Upon hearing the news of Peter Vaughan’s death, I decided to grab one of his performances off the shelf to watch as a tribute. But as you’ll see from a quick skim of his résumé on IMDB, he was an incredibly prolific actor (over two hundred individual film and television credits), so which one to choose?
He’s solid throughout The Gold Robbers (1969) as DCS Craddock. It’s a series that I’ve now moved a little higher up my rewatch pile and I’d certainly recommend picking it up if you don’t own it. Another memorable performance came in the 1985 BBC adaptation of Bleak House, where he played Tulkinghorn. Vaughan’s trademark menace is clearly in evidence as he dominates every scene he’s in (frankly he makes Charles Dance, Tulkinghorn in the more recent adaption, look very ordinary).
Vaughan also graced numerous series with fine guest appearances. One such was The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes in 1991, where he played John Turner in The Boscombe Valley Mystery, opposite Jeremy Brett as Holmes . Generally, the last few series of Brett’s Sherlock Holmes are a little patchy – partly this was because of various real-life factors (Edward Hardwicke’s availability, Brett’s illness) but it’s mainly because most of the really good stories had already been adapted. The Boscombe Valley Mystery is something of a rarity then, a decent early tale that hadn’t been tackled, featuring a brief – but compelling – turn from Vaughan.
Having considered these and more, in the end I plumped for one of his signature roles – Grouty in Porridge. That Vaughan remains indelibly linked to Porridge is all the more remarkable when you consider that he only appeared in three television episodes (this one, No Way Out and Storm in a Teacup) as well as the feature film. But although his screentime is incredibly limited, it’s interesting how Genial Harry Grout casts a shadow over the whole series. He’s mentioned in several episodes before he makes his debut (quite late in fact, The Harder They Fall came towards the end of the second series) so the audience has already been well primed about exactly who he is.
Genial Harry Grout’s place in the narrative is quite straightforward. He always pops up to ask Fletch to do him a little favour, making Fletch an offer he can’t refuse. As seen throughout the series, Fletch either likes to steer clear of trouble or initiate it himself – only Grouty has the power to manipulate him. Most of Vaughan’s scenes in Porridge were played opposite Ronnie Barker and it’s a treat to watch the pair of them at work.
Grouty’s first scene is a case in point. Unlike every other prisoner, he has an impressively decorated cell – pictures on the wall, a bird in a cage, an expensive hi-fi system – which are clear signifiers of his special status. Quite why Mackay and the Governor turn a blind eye to this is a mystery that’s never answered (there are a few possibilities though – all of them sinister).
Offering Fletch a cup of cocoa and a Bath Olivier, Grouty settles down for a chat. He reminisces about his time in Parkhurst, this provides Vaughan with a killer line as he tells Fletch what happened to the pigeon he kept there. This is a mere preamble though, as Grouty soon makes his intentions clear – he has a rival (Billy Moffatt) who’s running a book on the inter-wing boxing tournament. Grouty wants him taken to the cleaners – so they have to nobble one of the boxers. The scene’s desgned to set up the premise of the episode, but thanks to the writing and playing this never feels obvious – instead, the audience is invited to enjoy the dangerous charm of Harry Grout.
Young Godber is the one chosen to take a dive and it’s down to Fletch to break the bad news. Both Barker and Beckinsale are wonderful throughout this later scene – capped by the revelation from Godber that he can’t take a dive for Grouty in the second round, because he’s already agreed to take a dive for Billy Moffatt in the first!
The exceedingly good Cyril Shaps plays the twitchy Jackdaw, the newest and weediest of Grouty’s gang, whilst Fulton Mackay has a couple of decent scenes (Brian Wilde only pops up briefly – on film – at the start though).
If the ending’s a little weak (it’s hard to believe that everyone – especially Grouty – was happy with the outcome) then thanks in no small part to the interplay between Barker and Vaughan, The Harder They Fall is still a classic half-hour.