Actor known for Colditz and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Born: October 19, 1925;

Died: July 27, 2018

BERNARD Hepton, who has died aged 92, seemed ubiquitous on British television in the 1970s, lending his perpetually worried features to a series of memorable characters in prestigious dramas, from archbishop Thomas Cranmer in The Six Wives of Henry VIII and Elizabeth R at the start of the 1970s to the urbane, but nervous spymaster Toby Esterhase in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy at the end of the decade.

Hepton was rarely the principal star - playing second fiddle to award-winning performances by Glenda Jackson in Elizabeth R, Derek Jacobi in I, Claudius and Alec Guinness in Tinker, Tailor, though Hepton was nominated for a Bafta as Best Actor for his performance as the commandant in the POW drama Colditz (1972-74). And he always enriched a drama with his presence.

It is perhaps a little ironic that two of his comparatively rare starring roles came in sitcoms when he revealed a nice sense of comic timing. In one episode of the fondly remembered comedy The Squirrels (1974-77) he fawns over the man he believes to be his new managing director and is extremely rude to a second man who he thinks is looking for a job.

Having ordered the second man out of his office, Hepton’s face is a joy to watch as his hilarity turns to despair when the first man, who he has provided with whisky and a cigar, reveals he is not in fact the managing director, but rather the company’s new cleaner.

The son of an electrician, he was born Francis Bernard Heptonstall in Bradford in 1925. He was old enough to have been called up during the Second World War, but poor eyesight exempted him from military service. He served as a fire-watcher in Bradford and then trained as an aircraft engineer.

It was during his time as a fire-watcher that Hepton first became interested in theatre. “It was very boring and the lady in charge of us all decided to bring some little one act plays in,” he said in an interview for the British Library Theatre Archive Project in 2006.

“I didn’t even know what a play was. I had been to the theatre once, and that was when I was very tiny, to see a pantomime. And we started reading these plays, and as we read them, so doors began to open for me and a sort of magic land was there behind the doors, and I became fascinated by it, absolutely fascinated.”

Hepton went to drama school in Bradford and spent several years with repertory companies in York and Birmingham, as an actor and latterly director. He developed a solid reputation as a fight director and was recruited by the Old Vic to arrange fight scenes with a young Richard Burton in Hamlet in 1953.

He had a brief, unhappy stint as director of Liverpool Playhouse, before joining BBC 2 as a producer and occasional director when it began in 1964.

Within a few years his focus had switched to acting, this time on television. He was Wemmick in the BBC’s 1967 adaptation of Great Expectations and the Reverend Mr Farebrother, the cardsharp vicar, in Middlemarch the following year.

A string of supporting roles made Hepton a very familiar face on British screens in a very short time and the role of Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was to prove a particular landmark in his career. He played Cranmer in The Six Wives of Henry VIII in 1970 and again in Elizabeth R in 1971.

He and Keith Michell, who played Henry, reprised their roles once more in a film version of Henry’s story, Henry VIII and his Six Wives, in 1972, though other characters were recast with starrier names.

This was the start of a golden period that included 23 episodes as the commandant in Colditz, the sitcom Sadie, It’s Cold Outside (1974-75), the role of Pallas in I, Claudius (1976) and the café owner and Belgian Resistance operative Albert Foiret in 43 episodes of Secret Army (1977-79), which got a bit silly and inspired ‘Allo, ‘Allo (1982-92), which was only slightly sillier.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1979) was not at all silly, but deadly earnest and quite chilling in its story of George Smiley (Guinness), a spy who is brought in from the cold to track down a mole. Hepton was Toby Esterhase, “Poor Man”, a Hungarian-born anglophile and one of the small group of at the top of “the circus” who are under suspicion.

The success of Tinker, Tailor owed much to Guinness, but also to the ensemble of excellent character actors around him. Esterhase was not the mole, enabling Hepton to dust off the character again in Smiley’s People (1982), when his accent appeared to have become much more East European.

While the 1970s marked the highpoint of Hepton’s career, he continued appearing in prestigious drama series, playing Inspector Goole in An Inspector Calls, a 1982 BBC adaptation of the play by JB Priestley, who, according to Hepton, was born and grew up on the same Bradford street as he did, many years earlier.

Hepton also appeared in BBC adaptations of Mansfield Park (1983) and Bleak House (1985), playing Krook, the rag merchant who is victim of a famous literary case of spontaneous combustion. Other later work includes The Woman in Black (1989), The Old Devils (1992) and Emma (1996), one of his last credits. He was twice married and twice widowed and did not have children.