Albert John Moffatt, 24 September 1922 – 10 September 2012

Michael Coveney wrote for The Guardian of 16 Sep 2012:

“Although perhaps best known as Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie’s moustache-twirling detective, on BBC radio, John Moffatt, who has died aged 89, was a devastatingly clinical and classical stage actor of irreproachable taste and valour. He seemed something of a throwback, but there are very few today who could rival his armour-plated technique, his almost uncanny empathy with comic style ranging from the Restoration to Rattigan – his trademark stillness and decorum on stage was at odds with false notions of flounce and frilliness – or his incisive articulation.

He was a beacon in his profession, greatly admired and loved, not least because he had worked with almost everyone of note in the business, from his idols Noël Coward and John Gielgud, to his best friends Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Alec McCowen and Joan Plowright, but chiefly because he was so funny and modest about his own contribution.

In his early rep days at the Oxford Playhouse, he played the schoolteacher Kulygin in Chekhov’s Three Sisters, a man who shaves off his moustache between the third and fourth acts. One night, he forgot to do so, and saw Dench turning beetroot in anticipation of her line, “You’ve shaved off your moustache.” He did a quick twirl to look at the trees and whipped off the offending lip hair just in time. Dench denies this. “You’ve shaved off your moustache,” she claims she said, followed by, “and grown it back…” (Moffatt twirls and rips off the tache) “… and shaved it off again!”

There was similar merry onstage mayhem at the Old Vic in 1959 when Moffatt, Dench, McCowen, Smith, Moyra Fraser and Joss Ackland formed an unshakeable alliance in productions of As You Like It and The Merry Wives of Windsor; they continued their friendship with a weekly ritual of Sunday lunches for many years.

Moffatt was born in Badby, Northamptonshire, the elder son of royal household workers, Ernest Moffatt and his wife, Letitia. John never spoke about it – and he kept a diary all his life – but his parents were employed first at Queen Alexandra’s Marlborough House (Ernest as a wine waiter, Letitia as a housemaid) and later at Sandringham.

The family lived in Mortlake, south-west London. Moffatt attended East Sheen county school and took drama lessons at Toynbee Hall in the East End while working as a bank clerk in the City. He was excused a call-up in the second world war by virtue of his children’s theatre work, and he made his professional debut at the Perth Rep in 1945, forging a friendship there with McCowen, with whom he appeared in five plays. They shared a lifelong enthusiasm for the comedians Max Miller, Max Wall and Jack Benny, and their favourite show was the 1979 Broadway revue Sugar Babies starring Mickey Rooney and Ann Miller. These predilections fit with the effortless sense of style and comic finesse Moffatt exuded in every role.

Five years in rep at Perth, Oxford, Windsor and Bristol were followed by a London debut in 1950 at the Lyric, Hammersmith, in Molière’s Tartuffe, and a stint in revue at the Watergate. He played minor roles in a Gielgud Shakespeare season at the Phoenix in 1951, and the foreign secretary in Shaw’s The Apple Cart, with Coward, at the Haymarket; he actually uttered the line, when Coward’s character threatened abdication: “You can’t upset the apple cart like this.”

His breakthrough came in 1956 at the Royal Court, where he appeared in Brecht’s The Good Woman of Setzuan with Peggy Ashcroft and in Nigel Dennis’s Cards of Identity with Plowright, John Osborne, Robert Stephens and Alan Bates. He then helped repair a box-office deficit in Wycherley’s The Country Wife, which transferred from the Court to the Adelphi; he played Sparkish, said Kenneth Tynan, “in a complacent ecstasy that never brims over into silliness”.

After his New York debut with The Country Wife, he joined that last hurrah at the Old Vic in 1959. Ten years later, with the National Theatre company, he was a definitive Fainall in Congreve’s The Way of the World, a svelte and deadly cardinal in Webster’s The White Devil and a serpentine Judge Brack in Hedda Gabler, with Smith, directed by Ingmar Bergman.

Switching tack yet again, he was the anchor of a marvellous Coward show in 1972 at the Mermaid, Cowardy Custard, devised by Gerard Frow, Alan Strachan and Wendy Toye (who also directed). At the Theatre Royal, York, in 1974, he was Widow Twankey in Aladdin; during his career he wrote, and appeared in, half a dozen traditional panto scripts.

His last decade or so on the London stage included Ben Travers’s The Bed Before Yesterday (1975), playing a meek, insufficient husband to a suddenly rampaging Plowright; a lovely, acidulous theatre producer in The Play’s the Thing (Ferenc Molnár via PG Wodehouse) at Greenwich in 1979; and another foreign office official in Ronald Harwood’s Interpreters (1985), in which he umpired a tryst between Smith and Edward Fox.

His last significant West End appearance was in 1984 as Witwoud, making a purse out of a sow’s ear, in William Gaskill’s great Chichester festival production – with Smith and Plowright – of The Way of the World. Michael Billington commended a dazzling piece of high camp eager to conceal provincial origins. “Moffatty Woffatty,” Smith called him, affectionately, sotto voce, as they entered the stage together, swotting imaginary midges, a private ritual.

He bowed out at the Wyndham’s in 1988 as George Bernard Shaw in Peter Luke’s Married Love, a tedious and sententious biography of Marie Stopes (directed by Plowright) but he rallied with a verse compilation a few years later, Fond and Familiar, performed with Dench and her husband, Michael Williams. After Williams’s death, Dench and Moffatt performed the piece with Geoffrey Palmer.

Moffatt is survived by his sister, Marjorie.”

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