The John Normington Tribute – Christian Cawley casts an eye over the career of an actor who made one of Doctor Who’s most thrilling villains, Trau Morgus.
John Normington’s career on stage and screen lasted for over 55 years, with the actor carving a niche for himself on screen as characters with an untrustworthy, insidious, profiteering nature. Speaking to Black Scrolls magazine in 2005, Normington commented that while he wasn’t typecast on television, he was sought to play particular roles.
“â€¦Slightly sinister people. That’s what they like me to be. Quiet and sinister – that’s my niche on television!”
Born in Manchester in 1937, Normington’s early career saw him utilise his vocal talents as a larky pupil, Hopcroft Minor, in John Dighton’s public-school comedy The Happiest Days of Your Life (Oldham, 1950). He would return to Manchester throughout his career, and even played the fool in King Lear in 2004 as “â€˜Manchester’ northern. So I wasn’t Shakespearean, but more like a northern pub comic!”
(You can read notes from rehearsals of this performance at the RSC website)
Prior to Doctor Who, John Normington was cast in several key movies of their eras. He appeared in the 1968 release of William Shakespeare’s A Midsomer Night’s Dream as Flute alongside a host of those we now consider to be big name British actors – Helen Mirren, Diana Rigg, David Warner and also some other Doctor Who alumni such as Don Henderson, Michael Jayston and Clive Swift. He also appeared in other cinematic Shakespeare presentations, Henry VI (1965, Michael Hayes, GB) as Bedford and Simpcox, Edward IV (1965, again Michael Hayes, GB) as Young Clifford and as Jaques De Boys in Michael Elliot’s 1963 production of As You Like It.
Eight years later his voice would be prominent in the future sport movie Rollerball. He later recounted how his role had been considerably reduced in the final edit, with much of his material ending up on the cutting room floor, although he can be seen in the film. “You can still spot me in a scene with James Caan, but you can only hear my voice. I’m a shadowy figure in a sound booth, while he’s doing and interview on a television setâ€¦ even an eminent actor like Ralph Richardson had his part savaged.”
With appearances in Coronation Street under his belt along the way, Normington became recognisable on television throughout the latter half of the 1980s, appearing most notably in Yes, Prime Minister as in Hitler’s SS: Portrait of Evil as Heinrich Himmler. Although his television career had kicked off in the 1970s, it’s not unfair to suggest that his Doctor Who appearance brought him to the attention of many of those that cast him in the final years of his career, from the late nineties onwards.
John Normington’s stage career saw him as a member of the newly formed Royal Shakespeare Company in its 1960s heyday, with performances described by the Independent describing in his obituary as:
“vivid studies in a range of roles including Mortimer and Young Clifford in the mould- shattering The Wars of the Roses (Stratford and Aldwych, 1962 and 1963). He made an even stronger impact as a gleefully sozzled Bardolph in both parts of Henry IV (Stratford and Aldwych, 1964).”
While he appeared in 1987’s The Happiness Patrol, it was in the Fifth Doctor’s final adventure Caves of Androzani that John Normington came to the attention of Doctor Who fans, with his plotting, profiteering, presicide and asides to the camera. Speaking to Black Scrolls, Normington recalled how this developed.
“Grame [Harper, the serials director] and Iâ€¦ felt that Morgus would be rather like the villains in Shakespeare who very often talk directly to the audience. A little like Iago from Othello who spends much of the play telling the audience just how wicked he is.”
He was still appearing on television in 2006 and 2007 notably in Torchwood (Series 1’s Ghost Machine as Tom Flanagan) and Casualty, and earlier this year had been on stage to wide critical acclaim as Billy Rice in Sean Holmes’ 50th anniversary revival of John Osborne’s The Entertainer at the Old Vic until hit by illness.
John Normington is survived by his two sisters and his partner of 40 years, John Anderson.
He will forever be fondly remembered by Doctor Who fans as the scheming, paranoid Morgus, addressing the audience directly as he expressed his frustration:
The spineless cretins!
The final words, however, should remain with RSC artistic director Michael Boyd.
“John leaves a large hole in our company.
“He was a fine and skilful actor with a great sense of humour and an enormous sensitivity for the language.”