Edward Petherbridge is probably best known now as the definitive Lord Peter Wimsey in the BBC adaptations of the late eighties, opposite Harriet Walter as Harriet Vane. He brought a wounded sensitivity to the part, presenting a more complex figure than his predecessor Ian Carmichael, who remained largely in Bertie Wooster mode. Any casual viewer of those programmes now can see what an accomplished actor he was — and indeed still is — but might not be aware of his considerable background in the theatre, where his distinguished career over forty-odd years has taken in everything from Shakespeare to Stoppard (he was the first Guildenstern) and beyond. My favourite Petherbridge moment was his Faulkland in Peter Wood’s National Theatre production of The Rivals in the early eighties, with an absolutely world-class cast: Michael Hordern, Tim Curry, Geraldine McEwan, Patrick Ryecart, Fiona Shaw… Petherbridge was perfect as the endlessly prevaricating Faulkland, showing real comic timing and exquisite judgement. This production was one of the highlights of my theatre-going experience, and the starting point for my interest in Edward Petherbridge’s career.
His theatrical output may have diminished in recent years, though he still tours, most notably in his one man show A Perfect Mind, which is based on his own experience as the victim of a stroke. Rather unusually for an actor of his generation, he took to the internet enthusiastically, maintaining a website which chronicled his activities, and often featured his poems and paintings. The poems are impressive: traditional, formal, but sensitive and inventive. The paintings are attractively naive, showing a fair degree of talent – good enough to be exhibited at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition at any rate. More recently, he has begun to produce little documentary films, and the most recent of these is a very interesting two-parter on Bloomsbury and its artistic inhabitants: Rooms of One’s Own. His oblique, personal approach is a welcome antidote to the normal lit-crit style accounts. There are some lovely little vignettes and anecdotes of theatrical life and the lives of the Bloomsberries, the Camden Town group, and others who passed through these London squares in the first half of the last century, such as Wyndham Lewis, also a particular interest of mine.
The films are well worth a look: intelligent, unhurried, informative and, of course, beautifully narrated in that distinctive voice. The website, Peth’s Staging Post, is a model of how to present yourself professionally and personally on the net. He is one of our finest actors, of a generation that is sadly shrinking year by year. Long may he continue to delight us.