A Paen to Peter Vaughan

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Folk Horror Revival are saddened to hear of the death of the great actor Peter Vaughan, a firm favourite of ours for his roles in Straw Dogs, A Warning to the Curious, Symptoms, Fanatic, The Crucible and many other films and TV shows.
For our Field Studies book, we sent a list of questions to Peter and received in reply very brief answers in a spidery hand. For which he can be very much excused having worked into his 90’s. So instead the interview was turned into the tribute below.
Having sent Peter a copy of the essay he asked to buy a copy of our book, for which he sent in the post $25 in $1 notes. All the more unusual as both Peter and I were living in Britain.

A Paen to Peter Vaughan

by Andy Paciorek

The name of Peter Vaughan may not be instantly familiar to all, but I’d wager everyone reading this book has seen at least one film or television show in which he has appeared. To the current generation, he may be most familiar for playing Maester Aemon Targaryen in the HBO fantasy series Game of Thrones, but to older eyes he may be more recognisable as the father of Wolfie’s love interest in the 1970s British comedy Citizen Smith, or for his portrayal of ‘Genial’ Harry Grout, the ‘daddy’ of HMP Slade in Porridge, the popular prison comedy starring Ronnie Barker. Or perhaps it was from one of Vaughan’s many other screen roles that he may be recognised, as from his film debut in 1959 to this current time he has been a familiar face in both film and television.

A character actor of the highest calibre, Peter Vaughan considers both straight and comedic roles as both challenging and enjoyable. With a great number of skills under his belt, Vaughan’s performances can make us sympathise with him, laugh warmly along with him or fear him, depending upon appropriate context.

Though he starred as if the role were written specifically for him as Mr Paxton in A Warning to the Curious, one of the strongest episodes of the BBC’s occasional series A Ghost Story for Christmas, he hasn’t read any other of M.R. James’ stories and does not profess to be a lover of spooky tales particularly, but several roles in darker productions can be counted in his long and illustrious oeuvre. In José Larraz’ 1974 movie Symptoms and more so in Hammer’s 1965 film Fanatic (also known as Die! Die! My Darling!), he delivers creepy, unnerving performances.

Another strong role was that of the vicious patriarch Tom Hedden in Straw Dogs, the 1971 adaptation of Gordon Williams’ 1969 novel The Siege of Trencher’s Farm. The movie attracted controversy, as it elevated the level of violence from the pages of the book and added a scene of sexual assault, for which the film gained greater notoriety, leading to its being prohibited in the 1984 Video Recordings Act—a ban that was not lifted until 2002. Though undoubtedly not suitable for family viewing, Straw Dogs does not deserve the tag of ‘video nasty’ for its tale of an American moving into a rural English village and struggling intensely to come to terms with local ways. It is a well-crafted piece of filmmaking. This is amplified by some great cast performances, not least of which is Vaughan’s depiction of Tom, a man whose manner could be considered ludicrous perhaps were it not for the air of real and palpable menace he exudes. The power of his performance he credits to Sam Peckinpah being a great director.

Though men may be monsters, Peter Vaughan has also portrayed monsters with sympathy, as can be seen by his humorous and quite touching role as Winston the Ogre in Terry Gilliam’s great, quirky 1981 film Time Bandits.

Peter Vaughan seems to have a great instinct for humanity, allowing him to seamlessly portray roles of very contrasting natures. He takes his work very seriously: for his part as the unfortunate Giles Corey in 1996’s telling of the Salem witch trials, The Crucible, he discussed his role not only with the film’s director, Nicholas Hytner, but also with the creator of the original play, Arthur Miller.

Vaughan is fortunate to work alongside numerous talented actors, and he also lets that feed his own acting prowess. In 1996 he appeared in the highly acclaimed BBC drama serial Our Friends in the North, his role as Felix Hutchinson being a marvellous display of acting ability. In this show we watch on as Felix, a man of strong belief and determination, succumbs to the cruel possession of Alzheimer’s disease. It would be a hard heart that is not touched by this performance, one which Vaughan also credits to the interaction with his co-star Christopher Eccleston, who played his son Nicky. Vaughan describes the show as being brilliant to work on.

As mentioned, Peter Vaughan has had a spectacular prolific and diverse career as an actor. It is a career that at the age of 92 he still excels in and still enjoys. His most recent work in Game of Thrones he counts as one of the highlights of his career; other personal favourites of his being his part in Our Friends in the North and his role as William Stevens in the 1993 film The Remains of the Day.

It is great to know that still Peter Vaughan approaches his work with a personal passion, one which brings me pleasure whenever I see him on the screen.

June 2015

Taken from the book Folk Horror Revival: Field Studies

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Rest in Peace ~ Peter Vaughan (4 April 1923 – 6 December 2016)

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