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From White Mischief to Bill & Ted, Joss Ackland was an actor of rare poise, range and pathos

Photograph: Sportsphoto Ltd./Allstar

Photograph: Sportsphoto Ltd./Allstar© Provided by The Guardian

Joss Ackland’s elegant bearing, natural aplomb and English theatrical training meant that he never lacked for work on stage or screen, largely playing authority and establishment figures — although these movie roles were a bit ironised and sent up in the parts he got offered in the 90s and 00s (to his reported chagrin). 

But growing up, I was aware of him only via that rich, mellifluous voice of his, like melted butterscotch, in an inordinate number of TV ads: his tones were received pronunciation with a dash of naughtiness and insinuation, that of a TV newsreader or bishop who loved to savour a fine wine, or a decent cigar.

Ackland’s masterpiece had to be his performance in Michael Radford’s fierce and disturbing 1987 movie about the “Happy Valley” set, White Mischief (a movie from the Thatcherite 80s which probably deserves a revival). It won Ackland a Bafa nomination while also propelling the exquisitely-cheekboned beauties of Charles Dance and Greta Scacchi into the public eye. Hugh Grant had a small role. Ackland was a supporting turn and perhaps a little upstaged by the younger eye-candy stars but he packed a devastating punch. 

Joss Ackland with Greta Scacchi and Trevor Howard in White Mischief. Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy© Provided by The Guardian

He was Sir Jock Delves Broughton, who was a senior member of the louche set of English expat aristocrats in Kenya during the second world war — leisured but jaded colonialists exploiting the handsome income from farming, with little to do but drink, take drugs and have affairs. And all this hedonism has had an added touch of decadence because of their apparent indifference to the Mother Country’s wartime hour of trial thousands of miles away. Sir Jock is married to the beautiful, highly-strung and decades younger Diana (Greta Scacchi) who married Jock on the understanding that she was allowed to have affairs — and is now carrying on a passionately erotic liaison with Josslyn Hay, Earl of Erroll, played by Dance. 

Ackland’s Jock is a contemptible but tragic chump and cuckold, having to pretend he doesn’t notice or doesn’t mind, but is in fact eaten up with rage. It leads to violence and a terrible confrontation with Diana — a great scene with a shocking end. Ackland was every inch the establishment figure who hates himself for committing the cardinal English sin: making a fuss, and he hates his wife for forcing him to make a fuss. Ackland played it perfectly.

But Ackland could also play lower down the social scale — and he had a potent if small role in Michael Tuchner’s brutal 1971 Brit-crime film Villain with Richard Burton as the Kray-esque mobster having to deal with lowlifes and coppers: Ackland played the cringing crim who is partnered up with TP McKenna’s grandee gangster. Ackland was part of the blue-chip generation of beautifully spoken, classically trained British performers who lent substance and flair to many movies like this. 

Ackland fans love him for his outrageous appearance in the Brit horror pulp classic The House that Dripped Blood from 1970, a portmanteau movie in which he co-starred with Peter Cushing in the story about his obsession with an exhibit in a waxwork museum which leads to a grotesque conclusion.

Some of the film work Ackland gamely took on was perhaps not out of the top drawer — as Ackland himself admitted — he was Matisse in James Ivory’s gruesome Surviving Picasso with Anthony Hopkins as the great artist, and actually found himself in two Demi Moore films while reportedly having no very great opinion of her abilities. 

Ackland in Lethal Weapon 2 (1989). Photograph: Moviestore Collection Ltd/Alamy© Provided by The Guardian

He could play fruity foreign accents with sly wit and relish and was a stoutly plausible presence as the Soviet ambassador in John McTernan’s The Hunt for Red October starring Sean Connery and Alec Baldwin in 1990— and in fact played another Russian, the Soviet defence minister this time, in Kathryn Bigelow’s K19: The Widowmaker. 

In Lethal Weapon 2 he was the dodgy South African politician and smirking bad guy Arlen Rudd. Younger audiences were to discover Joss Ackland through his exotic performance as a freaky teacher-turned-terrorist of the future in Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey called Chuck De Nomolos who has an animus against our two laidback heroes.

Ackland was the model English character actor who probably found his best work on the stage or on television but had a robust career in the movies — and his Sir Jock Delves Broughton was a mighty achievement, exposing the hypocrisy and wretchedness in Britain’s entitled upper classes. 

Story by Peter Bradshaw: The Guardian:  

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