Born: August 10, 1932;

Died: April 14, 2023

Murray Melvin, who has died aged 90, was an actor of elegance, sensitivity and sophistication whose appearance in Shelagh Delaney’s play A Taste of Honey (1958) became a key marker of British society’s post Second World War mores. Delaney’s taboo-busting play was produced by Joan Littlewood and Gerry Raffles’ trailblazing Theatre Workshop company at Theatre Royal, Stratford East, and touched on issues of teenage pregnancy, race and homosexuality in working class Salford.

The latter came through Melvin’s character, Geoffrey, the effete art student friend and surrogate mother of Jo, played in Tony Richardson’s film of the play by Rita Tushingham. At a time when homosexuality was illegal, for an actor to play such a role as Geoffrey made a bold statement.

Melvin was cast on the back of a conversation with Littlewood after the first read through of an early draft of the play. Melvin was making tea in the kitchen as part of his job as assistant stage manager. When Littlewood asked him what he thought of “the boy” in the play, Melvin told her how he drove him mad, and suggested he needed to be less of a wimp.

Littlewood had already decided to cast Melvin in what would become his first role, which he played with a mix of stubbornness and sensitivity. For Richardson’s film version (1961), Melvin received the Cannes Film Festival’s Best Actor award.

Melvin went on to become a Theatre Workshop stalwart, appearing in Littlewood’s productions of Brendan Behan’s play, The Hostage (1958), Sparrers Can’t Sing (1960) and the company devised Oh, What A Lovely War! (1963).

He went on to work on film with other directorial mavericks. He appeared in Lewis Gilbert’s big screen adaptation of Bill Naughton’s novel, Alfie (1966), and reunited with Tushingham and fellow A Taste of Honey co-star Paul Danquar in swinging London musical, Smashing Time (1967).

On television, he played a photographer in Ken Russell’s film, Isadora (1966), about American dancer Isadora Duncan. In 1960, Russell had made a short documentary about Shelagh Delaney. Melvin went on to work with Russell in several other films. He played Father Mignon in The Devils (1971), one of a spate of clergymen he would take on; did an epic solo tap dance routine while dressed as a French officer in The Boy Friend (1971); played composer Hector Berlioz in Lisztomania (1975); and was a French lawyer in Prisoner of Honour (1991).

With Stanley Kubrick, Melvin appeared in Barry Lyndon (1975), experiencing Kubrick’s obsessive perfectionism first hand by way being made to do a marathon 57 takes of a major speech before being allowed to take a break. On Melvin’s return to the set, it took another 20 takes before Kubrick was happy.

On stage, in the 1990s and early noughties, Melvin became something of a semi regular at the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, usually appearing in lavishly designed productions of European classic plays directed by Philip Prowse. These included Prowse’s Edinburgh International Festival production of Robert David MacDonald’s translation of Schiller’s Don Carlos (1995); another MacDonald Schiller translation, The Robbers (1998); John Vanbrugh’s Restoration romp, The Relapse (1998) and Jean Racine’s Britannicus (2002).

As with his work at Theatre Workshop, Melvin regarded the Citizens as family. “Having been brought up with a company that was family, you don’t often get that anymore,” he told The Herald in a 2002 interview prior to Britannicus. “The Citz is family in the same way as Joan was family. She was our mum and we were her children.”

Littlewood’s influence remained with Melvin throughout his life. He became the Theatre Royal’s archivist and led the campaign for a statue of Littlewood being commissioned to sit outside her former stomping ground.

When Melvin spoke with The Herald, Littlewood had died unexpectedly a couple of weeks earlier. “Why is it,” he asked during the interview, “in this country we only ever celebrate greatness after the great have left us?”

Murray Melvin was born in St Pancras, London, to Maisie (nee Driscoll) and Hugh Melvin, an RAF officer. At school in north London he became head prefect, an honour he put down to having clean fingernails and well-combed hair. He retained a dapper demeanour throughout his life. Unable to grasp fractions, however, Melvin left school aged 14, and became an office boy with a travel agent, then a clerk in a shipping office, before being sacked for sending goods to the wrong places.

Melvin fell in love with the stage at a youth club founded by his parents in Hampstead. After two miserable years doing National Service with the RAF, he returned to office life, this time with the Air Ministry’s sports board. This was another world in which he had no interest.

Melvin found salvation doing evening classes at the City Literary Institute in drama, mime and ballet. He first encountered Theatre Workshop when a drama teacher from his parents’ youth club took him to see Harry H Corbett in Richard II. After three years of night classes he secured a grant for a year, and he went knocking on Littlewood’s door offering his services. Having watched Melvin impersonate his surly boss at the Air Ministry, Littlewood and Raffles took him on, and within a year his life was changed forever.

Outside of acting, Melvin was a founding member of the Actors’ Centre, becoming its chair, and starting a centre in Manchester in honour of Littlewood. As a director, he oversaw two operas by Peter Maxwell Davies, and a series of pantomimes by former Goodie Graeme Garden. In 1991, he joined the board of the Theatre Royal, a post he held for 20 years. A year after he joined, he became the theatre’s archivist, and penned two books; The Art of Theatre Workshop (2006), and The Theatre Royal, A History of the Building (2009).

In 2009, he became a member of the Theatre Workshop Trust, and received honorary degrees from De Montford University, Leicester (2013), and the University of Essex (2015), and an honorary fellowship from Rose Bruford College (2016).

It was fitting recognition for a lifelong adventure that began with A Taste of Honey. “You didn’t realise you were part of history,” Melvin told The Herald. “It was just another play. But what a play.”

Neil Cooper