John Moffatt - Actor

John Moffatt was one of the galaxy of stars forming the National Theatre under Olivier's direction. There, he gave many outstanding performances, most memorably for me his electrifying Cardinal in The White Devil, his chilling Judge Brack in Bergman's production of Hedda Gabler with Maggie Smith, and his multiple roles in The Captain of Kopenick with the late Paul Scofield.

When younger members of the Old Vic company started working over the road at The Young Vic, he joined them for one of the greatest successes the fledgling theatre ever had. Jim Dale had already successfully made the leap from TV to stage, and shown himself a dab hand at Shakespeare's clowns. For Scapino, an adaptation of Goldoni's A Servant of Two Masters, Dale provided the songs as well as playing the title role. The great Jane Lapotaire, who had not been given the leading roles to get her teeth into at the Old Vic (a situation later remedied at the RSC) had fun as the sprightly heroine. Moffatt had a huge personal success as a crotchety old miser. His perfect timing and comic invention raised the fun-filled evening into a farce worthy of Laurel and Hardy.

The same simile comes to mind to describe his performances as a pantomime Dame. After listening to Derek Jacobi telling me for half an hour of the wonders of Moffatt's Dame, I determined to see for myself. There had been no exaggeration. I was fortunate to catch several productions which Moffatt wrote as well as starring in. They are among my most happy theatrical memories. Watching the glorious slapstick with Roger Rees in Jack and the Beanstalk, I did think it the equal of Laurel and Hardy. I have seen many dames since, but not one to match John Moffatt's broad yet delicate touch: gloriously funny, yet with a core of sweetness that captivated audiences.

Another side of this multi-talented actor found great success in musicals. He was splendid in the under-valued Tyger, and delighted all who saw the long-running success Cowardy Custard. The latter production saw one of his great stage partnerships, with the magnificent Patricia Routledge. Their scenes together gave moments of depth and warmth, invoking the world of touring and boarding houses and life backstage, which they sketched for the audience as an artist captures a character with a few strokes of the pen or brush.

In recent years, John Moffatt has worked mainly in radio, most popularly as Hercule Poirot. With the incomparable team of director Enyd Williams and adaptor Michael Bakewell, Christie's work has been revealed as far better than I ever realized from other versions. It sent me back to the books, which I now enjoy to the full. Bakewell has proved himself a very rare artist. I am now aware of the failings of other adaptors who are usually unable to resist rewriting Christie to the extent that their free adaptations lose the delicate balance of the original. Thank goodness, also, that these productions do not fall into the common trap of starting out as adaptations of full-length novels and then trying to pad out the short stories to the same length. As well as John Moffatt, the Williams/Bakewell combination has attracted many excellent actors into their productions, which are a quiet triumph for the BBC. For over a decade they have been working through the Christie canon with Poirot, but also some other less well-known books and stories. One of my favourites is The Sittaford Mystery (in which Poirot does not take part, but Moffatt appears in it as one of his gallery of elderly fusspots). An enjoyable and addictive recording. Another highly enjoyable version of a lesser known book is The Pale Horse. The BBC had earlier recorded The Mystery of the Christmas Pudding with Maurice Denham, but have recently produced a new version with John Moffatt.

Of the long list of their Poirot dramatizations, my favourites are The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, in which Moffatt is partnered by the superb John Woodvine as the Doctor, and Murder on the Orient Express, with a splendid cast including Joss Ackland. The latter was the first of these plays I heard, and I have listened to it many times since. It contains some magnificent set pieces. Any novice who wonders what is the attraction of audio work over TV should listen to this one. I am entranced every time, following in sound Poirot's walk through the corridors of the train to his compartment. In the perfect timing and sound balance we see and experience everything that is happening around the detective: as near virtual reality as I'd like to get. Moffatt's performance is, as always, faultless, every nuance and inflection revealing Poirot's thought processes.

link to bbc shop** We know how Poirot loves to discourse on the puzzle at the end of the books, and Moffatt finds new means of showing this every time. He seems to approach the denoument like a great singer working up to an aria, finding an infinite variety so that each speech seems freshly minted. Reading the books, a great deal of the description of Poirot comes from Hastings, which Moffatt conveys through voice alone in the dramatizations. Each play is distinguished by cleverly chosen music setting the period. Here, also, Moffatt "ages" his voice to reflect Poirot's age in the different stories.

John Moffatt's voice is at once distinctive and versatile: aware of the value of every breath and sigh, he is blessed with a strong sense of humour and of the ridiculous. Listen for his exasperated affection in the scene in Murder on the Links when he is forcibly restrained by his friend Hastings (who has got the wrong end of the stick as usual). That play has, to my mind, the very best pairing in Jeremy Clyde's Hastings. One of the few things I would change in the series are probably those that could not be avoided; one is the number of different actors playing Hastings. Another is that Stephanie Cole does not always play Ariadne Oliver - a role which she made her own in earlier recordings including The Pale Horse. One great coup was the casting of Philip Jackson as Japp. I still don't know quite why it is, but there is no doubt, he just sounds right. (Jackson, of course, is the excellent Japp to David Suchet's TV sleuth.)

John Moffatt is one of the great all-round entertainers, and one who never gives a poor performance on stage, radio, or screen.

Shirley Jacobs©

**The picture shown here is from a boxed set no longer available. The link takes you to the BBC's shop.

interview with John Moffatt in the British Library Archives
imdb entry
wikipedia entry