The passing of actor Robert Hardy on 3 August at age 91 struck hard. Hardy had been an Honorary Member of the International Churchill Society for thirty years. His many portrayals of Churchill on stage and screen as well as appearances at Churchill conferences made him “one of the family.”
Hardy was born in 1925. The youngest of five children, he was educated at Rugby and Magdalen College, Oxford, where he read English. Among his teachers were C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. “Your tutorials will take place at Pembroke,” Tolkien told him. “What?” replied Hardy. “In Wales?” His studies were interrupted by the war during which time he served in the RAF and met another aspiring actor named Richard Burton. The two became close friends and roomed together in Stratford-upon-Avon during their year at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in 1949.
Hardy played Laertes to Burton’s Hamlet at the Old Vic in 1953 when Prime Minister Winston Churchill attended a performance and sat prominently in the front row. After the curtain, as Hardy later confirmed at the 2011 ICS conference, Churchill entered Burton’s dressing room and said, “My Lord Hamlet, may I use your facilities?” In 1960, Hardy starred as Prince Hal/Henry V in a BBC production of Shakespeare’s history plays. In wooing a young Judi Dench as the French princess who becomes his queen, Hardy said that for the only time in his career he “experienced difficulty with my hosiery.”
After a long career on stage and screen, Hardy came to prominence in 1978 playing the country vet Siegfried Farnon in the immensely popular BBC series All Creatures Great and Small adapted from the books by James Herriot. The series continued off and on throughout the 1980s and lured tour groups from as far away as Japan to the Yorkshire dales.
In between playing Farnon, Hardy began his “career” as Winston Churchill in the 1981 miniseries The Wilderness Years, still the longest dramatization of any period of Churchill’s life. So striking was Hardy’s portrayal that he was invited to play the part again an additional eight times in various productions for stage and screen. The deeply knowledgeable will know that Hardy also appeared in 1972’s Young Winston as Churchill’s malicious first schoolmaster and then two years later played Von Ribbentrop opposite his old friend Richard Burton as Churchill in The Gathering Storm. Sadly, age finally caught up to him in 2013 when he had to withdraw from yet another turn as Churchill shortly before the premier of the West-End play The Audience starring Helen Mirren as The Queen.
Hardy first appeared at a conference of the International Churchill Society in San Francisco in 1990. He and ICS Patron Lady Soames formed a close friendship at that time that continued for the rest of their lives. Hardy’s last appearance at a Churchill conference took place at Blenheim Palace in 2015 when he and Celia Sandys took turns reading extracts from the letters of Celia’s grandparents Winston and Clementine Churchill.
Late in life, Hardy found new fame playing the Minister of Magic in the Harry Potter films. In the midst of a busy acting career, Hardy found time to become an authority on the longbow and consultant to the Mary Rose trust. Fortunately, we will always have Hardy’s many screen characters with us to remind us not only of his talent but his warm friendship.
Timothy Sydney Robert Hardy CBE FSA war born 29 October 1925 and died 3 August 2017.