If I’d started writing something of this ilk ten years ago, I don’t think Pickup would have been included, but society at large seems able to recognise even our finest thespians with increasing infrequency these days. Despite not being huge theatregoers, my Mum and Grandad would both have been able to identify the likes of Victor Maddern, Cyril Shaps or Michael Bryant without pause. Nowadays our papers and screens seem to have less interest in fine character actors than reality stars, so I am choosing (for this edition of this semi-regular blog) to profile someone whose stature is such that his name is as well-known as his face, but to an increasingly smaller circle of people. This is no disrespect to him, but every disrespect to the coverage of arts and popular culture in this country. Pickup is one of the most respected actors of his generation, with a string of huge stage credits to his name (latterly playing Lucky to the Vladimir and Estragon of Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart). He first made a splash working his way up at the National Theatre in the late 1960s, including playing Rosalind in As You Like It. There’s an old fashioned poise and delicacy about Pickup – he is one of those actors whose merest flicker can suggest a chasm of suppressed emotion. He’s proved adaptable as well, mixing classical theatre, popular television and sitcom with equal skill. A quite brilliant actor: leading man and character player, always lending class to anything he graces with his talent.
Five Pickup performances worth chasing down (a purely personal and not remotely definitive selection):
Prince Yakimov in Fortunes Of War:
Prince Yaki informs mighty character actors Vernon Dobtcheff and James Villiers that they'll have to wait their turn to be featured in I Know The Face But ...
Quite simply one of the greatest television performances I have ever seen. Yaki is at turns dishonest, snivelling, thoughtless and conniving, and yet he remains entirely loveable throughout Alan Plater’s adaptation of Olivia Manning’s Fortunes Of War (custom should dictate I mention the director James Cellan-Jones at this juncture as well, as his work is sublime). It may have given us an early sight of Branagh and Thompson in action, but the performance you remember is Pickup’s. Yaki has a dishevelled charm, an unkempt dignity and an ill-fitting English-toffness that betrays a man who has adopted the mores of the gentry with slightly more affectation than he should (he is a Russian émigré you see, who has learned his Britishisms by rote – slightly too well). This makes the character’s eccentricity genuine and amusing but offbeat and original. It’s a charming, delightful and rather moving performance, and I urge everyone who thinks they are a good actor to watch it, and then think again.
George Orwell in The Crystal Spirit – Orwell On Jura (not online or commercially available I’m afraid). When it was aired in 1985 this created a huge impression upon me. The sight of the consumptive Orwell on a landscape as bleak as both his prospects of a long life and his postulation of the future, is indelible. Alan Plater’s (again) piece vividly draws a picture of a creative talent both blighted and driven by illness, and showed that great masterpieces are wrought at a cost to their creators. Pickup, as ever, fizzes with intelligence and insight, whilst an innate decency washing through him at all times. He shows the human Orwell though: this is no tortured artist cliché, but a story of a man and the dignity of a great mind expressing its creativity to the very end. Orwell was difficult and ill but loved by his loyal friends and family, and in Pickup’s portrayal you can see why.
Fraser in The Worst Week Of My Life. One of our finest classical thesps being brilliant in a sitcom just emphasises how impossible it is to be pigeon-holed when you’re a proper actor. The Worst Week Of My Life is a rare thing: a brilliant television farce. If Geoffrey Whitehead’s terse father-in-law threatens to steal the show with a look, Pickup is on hand as the self-denying Uncle Frazer. He’s a tough, outdoors type, full of military stories and who definitely isn’t gay. And woe betide anyone suggests otherwise. He gets a consort in the shape of the fantastic Terence Hardiman in series two, and the character and situations get even funnier.
The Forger in Day Of The Jackal. It’s all too easy to forget that this veteran of the profession has been gainfully employed, consistently, for about forty years. He doesn’t just do Britishness and nobility, as this early turn as a slimy forger trying to outsmart Edward Fox shows. Pickup has excelled as real people (Orwell, yes, as well as Verdi and Einstein), and brings genuine class to aristocratic roles, but fine actors treat kings and paupers alike, and Pickup can create characters from scratch who are a million miles away from his actual personality.
The Physician in Doctor Who: The Reign Of Terror (the link is to a reconstruction, Pickup appears at 9 mins 31 seconds and it is his TV debut). I mention this only because it is an insignificant role in one episode of a not very well known Doctor Who story, and the episode he’s in doesn’t even exist anymore. Despite that, I suspect he gets more letters about it that he does about everything else he’s ever done put together. I don’t know if that makes me pleased that I’m a Doctor Who fan or ashamed, but I hope it doesn’t annoy the venerable Mr Pickup.
(Addendum: since I wrote this, I have met Mr Pickup and asked him about much of his work, and he was only too happy to talk about it all, including Doctor Who. The latter was his first job: he got it the week he graduated from drama school, and is therefore very grateful to it. What a gent).
Fell free to suggest other faces you’d like to get to know the names of.