Joss Ackland: a beacon of power on British stage and screen
The late Joss Ackland was a remarkable actor who contributed greatly to the British entertainment industry. He appeared in over 130 television and film productions and was steadily employed. Although he often played supporting roles, he was unforgettable in his role as CS Lewis in the 1985 TV series Shadowlands. Ackland had an exceptional talent for projecting a calm demeanor while also exuding great power and authority. These abilities were showcased in four stage performances that left a lasting impression on me.
It is a challenging task for an actor to portray a humble and kind character, and Ackland perfectly executed it in John Osborne's play, The Hotel in Amsterdam, which premiered at the Royal Court in 1968. Ackland played the role of Gus, a video editor who, alongside his friends, escapes a dominant producer for a weekend. Gus, who is very particular about his health and always anxious, has a wife who is being pursued by a captivating writer. Even though Gus was the object of mockery among his peers, Ackland portrayed him with an unforgettable serene and happy demeanor.
Ackland, a seasoned Shakespearean actor, played the role of Falstaff in Henry IV, which was a completely different role than what Shakespeare had intended for the character. The RSC debuted this play at the Barbican in 1982. Ackland had already played in Shakespearean plays at the Old Vic, but his performance in RSC was extraordinary. I remember calling it a great performance because he portrayed the complex character of Falstaff perfectly. In addition to being a humorous symbol for kindness, Falstaff is also a realistic, harsh truth-seeker. Ackland played Falstaff in a sportive manner as well. During the mock-play scene at the Eastcheap tavern, Ackland's character King expressed a twisted joy when asked to play the role of the king.
In two major musical productions directed by Hal Prince, Ackland showcased his impressive range by portraying characters who could seamlessly switch between ordinary and extraordinary situations. In the 1975 Adelphi rendition of Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music, Ackland tackled the role of Fredrik Egerman, a middle-aged lawyer torn between sexual frustration with his young wife and a strong attraction to the charming actress Desiree Armfeldt. Ackland's portrayal deftly captured Egerman's complex mix of longing and memories of earlier romantic bliss with Desiree. Prince was so taken with Ackland's talent that he quickly cast him as Argentinian president Juan Perón in the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice musical Evita in 1978. While the show itself was a bit controversial in its portrayal of the glamorous but controversial Eva Perón, Ackland's performance was widely praised for his commanding presence and excellence in the role of a powerful political figure who could have made it to the very top even without his wife's charisma.
Ackland had a remarkable talent for depicting genuine and honest characters who were often overwhelmed by their circumstances. He showcased this ability in various movies throughout his career, with two particular examples standing out. The first was in the film White Mischief, which was released in 1987. In this movie, Ackland played a character who was part of a group of wealthy Kenyan socialites called the Happy Valley set. His character was accused of killing his wife's lover and had to face trial. Interestingly, this role may have held special significance for Ackland, as he spent some time managing a tea plantation in Kenya in 1954 and could have had personal connections to the story.
One of his outstanding acting moments was in a TV show written by Michael Frayn entitled "First and Last" in 1989. In this production, Ackland portrayed an elderly man who travels on foot from Land's End to John o' Groats. This program holds a special place in my heart as I passionately argued for it to receive the prime drama award when I served on the Bafta committee. Although I lost the vote, Ackland's exceptional portrayal of a man who undertakes a physically and emotionally demanding endeavor due to a blend of his own ambition and troubled marriage remains etched in my memory. This performance is a testament to Ackland's unparalleled talent in illustrating the depth that lies beneath an apparently ordinary exterior.