Robert Powell

For other people named Robert Powell, see Robert Powell (disambiguation).
Robert Powell

Robert Powell
Born (1944-06-01) 1 June 1944
Salford, England
Occupation actor
Years active 1966–present
Spouse(s) Barbara Lord (m. 1975)
  • Barney (b. 1977)
  • Kate (b. 1979)

Robert Powell (born 1 June 1944) is an English television and film actor, best known for the title role in Jesus of Nazareth (1977) and as the fictional secret agent Richard Hannay. He is also known for his roles as Mark Williams in BBC One medical drama, Holby City, as David Briggs in the sitcom The Detectives alongside Jasper Carrott, and as Tobias 'Toby' Wren in the "science-fact" drama Doomwatch.

His distinctive voice has become well known in advertisements and documentaries, especially in World War II documentaries including World War II in HD Colour, Hitler's Bodyguard, The Story of the Third Reich and Secrets of World War II.

Early life

Powell was born in Salford, Lancashire, the son of Kathleen (née Davis) and John Wilson Powell.[1] Powell was educated at Manchester Grammar School (where one of his classmates was the actor Ben Kingsley[2]), then a direct grant grammar school for boys in the city of Manchester in North West England, and later at the Royal College of Advanced Technology in Salford.


Powell took up acting while an undergraduate. He had aspired to become a lawyer and in 1963-64 attended an external London University LLB degree Course at the Manchester College of Commerce but at the same time quietly took acting roles under Trevor Nunn. At the College of Commerce he swapped roles with Bernard Brandon in a week-long College Revue of Comedy Sketches to see which role gave him "the best laughs". This early comedy experience was later to be fulfilled with Jasper Carrott. After this he secured a post at a repertory theatre in Stoke-on-Trent. His first film part was in Robbery when he played the engine driver who was coshed in the Stanley Baker film about the Great Train Robbery. He had a small role in the original film version of The Italian Job (1969) playing one of the gang, but had to wait a few years for his first success, playing scientist Toby Wren in the BBC's science fiction series, Doomwatch in 1970. Having been killed off in Doomwatch right at the end of Series One in a bomb explosion, at his request, Powell became a pin-up and a household name, following up with starring roles in several BBC serials, including television adaptations of the novels Sentimental Education (1970) and Jude the Obscure (1971). He also appeared in the 1975 series Looking for Clancy, based on the Frederic Mullally novel Clancy.

For several years Powell continued as a television regular, with occasional forays into film, as the Austrian composer Gustav Mahler in the Ken Russell biopic Mahler (1974) and Captain Walker in Russell's film version of Tommy (1975). His role in Tommy had few lines, speaking only during the overture with Ann-Margret, he is primarily seen through the mind of his son as played by Barry Winch (Young Tommy) and Roger Daltrey. In one of those scenes Captain Walker is shown in a crucifixion pose.

He then played Jesus Christ in Jesus of Nazareth (1977) following a successful second audition with Franco Zeffirelli. The four-part television film had an all-star cast, including Laurence Olivier, Ernest Borgnine and Stacey Keach, Christopher Plummer, Rod Steiger and James Mason. For this role, Powell was nominated for a BAFTA award, and collected the TVTimes Best Actor award for the same performance.

In 1975, Powell married his girlfriend, the Pan's People dancer Babs Lord, shortly before he was due to start filming for Jesus of Nazareth on location in Morocco. On 23 November 1977, they had their son, Barney, followed in 1979 by a daughter, Kate.

In 1978, Powell took the leading role of Richard Hannay in the third film version of The Thirty Nine Steps. It met with modest success, and critics compared Powell's portrayal of John Buchan's character favourably with his predecessors. His characterisation proved to be enduring, as almost ten years later a television series entitled simply Hannay appeared with Powell back in the role, (although the Buchan short stories on which the series was based were set in an earlier period than The Thirty-Nine Steps). Hannay ran for two seasons.

In 1980, Powell appeared in the film Harlequin playing the Harlequin of the title who seems to have the power to cure the son of a powerful politician. For this performance, he won the Best Actor Award at the Paris Film Festival. In 1982, he won Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival for his role in Imperativ.

Powell then agreed to a request from his old friend and golf partner, comedian Jasper Carrott, taking the part of an incompetent detective in a succession of sketches that formed part of Carrott's television series. The Detectives was so popular that it was turned into a sitcom, Powell's first and only venture into this genre.

In 1984, Powell made his U.S. film debut in What Waits Below (as known as Secrets of the Phantom Caverns).[3]

In 1986, Powell narrated and co-starred in William C. Faure's popular miniseries Shaka Zulu, with football legend Henry Cele in the title role. In 1992, he starred in the New Zealand First World War film Chunuk Bair, as Sgt Maj Frank Smith. In 1993-95, he was the voice actor of Dr Livesey in The Legends of Treasure Island.

