Murray Melvin

Murray Melvin

Melvin sitting outside the Sarah Bernhardt Theatre, Paris (2014)
Born (1932-08-10) 10 August 1932[1]
Hampstead, London, England
Occupation Actor
Years active 1959–present
Parent(s) Hugh Victor Melvin
Maisie Winifred Driscoll

Murray Melvin (born 10 August 1932) is an English stage and film actor noted for his work with Joan Littlewood, Ken Russell and Stanley Kubrick. He is the author of two books: The Art of Theatre Workshop (2006) and The Theatre Royal, A History of the Building (2009).

Early years

Melvin was born in London. The son of Hugh Victor Melvin and Maisie Winifred Driscoll, Melvin left his north London secondary school at the age of fourteen unable to master fractions but as head prefect, a qualification he says he gained by always having clean fingernails and well combed hair.

He started work as an office boy for a firm of travel agents off Oxford Street.

To help channel the energies of the young after the disturbing times of the war, his parents had helped to found a youth club in Hampstead, financed by the Co-operative Society of which they were longstanding members. A drama section formed with Melvin its most enthusiastic member.

A short lived job followed as an import and export clerk in a shipping office. He inadvertently exported quantities of goods to destinations that had not ordered them, followed by two unhappy years of National Service in the Royal Air Force (his father had served in the RAF during the Second World War).

He was employed as clerk and secretary to the director of the Royal Air Force sports board at the Air Ministry, then in Kingsway. Knowing nothing about sport, he considered his clean fingernails, well combed hair and his father's service had done the trick.

At the Theatre Workshop

He attended evening classes at the nearby City Literary Institute and studied drama, mime and classical Ballet. During an extended lunch break from the Ministry, he applied to Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop company at the Theatre Royal Stratford East and auditioned on stage singing and dancing for Joan Littlewood and Gerry Raffles. On being asked to create a character he knew from life he impersonated a rather rotund director of the sports board. Having ascertained that he had to return that afternoon to work for this character Joan Littlewood said to Gerry Raffles: "the poor little bugger, we must get him away from there" - which they did.

In October 1957 he became an assistant stage manager, theatre painter and general dogsbody to John Bury, the theatre designer, and he went on stage in his first professional role as the Queen's Messenger in the then in rehearsal production of Macbeth. From the Scottish Court to a building site his next performance was as a bricklayer in You Won't Always Be On Top, soon followed by a peasant in And the Wind Blew, Bellie in Pirandello's Man Beast and Virtue, Calisto in De Rojas's Celestina; Young Jodi Maynard in Paul Green's Unto Such Glory (all 1957) and then came the last play of the 1957-58 season which was to be the start of an extraordinary year in the history of theatre workshop and Melvin's career. He was cast as Geoffrey in Shelagh Delaney's play, A Taste of Honey. After the summer break in 1958, he played the title role in the seminal production of Brendan Behan's The Hostage. Both scripts had been transformed in rehearsals by Joan Littlewood's painstaking and inspired methods of getting to the truth of the text and building a lively poetic and dangerous theatrical event. Though both plays were to blow a refreshing wind through the British theatre, neither play transferred to the West End immediately, so Melvin stayed on to play Scrooge's nephew in Joan Littlewood's adaptation of A Christmas Carol (1958).

In February 1959, A Taste of Honey opened at the Wyndham's Theatre and transferred to the Criterion some six months later. It was the hit of the season. Melvin went on to play his role of Geoffrey in the film of A Taste of Honey, directed by Tony Richardson, for which he won the Prix de Cannes as best actor at the festival in 1962. He was also nominated for the BAFTA "Most Promising Newcomer" award.

In April 1960, William Saroyan, on a world tour, stopped off in London where he wrote and directed a play for the workshop in which he cast Melvin as the leading character called Sam, the Highest Jumper of Them All. Then the workshop paid their annual visit to the Sarah Bernhardt Theatre for the Paris World Theatre Season with Ben Johnson's Everyman in his Humour in which he played Brainworm. Rehearsals then started for Stephen Lewis's Sparrers Can't Sing in which Melvin played the role of Knocker Jugg. The following year he transferred to the role Georgie Brimsdown for the film adaptation of the play. The film, her first, was directed by Joan Littlewood.

