly bow,” one journalist wrote of PETER’s portrayal of Count Dracula in 1974.
“In luxurious, floor-length, rich black velvet cloak, Mr WYNGARDE looked as if he’d stepped straight out of the pages of Romanian history, for instead of the usual swept-back hair from a ‘widow’s peak’ on the forehead, this Dracula had lustrous black, shoulder length hair and a drooping black moustache, but there was no denying PETER WYNGARDE’s powerful presence in the role.
“Occasionally, the dialogue managed to laugh at itself as in Dracula’s comment about Transylvanian wine not travelling well, but more often than not, it was just background noise between the marvellous effects which were designed by PETER himself. He even spoke his great climatic oration as though it didn’t matter, and it didn’t. His stage presence itself was simply awe-inspiring”.
The reader of this article would do well to remember that, even into the 1980’s, television was still considered by many thespians to be the poor relation of the acting profession. Any member of Actor’s Equity who hadn’t first cut his or her teeth in Repertory Theatre, or made their name treading the boards, would’ve been frowned upon by his peers. So whilst the average ‘Couch Potato’ might well have believed that PETER had been packaged up and stuck at the back of the wardrobe when ‘Jason King’ drew to an end in 1973, in reality, he was earning the respect and admiration of ‘The Gods’ in front of sold out houses countrywide.
Certainly, he was held in enough esteem by the producers of a new adaptation of J.B. Priestley’s ‘Time and the Conways’ to be invited to direct the play at The Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in December, 1975. The production, which featured Dulcie Gray, Christopher Cazenove and Anthony Andrews, was a huge success, and lead PETER to be invited to both act and direct at the highly respected English Theatre in Vienna in 1977.
Whilst in Austria, he was asked by a newspaper journalist why he hadn’t returned to TV after ‘Jason King’, to which he reiterated that his first love was, and always had been, the theatre: “Unless you do what you want,“ he said, “you please no one – neither yourself nor your audience. Compromise; taking parts you don’t like, builds up a kind of self-loathing, and that’s the most destructive thing in an actor”.
Over two tremendously successful seasons, PETER starred as George Bernard Shaw in ‘Dear Liar’, opposite the Theatre’s founder, Ruth Brinkmann (the play was brought back in September of 1977 due to the huge demand for tickets); as Richie Bosanquet in the European premier of ‘Big Toys’, and as Shylock in his own production of ‘The Merchant of Venice’.
Of his performance in ‘Dear Liar’, one critic wrote: ‘WYNGARDE’s sharply etched performance was a triumph of acting, employing a Cheshire Cat grin and a look of self-satisfaction when tossing off a bon not – of which ‘Dear Liar’ has many’.
The British national tours of ‘Anastasia’ and ‘The Merchant of Venice’ that followed made a big enough impact for the world-renowned theatre producer, Pierter Toerien, to cast PETER in Ira Levin’s ‘Deathtrap’ at the Baxter Theatre in Cape Town. The play broke all box office records there during its run, and the season was extended by 12 weeks.
The 1970’s proved to be the busiest decade of PETER’s career, during which time he was never out of work. In addition to the productions in which he performed, produced and directed, he was offered innumerable other opportunities which he was forced to turn down due to his being otherwise engaged .
The early 1980’s brought him a new challenge when he was cast as General Klytus in Mike Hodge’s sci-fi blockbuster, ‘Flash Gordon’. Although his face was hidden by a mask throughout the film, and without the benefit of facial expressions, it was generally agreed by critics and fans alike that PETER stole the show.
“Regardless of whether you’re a fan of science-fiction or not, those who delight in studying the diverse acting talents of Mr PETER WYNGARDE and his multi-faceted performances must agree that he did a marvellous job in creating the malevolent, sadistic, and incredibly evil Klytus without the benefit of facial expressions. His totally chilling inflection and faultless performance in this most challenging of roles is yet another shining example of WYNGARDE’S tremendous acting ability.” Empire magazine.
The film brought PETER a whole legion of new fans – especially in the United States where, until then, he’d been relatively unknown. Interestingly, fans based in America now count for a large percentage of the visitors to this website, and PETER’s earlier films are now regularly shown at events throughout the States.
In spite of a concerted effort by British devotees to get PETER back on television here in the UK, he insisted on putting theatre at the forefront of his career – accepting roles in ‘Underground’ opposite Raymond Burr, and in ‘Light Up The Sky’ with the late Kate O’Mara.
When he did decide to return to the small screen, it was in a four-part ‘Doctor Who’ story, ‘Planet of Fire’. Curiously, in his recently published autobiography, ‘Is There Life Outside The Box’ Peter Davidson demonstrated his own ignorance by claiming that PETER had done little work in the years leading up to his portrayal of Chief Elder, Timanov.
The former ‘All Creatures Great and Small’ performer claimed that, once cast in the role of Timanov, PETER’s agent contacted director, Fiona Cumming, to inform her that his client wished to play the character as an “old man”. Davidson upholds that, at the time both he and Cummings’ agreed that he WAS and old man! In actual fact, PETER was not yet 50 when the episode(s) was filmed on Lanzerote. Not exactly what you’d describe as archaic. Interestingly, Ms Cummings’ was, herself, only three years younger at 46!
You’d think that someone like Davidson would appreciate that television isn’t the be-all and end-all to an actor. Regrettably, like the indolent hacks discussed earlier in the piece, Davidson seemed more interested in settling old scores than publishing the facts. In the end, however, he succeeded only in making himself appear like a peevish schoolboy, and ridiculous to boot!
And herein lies the rub. Whilst PETER worked consistently throughout the Seventies, Eighties and well into the Nineties; producing some of his best, and most critically-acclaimed work, there are still those who’re either too idle or too malicious to publish the truth.
When wannabe hack and hearse-chaser Gavin Stewart-Gaughan, suggested that, in years to come, PETER WYNGARDE would only be remembered for his part in ‘Flash Gordon’, the following passage by Theodore Roosevelt immediately came to mind:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat”.
. Between June 1976 and December, 1978, for example, PETER was offered the following projects which he was unable to accept due to his being otherwise committed:
‘Boy’. Stage play. With Morten Gottlieb (‘Sleuth’, ‘Same Time Next Year’, ‘Romantic Comedy).
‘Knickerbocker Holiday’ by Kurt Weill. PETER was offered the part of Pieter Styvesant.
‘Veronica’s Room’ by Ira Levin: Produced by Bill Kenwright and directed by Donald McKechnie. Starring Honor Blackman and Anouska Hemple.
‘Children of the World’
‘Dragon Variation (The)’
‘I Want To Be A Father, Madam’
‘Last Paradise (The)’
‘Life of Galileo (The)’
‘Look After Lulu’
‘No Room For Sex’
‘Other Side of the Room (The)’
‘Patience On A Monument’
‘There’s Always A Story’
‘Trials of Oscar Wild (The)’
‘Wilbur Grant Deception (The)’
‘Human Jungle (The)’
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