Nowadays Powell appears in person less often, but his distinctive voice is frequently heard on voice-overs, advertisements and as a narrator of television programmes such as Great Crimes and Trials and The Century of Warfare and World War II in HD Colour. He read the novel Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez for BBC Radio 4's Book at Bedtime, and has also narrated many audio books including The Thirty Nine Steps, abridged versions of many of Alan Garner's books, and several abridged novels for 'The Talking Classics Collection'. Powell has also lent his voice to musical works, such as David Bedford's album The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,[4] or the 2002 rock opera The Hound of the Baskervilles, by Clive Nolan and Oliver Wakeman, where he played the role of John Watson. He also narrated on two rock albums by Rick Wakeman called Cost of Living and The Gospels (1987).

On 29 October 2001, a state-of-the-art theatre named after him was opened at the University of Salford.[5] He became a patron of 24:7 Theatre Festival in 2004, and continues to operate in this capacity as of 2014. In early 2005 he became a regular in the UK TV medical drama, Holby City, where he remained for six years before departing to return to theatre.[6] On 9 February 2008, he performed as narrator in Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf with the Huddersfield Philharmonic Orchestra with conductor Natalia Luis-Bassa in the North of England.[7] He currently has a regular spot narrating literary passages on BBC4's The Book Quiz .


Year Title Role Notes
2007 The Forgotten Children of Congo Narrator documentary
2006 B-Mail The Pink Professor voiceover, short animation
2004 The Alchemist of Happiness Al-Ghazali voiceover, documentary
1997 Pride of Africa David Webb
1995-1996 Fantomcat Fantomcat Voice, animation
1993-1997 The Detectives Dave Briggs
1993 The Mystery of Edwin Drood Jasper
1992 The First Circle Gleb Nershin
1992 Chunuk Bair Sgt. Maj. Frank Smith
1986 Shaka Zulu Dr. Henry Fynn
1985 D'Annunzio Gabriele D'Annunzio
1984 What Waits Below Rupert 'Wolf' Wolfsen
1983 The Jigsaw Man Jamie Fraser
1982 Imperativ Augustin
1982 The Hunchback of Notre Dame Phoebus
1981 The Survivor Keller
1981 Pygmalion Higgins
1980 Jane Austen in Manhattan Pierre
1980 Harlequin Gregory Wolfe
1978 The Thirty Nine Steps Hannay
1977 Beyond Good and Evil Paul Rée
1977 The Four Feathers Jack Durrance
1977 Jesus of Nazareth Jesus Christ
1975 Looking For Clancy Frank Clancy
1975 Tommy Captain Walker
1974 Mahler Gustav Mahler
1973 The Asphyx Giles Cunningham
1972 Shelley Percy Bysshe Shelley
1972 Asylum Dr. Martin
1972 Running Scared Tom Betancourt
1971 Secrets Allan Wood
1971 Jude the Obscure Jude Fawley
1969 The Italian Job Yellow
1969 Walk a Crooked Path Mullvaney
1967 Robbery Deltic Train Guard uncredited


  1. "Robert Powell Biography (1944-)". 1944-06-01. Retrieved 12 October 2013.
  2. Walsh, John (6 March 2010). "Sir Ben Kingsley: 'I was blessed by being a very popular child". The Independent. Archived from the original on 8 March 2010. Retrieved 7 March 2010.
  3. Mann, Roderick (27 October 1983). "Man who played 'Jesus' to make U.S. film debut". Los Angeles Times. p. E1. Retrieved 12 September 2009. Six years after making his initial impact on American audiences as the star of Franco Zeffirelli's 1977 television film "Jesus of Nazareth," British actor Robert Powell has just finished his first American-made film.
  4. "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner at CD Universe".
  5. Quilliam, Wendy (30 October 2001). "What a performance!". University of Salford News.
  6. Powell, Robert (25 January 2011). "Steve Wright in the Afternoon: with Holby City actor Robert Powell and travel expert Paul Evans". Steve Wright in the Afternoon (Radio interview). Interview with Steve Wright, Tim Smith; Janey Lee Grace. BBC Radio 2. Archived from the original (audio) on 27 January 2011. Retrieved 27 January 2011. I've been there for six years, and that was five years longer than I ever anticipated staying, and it just struck me that it was probably time to move on and go back to [my] roots.
  7. Baldwin, Andrew (18 January 2008). "Classic tale for actor of many parts". Huddersfield Daily Examiner.
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