12th September 1927 – 9th July 2019
Some actors – no names – change moods with the verve and ease of a Morris Marina 1.8 TC struggling into third gear but others such as Freddie Jones are quicksilver in their abilities. In 1967 he appeared in the Who’s Who??? episode of The Avengers in which the bodies of our heroes are swapped with those of the enemy agents “Basil” and “Lola” (Patricia Haines). Jones seamlessly transforms the seedy quasi-military confidence trickster into John Steed by the timbre of the voice, his posture and the line delivery of ‘What sort of fiend are we dealing with? A man who would bite the end off a cigar is capable of anything!’ are now archetypal John Steed.
In 1965, The Stage noted that Jones was ‘a splendid actor for registering bottled-up emotions about to blow the cork at any minute’ and it comes as little surprise to learn that he played Stanley in a Pinter-directed revival of The Birthday Party. Jones’s Humpty Dumpty in the BBC’s 1973 adaptation of Alice Through the Looking-Glass was delightfully of the Robert Morley School of Pomposity, but perhaps one of the greatest facets of his talent was in his underplaying. That gentle well-modulated voice, with nary a trace of his original Potteries accent, could infer depthless pain and his gaze could be other-worldly, distracted or haunted by visions of past terrors.
It was the 1968 Granada television series The Caesars that brought Frederick Charles Jones to public attention, and the highest compliment that one can pay to his Claudius is that not once does the tall, slightly shambling figure remind you of Derek Jacobi. When the drama first aired on the 22nd September, Freddie Jones was aged 41 and had been a professional actor for only a decade. He entered the profession after spending ten years as a laboratory assistant in Tamworth and after graduating from Rose Buford College, Jones initially concentrated on stage work. By the late 1960s, his name was as welcome on the supporting cast list of a film or television programme as those of Ivor Dean or Timothy Bateson.
Otley (Dick Clement 1969) is a prime example of how Jones could dominate a scene, even if his appearance was comparatively limited and the cast already packed the gunnels with the finest character actors known to Equity. Throughout this very engaging farewell to Swinging London, Tom Courtney’s hapless “Gerald Arthur Otley” is variously assisted and hindered by Alan Badel, Geoffrey Blaydon, James Cossins, Robert Gillespie, Phyllida Law and Leonard Rossiter. Not to mention Jones’s very sinister “Philip Proudfoot”. The actor was equally well cast as the prison inmate “MacNeil” in Sitting Target (Douglas Hickox 1972) and the comedy relief physiatrist in The Man Who Haunted Himself (Basil Dearden 1970) – officially the Greatest Film to Star Roger Moore.
The last-named performance (complete with a truly outrageous “Scottish” accent”) is a fine demonstration of how, as some critics observed; there was more than a touch of the barnstormer with Jones, should the script demand it. Many readers will recall his “Sir George Uproar” in The Ghosts of Motley Hall (Granada 1976 – 1978) and “Mr. ‘Pop Eye’ Scruton” in The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole (Thames 1985 – 1987). There was a certain inevitability that Jones would appear in Children of The Stones, HTV’s splendid 1977 series best described as a Wicker Man for younger viewers. Indeed, it is a pity that Emmerdale, in which Jones appeared as “Sandy Thomas” between 2005 and 2018, did not borrow any tropes from the two previously mentioned productions. Extras worshipping turnip-shaped effigies outside of The Woolpack would have been far more entertaining than the standard plots. Happy Day…
Jones regarded the role of the journalist “Orlando” who serves as the narrator of And the Ship Sailed On (Federico Fellini 1983) and of his many other screen appearances, I have chosen just five as tributes to a sublime talent. Juggernaut (Richard Lester 1974) is a film of many riches, from Roy Kinnear at his finest to Jones’s bomb-maker. “Sidney Buckland” knows that he has sold his soul and nothing the authorities can threaten will equate with the visions plaguing in his mind. Six years later, “Bytes” is as suffused with contempt for his audiences as he is for The Elephant Man (David Lynch 1980) – but it is the ringmaster who forces Dr. Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) to contemplate where he too is exploiting John Merrick.
With Pennies from Heaven (BBC 1978), Jones’s headmaster of a village school is desperate to literally beat education into his students in the hope of saving at least a few of them from a life in the mines. Now Eileen (Cheryl Campbell), the staff member in whom he invested such hope, is leaving under the saddest of circumstances, leaving her former mentor completely devastated. In Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (Terence Fisher 1969), Freddie Jones gives a performance to be ranked alongside that of Boris Karloff. It is a film suffused with evil, one where even the comic relief of Thorley Walters is an utterly hateful oaf. There can be few greater moments in a Hammer film than when Jones’s Richter speaks to his wife (Maxine Audley), hidden from behind a screen; to quote Robert Murphy’s book Sixties British Cinema, ‘a sad-eyed, wholly human monster’.
Finally, we return to Who’s Who???, with a performance that reminds this scribe of an anecdote concerning Dame Edith Evans. On one occasion she informed an audience ‘The part I am about to play is Millamant, who is very young and very pretty. I am neither of those things’. Then, in the words of Frank Muir ‘, she began the scene, and Edith Evans became before our eyes both of those things’. Such power was gifted to only the greatest of character players – including, naturally, Freddie Jones.
Film Historian Andrew Roberts MA PhD FRSA