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Jonathan Cecil – an appreciation

by Paul Kent

It is with great sadness that we learned of the untimely death of the wonderful actor and Society Patron Jonathan Cecil, who succumbed to pneumonia on 22nd September, aged 72.

Jonathan last addressed the Society on the 16th February 2010, having hot-footed it from Bath, where he had just completed the successful recording of Meet Mr Mulliner, his 37th unabridged Wodehouse audio book for the BBC. Notwithstanding the vicissitudes of standard class train travel and three days’ intensive toil in a tiny studio, he contrived to appear not only in the rudest health, but impossibly dapper in a broad blue and white pinstripe complete with buttonhole.

Prefacing a masterful performance of three Wodehouse vignettes, he gave a short speech by way of introduction. Having noted that he was “vain as the next actor”, Jonathan confessed that he seldom listened to his own recordings, branding one of his earliest as “a brilliant cure for insomnia”. This example of his characteristic modesty was very soon afterwards proved to be an outrageous self-libel, as he launched into a pitch-perfect rendition of Gally Threepwood in a short extract from Summer Lightning. “Top that!”, many of us were thinking as he finished ... and then he proceeded to do precisely that with what can only be described as an absolute tour de force – his rendition of “Goodbye To All Cats”, a Wodehouse short story taken from the volume Young Men In Spats, which formed the centrepiece of the evening. For an utterly captivating fifteen minutes, Jonathan demonstrated his complete mastery both of the text and the craft of acting, weaving seamlessly in and out of ten different character voices, ranging from dotty aunts via young men and women to my personal favourite, Sir Mortimer Prenderby. Exclamations such as “It’s raining cats!” and “Dahlia! Who’s that ugly feller?” were delivered in a throaty baritone that resembled a foghorn with the croup. It was a memorable performance that had the audience in stitches – and he made it all look so easy.

In many ways, it was Jonathan in microcosm: brilliant, professional, funny, and selflessly letting the script do the talking without the performer getting in the way. Speaking as a director, it’s a beautifully poised kind of acting one seldom encounters today; totally unselfish, yet absolutely in control. And talking to Jonathan afterwards, he made absolutely nothing of his wonderful gift, speaking, once again, without a scintilla of false modesty. The anecdotes flowed, for he was not just a garrulous raconteur, but a mine of information on theatrical history, particularly that of the music hall, such that he was called on to pen book reviews for the Spectator and the Times Literary Supplement.

He truly had many strings to his bow, and the tendency of casting directors to immediately think of him when they needed a toff or a dotty cleric unfairly limited his versatility. It’s true that Eton, Oxford and having the noted scholar and critic Lord David Cecil as his father wasn’t going to win him many auditions for kitchen-sink dramas, but it’s often forgotten that Jonathan made memorable contributions to a wide variety of films, his CV including Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon (1975), Mel Brooks's History of the World: Part One (1981), Federico Fellini's And the Ship Sails On (1983) and Christine Edzard's Little Dorrit (1988). He also starred opposite Peter Ustinov's Hercule Poirot in three television dramas, as Hastings, the Belgian detective's baffled sidekick. On the West End stage, he played everything from Shakespeare and Thomas Middleton to Chekhov and Peter Barnes, and was in regular employment for the best part of half a century. He also wrote and acted in a one-man show based on the life and work of his hero, the novelist, essayist and parodist Max Beerbohm, author of Zuleika Dobson, whose biography his father had written.

But my abiding image remains Jonathan regularly sweeping into our local pub in Hammersmith, resplendent in long coat and fedora, accompanied by his wife (fellow actor Anna Sharkey), more than ready for an evening’s conviviality. It was never a showy entrance, but somehow you were always aware it was happening; and it seemed that whichever corner of the bar they ended up in, that was the source of all the bustle and the laughter.

Jonathan is survived by Anna and his siblings, Hugh and Laura.