If you’re clever, and you have the right scripts, it’s possible to make a virtue of typecasting by forging a career as a solidly dependable performer who can be relied upon to fill a certain you-shaped niche. Here, we celebrate our six favourite TV character actors: none of them household names, every one a what’s-his-face, but all of them heroes of the small screen in their own way.
1. Colin Jeavons
For a while, back in the ‘80s, you couldn’t tune in to a BBC Dickens adaptation without seeing Colin Jeavons, the quintessential supporting character actor from a time when the BBC was its own repertory company. His role in House of Cards (1990) is definitive: beady-eyed, oleaginous and fawning at power, while avaricious for the same for himself. Like Uriah Heep with a briefcase, as Gail Platt might say: it was hardly coincidental that Jeavons had played Heep in a TV adaptation of 1965.
But it’s for Dennis Potter’s Blue Remembered Hills (1979) that many remember him best, as the so-called sissy Donald, fatally desperate to prove himself in the face of bullying by Michael Elphick’s Peter and playground fears of the Japanese, who are said to have captured his father.
2. Kevin Doyle
A more current contender for the title of TV Dependable, Kevin Doyle has made a career out of playing crumpled loner figures, who mask feelings of alienation and rage behind fragile respectability. Whether battering their wife in the bath (The Lakes) or going on a murder spree that either began with, or is a response to, the death of their sister (Scott and Bailey remains ambiguous on this point), Doyle’s characters are studies in emasculation: worms that turn, having been dangerously provoked by the petty cruelties of life.
In Downton Abbey, Doyle’s decency currently remains intact, but with the shadows of the Great War looming, many of the male characters might be expected to face a crisis of masculinity, and a crisis of self, in the coming series.
3. Jean Anderson
The embodiment of no-nonsense matriarchal authority, Jean Anderson’s natural imperiousness led to her casting in numerous roles demanding lofty hauteur and stout common sense. As Mary Hammond in The Brothers, she presided manipulatively over a haulage business, threatened, at points, by Mark McManus, Colin Baker and Kate O’Mara.
But it was in prisoner of war drama, Tenko, that she brought particular pathos and dignity to the role of Lady Joss Holbrook, embodying the starchy resilience of a generation who had already fought for woman’s suffrage and now faced up to the privations, and brutal humiliations, of war.
4. Michael Sheard
Something of a cult TV legend, the late Michael Sheard remains beloved of all fans of TARDIS-travel and school-based melodrama. More terrifying than Gripper Stebson, Sheard patrolled the corridors of Grange Hill school for five years as the petit-fascist, Mr Bronson: the softly-spoken linguist who proved that neither bow ties nor toupees are cool.
The characterisation of a ‘classroom Hitler’ was not coincidental: Sheard played Hitler five times in his career, and made a specialty of exposing the fascistic aspirations of rule-book wielders everywhere.
5. Mary Jo Randle
Another alumnus of The Lakes, Mary Jo Randle earned her detective sergeant’s stripes on The Bill before landing in Jimmy McGovern’s The Lakes the part of her career: the Catholic wife and mother tormented by her reciprocated feelings for her parish priest.
Randle’s Bernie Quinlan exposed the yearning interior life of a woman ground down by daily routine and her family’s expectations, and Randle brought to the part the intelligence, domestic realism and understanding of the Northern, working class matriarch which she would take to later roles, such as Andrew Garfield’s mother in Red Riding (2009).
6. Donald Sumpter
Tall and with the sort of glowering looks that suggest a dark imagination, Donald Sumpter was born in Northamptonshire, but could easily pass for Transylvanian, so associated is he with roles that demand something of the night. To Being Human fans, he will always be Kemp: the religious zealot with grotesque scientific designs on George and the werewolf community. But Sumpter’s quiet blend of self-control and menace has made him a natural choice for any part requiring cold authority, creepily worn.
After his role as Erasmus Darkening, the 17th century magus in The Sarah Jane Adventures, it was no surprise that he was cast as the learned (and benign) Maester Luwin in Game of Thrones. If ever a man could lay claim to being the small screen Christopher Lee, it’s him.