A jewel in the crown
Piers Plowright remembers his friend the actor Tim Pigott-Smith, who died earlier this month
20 April, 2017 — By Piers Plowright
Tim Pigott-Smith in the Almeida’s 2014 production of King Charles III. Photo: Johan Persson
WHAT a privilege to have worked with, and later got to know the actor Tim Pigott-Smith, who died so suddenly and tragically two weeks ago.
I feel I’ve lost a real friend which, indeed, in the last few years, after he and his wife the actress Pamela Miles moved from Highgate to Hampstead, he’d become. My last memory of him was at Burgh House in January when he and Pam read the poetry and prose I’d chosen to a packed music-room: the murder scene in Macbeth, poems by RS Thomas, Stevie Smith, Elizabeth Bishop, and Thomas Hardy, and excerpts from Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party, Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, and Kent Haruf’s heart-breaking novel Plainsong. Tim, as usual, read everything to perfection.
My first meeting with him was nearly 30 years earlier. A read-through in writer Ronald Hayman’s Church Row living room for the first episode of a BBC Radio 3 comedy series Such Rotten Luck – about “the ups and downs of a second-class writer”.
Tim starred as Woodhouse, the second-class writer in question, with Zoë Wanamaker as his sometimes exasperated wife, and Stephen Rea as his feckless side-kick Seamus, achieving the perfect balance between absolute seriousness (golden rule of comedy: you must never think you’re funny) and desperation. No studio audience, just sharply written dialogue and spot-on performances. The show ran for two series and became a small cult. It also seemed like working with a family – a slightly mad one, it’s true – with Tim’s contributions and suggestions a delight.
Not all actors can read poetry but Tim could, and we worked together on classic and modern poetry for Radios 3 and 4 until my retirement from the Beeb in 1997. He could let the words do the work without pushing and pulling them into a performance: meaning first, interpretation second.
After that, I caught him on TV, radio, and film, and would hear his magisterial but sympathetic voiceovers and narrations.
And then one afternoon when my wife and I had just moved down to South End Green from “Higher Hampstead”, I bumped into him in the newsagents. In a way it was full circle: he and Zoë had just played another married couple, this time in a TV drama about a very successful writer (same name, different spelling), PG Wodehouse, Nigel Williams’ dramatisation of PGW’s Word War II brush with the Nazis. Tim painted a wonderful portrait of a baffled gentle innocent abroad who really thought he was helping British morale by broadcasting “letters from Germany”. I shall never forget his forlorn expression as he wrote from his German prison camp: “If this is Upper Silesia, God knows what Lower Silesia is like!”
After that we met regularly, for lunch at the much-missed Magdala or for coffee at Polly’s or Dominique’s. I remember a really enlightening conversation about the problems of playing King Lear – he’d just done it in Leeds. “The thing is,” he said, “you must begin as a powerful monarch. If you’re crumbling – senility or whatever – from scene one, there’s no place to fall – so no tragedy.”
And then came that other monarch, Charles III. I met Tim on the Overground, travelling east. “I’m off to a costume fitting,” he said, “new play about Prince Charles becoming king. As soon as I read the script I knew I had to do it.” The rest, of course, is history and thank God, it’s been filmed so that future audiences can see this wonderfully versatile and generous actor at his best.
Apparently the P of W never came to see the play, but an aide must have done, because Tim received an anonymous note in his dressing-room one evening, politely pointing out that “King Charles” was wearing a ring on the wrong finger.
He put that right.