I’ve been a fan of Peter Wyngarde’s film and television work for a fair few years, but until now I didn’t really know a great deal about the man himself – apart from a series of oft-repeated tales (which no doubt grow more distorted every time they’re repeated).
Tina Wyngarde-Hopkins’ hefty tome (clocking in at over 500 pages) has been designed to rectiy this and although she’s obviously approached the book intent on righting perceived wrongs from various points in Wyngarde’s life, it still manages to paint a vivid picture of a charismatic, but often difficult, man.
Wyngarde-Hopkins first met Peter in the early nineties when she set up a fanzine dedicated to him. Over the years their bond grew closer as she became his assistant, companion and eventual soul mate. Drawing upon an impressive archive (letters, scripts, diaries, interviews) she’s been able to fashion a substantial biography where the subject is often able to chip in on the subject in hand.
His early years, as a prisoner of the Japanese in an interment camp in Shanghai, are vividly portrayed. There are lighter moments – organising theatrical entertainments – but also darker ones (the guards broke both his feet in order to discourage him from running about). Wyngarde’s relationship with his parents – his mother looks to have been something of a flighty man-eater whilst he idolised his father (who died at sea in 1947) – is also touched upon.
Rather like his mother, Wyngarde enjoyed a healthy sex life (one of the things he’s – along his with acting – probably best known for). And as he attempted to establish a name for himself as an actor in post-war Britain, there were no shortage of opportunities for liasons. Plus plenty of invitations which Wyngarde declined (from the likes of Noel Coward, Peggy Ashcroft and Bette Davis). It’s up to the reader to decide how much of this is credible – no doubt Wyngarde wasn’t above spinning a tall tale or two.
His years in provincial rep and his eventual emergence during the 1950’s as a familiar face on both the London stage and as an early television favourite are entertainingly sketched. The likes of Kenneth Williams and Orson Welles feature in some amusing anecdotes.
By the 1960’s Wyngarde was guesting in a number of cult television series which still endure to this day. Most notably The Avengers and the episode A Touch Of Brimstone, in which he played the Honorable John Cleverly Cartney, leader of a modern Hellfire Club. Wyngarde would later recall that Cartney’s whip cracking was very carefully choregraphed – one wrong move could have resulted in a serious injury for Diana Rigg.
His real ascent to cult fame would, of course, come with Department S and Jason King. Paid the princely sum of £336 for the first thirteen episodes (rising to £1,000 if the series continued past that point) Wyngarde seems to have earned the respect of many of the guest actors (Anthony Hopkins speaks warmly of his experience working with him on Department S) although it was a different story with his co-star Rosemary Nichols. More detail on this – or indeed production of both series – would have been welcome, as they’re dealt with rather quickly.
Two very different events during the seventies are still debated today by Wyngarde watchers. The first is his 1970 self-titled spoken word album, which included such memorable offerings as “Rape”. Judging by the eleven tracks not included in the final cut (including “Merry Sexmas”) it could have been a double album ….
A Life Amongst Strangers posits that RCA had hoped the album would be a flop, thereby allowing them to write it off as a tax loss. But unfortunately for them it turned out to be a success. That’s certainly an interesting spin on events.
In 1975 Wyngarde was fined £75 for committing an act of gross indecency in the public toilets at Gloucester Bus Station. Although he kept working, this dealt a devastating blow to both his career and public image from which he never really recovered. Wyngarde-Hopkins remains convinced he was innocent (and that he was PERSECUTED! not prosecuted). Throughout the book she’s also at pains to dismiss the numerous rumours concerning his sexuality – presenting Wyngarde as a firmly heterosexual character.
From the eighties onwards the work began to dry up, although there were still some notable credits, such as Flash Gordon (1980) and a guest role in a 1984 Doctor Who serial (Planet of Fire). Peter Davison would remember Wyngarde’s contribution to this story in his autobiography, although this still attracted Wyngarde-Hopkins’ ire (due to the fact he misspelt Wyngarde’s surname and omitted him from the index).
His final years, as his health began to falter, makes for bleak reading – although by the end you’re left in no doubt about just how much Tina Wyngarde-Hopkins loved him.
A Life Amongst Strangers offers a substantial portrait of Peter Wyngarde. As with all autobiographies and biographies the reader will have to decide just how accurate a portrait it is, but it certainly doesn’t skimp on detail. Published by Austin Macauley, it’s well worth checking out.