One of Australia’s great regal actors, who had an accidental hit in 1980, has died at the age of 88.
Keith Michell was born in Adelaide in 1926. He became an art teacher and made his first live appearance on stage in Bill Daily’s comedy Lover’s Leap in 1947.
After working for the ABC radio network in Adelaide moved to London and became a member of the Old Vic Theatre School. He made his London stage debut in 1951 and had roles in Man of La Mancha and Don Quixote. He was recruited by Laurence Olivier to play Don John, the lead character in John Fletcher’s The Chances, in its first production at the new Chichester theatre, in 1962, and also for John Ford’s The Broken Heart, in which he played Ithocles.
In 1958 he worked on the stage musical Irma La Douce, which took him to the National theatre, Washington, and then onto Broadway. He also turned his hand to television and one of his early works was playing Henry Higgins in Shaw’s Pygmalion in 1956 and Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights six years later.
In 1971 he recorded the song I’ll Give You The Earth (Tous Les Bateaux, Tous Les Oiseaux). He signed to the small Spark label and took the song to number30 in the UK chart.
In 1972 he appeared in, and is best remembered for, his portrayal of Henry VIII in the BBC television series The Six Wives of Henry VIII which was split into six episodes, one for each wife.
In 1977, Jeremy Lloyd wrote some poetry about the tales of Captain Beaky and his band which was set to music by Jim Parker and each track was recited by a different actor or actress. Some of the tracks included Harold the Frog by Harry Secombe, The Haggis Season by Peter Sellers and Dennis the Dormouse by Twiggy and then volume II included Fred and Marguerite by Petula Clark, Helen the Hippo by Penelope Keith and Mandy the Mouse by Noel Edmonds. The first track on volume I was Captain Beaky by Keith Michell and Tony Blackburn had played it first on Radio 1’s Junior Choice programme. Noel, whose show followed Tony’s on Saturday and Sunday mornings, heard it and decided to play it on his show and the phone lines went mad calling for it to be released, the result was a number five hit in January 1980 where it was coupled with Wilfred the Weasel, a track from volume II. Incidentally, Captain Beaky’s band comprised of Timid Toad, Reckless Rat, Artful Owl and Batty Bat.
In 1996, he once again played Henry VIII this time in the television film, The Prince and the Pauper. He was 70 at the time and, according to The Guardian, was relieved to discover that the costumes for the rotund king weighed only a fraction of the 20 stone of those he had needed 20 years previously.
Keith had been married to his wife Jeanette since 1957 and had a son Paul and a daughter Helena. Keith died at him home in Hampstead, north London on Friday 20th November.