After a break of nearly two years the company came together to create the musical, Oh, What a Lovely War! After its initial run at Stratford it went to the Paris Festival and won it. The company returned to the Wyndham's Theatre where the play won the Evening Standard Best Musical Award. Between the end of its London run and the opening at the Broadhurst Theatre in New York, the company visited the Edinburgh Festival with Shakespeare's Henry IV parts 1 and 2, in which Melvin metamorphosed as Gadshill, Shallow, Vernon and the Earl of March.

The production of Oh, What a Lovely War! in New York in 1964 was his last for Joan Littlewood and the Theatre Workshop Company.

The production attracted the interest of filmmakers, including Ken Russell and Lewis Gilbert. Melvin became a member of what has often been called the Ken Russell Repertory Company, appearing in many of Russell's most celebrated films, including The Devils and The Boy Friend. Lewis Gilbert cast Melvin in H.M.S. Defiant (1962), alongside Dirk Bogarde, and in Alfie, where he played Michael Caine's work friend, stealing petrol and taking photographs to sell to tourists.

The Ken Russell connection

The first Ken Russell film Melvin appeared in was Diary of a Nobody, filmed at the Ealing Studios on a specially built 'silent film' set. Alongside Melvin, who played the errant son, Lupin, were other actors from John Littlewood's Theatre Workshop, including Bryan Pringle and Brian Murphy, who also became Russell regulars. Lupin's girlfriend in the film is played by Vivian Pickles, whose performance at the Royal Court Theatre in John Osborne's Plays for England had attracted national attention.

Melvin was seen in a cameo in the final scenes of Ken Russell's film of Isadora Duncan (1966), which starred Vivian Pickles as the great American dancer.

Melvin's most famous role is Father Mignon in Ken Russell's The Devils (1971). Mignon is the catalyst to the true-life horrors documented in the film. His appointment to the convent of Loudon, whose leading members were expecting Father Grandier (played by Oliver Reed), causes the nun's demonic condemnation of Grandier to spiral out of control.

After the film, Melvin directed two works by The Devils composer, Peter Maxwell Davies: the theatre piece Miss Donnithorne's Maggot and the opera The Martyrdom of St Magnus. Further work with Davies followed. He was the speaker in a production of Davies's Missa super l'homme armé and he played the Virgin in the premiere production of Davies's Notre Dame des Fleurs.

In Russell's The Boy Friend (1971), Melvin and another Theatre Workshop regular, Brian Murphy, are among the company players trying to catch the eye of a Hollywood producer who watches their provincial performance of Sandy Wilson's The Boy Friend. In the film, Melvin has a spectacular solo dance number in a caped French officer's outfit.

He again had a cameo as Hector Berlioz in Ken Russell's Lisztomania, as a test-run to a film about Berlioz which Russell was preparing.

He appeared in Russell's film about the poet, Samuel Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1978).

Returning with the French theme, Melvin played an enthusiastic French lawyer in Prisoner of Honour (1991), Ken Russell's all-star film about the French Dreyfus Affair.

Melvin remained a lifelong friend of Ken Russell, and was often seen with Russell at festival screening of Russell's films. At the Barbican screening of the director's cut of The Devils, 1 May 2011, Melvin and Ken Russell arrived together, with Melvin pushing Ken Russell's wheelchair.[2]

Other film performances

He had an important role as Reverend Samuel Runt in Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon (1975). In the video project "Stanley and Us", Melvin talks about Kubrick's "57 takes (plus 20)".[3]

He appeared in the swinging sixties comedy Smashing Time (1967), which also featured Bruce Lacey and his robots. Ken Russell had made a film about Lacey called The Preservation Man (1962).

Melvin talks to actress Georgina Hale at the Young Vic Theatre 31 October 2007

He co starred with Russell regular Oliver Reed in Richard Fleischer's film of The Prince and the Pauper Crossed Swords (1977) and in Alberto Lattuada's four part television film Christopher Columbus (1985).

Peter Medak cast Melvin in five films: A Day in the Death of Joe Egg (1972), starring Alan Bates; Ghost in the Noonday Sun (1973, starring Peter Sellers); The Krays (1990); Let Him Have It (1991); and as Dr. Chilip in David Copperfield (2000).

He has featured in two films by Christine Edzard, Little Dorrit (1988), and As You Like It (1992).

In 2004 he appeared as Monsieur Reyer, the musical director and conductor of the Opera Populaire, in Joel Schumacher's film adaptation of the musical The Phantom of the Opera.

Television performances

He appeared in the very first episode of the cult television series The Avengers in 1960.

He played the Dauphin in Shaw's St. Joan, directed in 1966 by Waris Hussein. He played Bertold in a television production of Pirandello's Henry IV directed by Michael Hayes; Don Pietro in Peter Drummond's film of The Little World of Don Camillo; and The Hermit in Mai Zetterling's production of William Tell. He also appeared as the Barber in Rex Harrison's Don Quixote in the 1973 television film directed by Alvin Rakoff.

He starred in the The Tyrant King, the six-part children's television series directed in 1967 by Mike Hodges.

In 1994, Melvin supplied the voice of the villain Lucius on the British children's animated TV series Oscar's Orchestra for the BBC and France 3.

In 1998 he appeared in a Christmas Special episode of the BBC's Jonathan Creek called "The Black Canary".

In 2007 he appeared as the sinister Bilis Manger in the Doctor Who spinoff, Torchwood.

In July 2011 Melvin played the Professor in a short comedy/drama called The Grey Mile, a story about two ex master criminals who are now confined to a care home.

Other work

Melvin was a founder member of the Actors' Centre and was its chairman for four years during which time he started a centre in Manchester in honour of Joan Littlewood and the Theatre Workshop.

As a theatre director, he has worked across all genres including opera, recital, drama and comedy. He directed the first productions of three of Graeme Garden's perennially popular pantomimes.[4]

In 1991, thirty four years after first making the tea and sweeping the stage at the Theatre Royal, he was invited to become a member of the board of the theatre, a position he held until 2011. It is partly in this role that he is becoming widely known as a learned and popular theatre and film historian — he can be seen and heard, for example, on the BFI DVD release of the Bill Douglas Trilogy.

In 1992 he became the Theatre Royal's voluntary archivist and in 2009 he was appointed a member of the Theatre Workshop Trust. He led the successful campaign to erect a statue of Joan Littlewood in Theatre Square at Stratford.

On 18 July 2013, he was awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Arts by De Montfort University and in July 2015 he was awarded an honorary degree by the University of Essex.[5]

Several commercial available audio recordings have been made featuring Murray Melvin. These include four plays on LPs produced by Caedmon Records (Two Gentlemen of Verona (1965); A Midsummer's Night Dream; Bernard Shaw's St. Joan (1966); The Poetry of Kipling). His performance in Oh, What a Lovely War is available on Decca Records (1969).

In 2007, he narrated Tales of the Supernatural Volume 3 by M. R. James for Fantom Films. This was followed in 2009 by M.R. James - A Ghost Story for Christmas, and in 2011 and 2012 by two recordings of Wilkie Collins: Supernatural Stories, Volumes 2 & 3 and The Dark Shadows Legend :The Happier Dead.

Selected filmography

Selected theatre performances (as an actor)

Selected music theatre performances

Selected theatre and opera performances as a director

Selected television performances


  1. "Murray Melvin". British Film Institute. Retrieved 13 March 2013.
  2. "The Devils (18) + Introduction by director Ken Russell". Barbican. 1 May 2011. Retrieved 24 July 2014.
  3. The Stanley and Us Project (7 August 2011). "Murray Melvin. 57 takes!?". YouTube. Retrieved 24 July 2014.
  4. "Sleeping Beauty". Denis King Music. 2014. Retrieved 24 July 2014.
  5. "Honorary Graduate Murray Melvin". 17 July 2015. Retrieved 29 July 2015.


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