The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Farewell to the Minister of Magic: Robert Hardy, 29 October 1925 – 3 August 2017

That's Robert Hardy as Siegfried Farnon and Peter Davison as his brother Tristan at the outbreak of World War II in All Creatures Great and Small, the well-beloved British series that first introduced me to him, and to Davison, too, come to think of it.

He died on August 3, and somehow I didn't see the news until today--in fact, I was looking him up to verify my recollection that he had played John Fothergill, the eccentric, aesthete, and innkeeper. (I have two of the books he wrote, one inscribed by him; he's worth a post of his own someday.) And yes, Hardy played the part, and did so brilliantly. It was but one role in a storied and multi-faceted career--from actor to Laird, to amateur historian, who authored what appears to be the definitive work on the longbow. On the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt, it was Hardy, who had memorably played Henry V for the RSC in his younger days, who Westminster Abbey asked to read the prologue from Act IV of the play.

He was, by all accounts, a great Shakespearean actor--the 1960s edition of the Tragedies and the Histories I bought (when I was in my teens) from the long-gone Barnes & Noble Sales Annex was illustrated with photos from various classic productions; Robert Hardy featured in several.

Hardy's subtlety as an actor doesn't get enough praise; it's understandable in that he's primarily thought of by filmgoers as Cornelius Fudge, the Minister of Magic, from the Harry Potter films. Hilarious though it was, Hot Metal didn't call for much subtlety, either. And Siegfried was often played fortissimo, though there were wonderfully delicate moments, like that heading this post.

But watch him in The Shooting Party. Or, as I pointed out earlier this year, in "Edward the King", where he played Prince Albert:
Albert, in particular, is given a complexity he might otherwise have lacked by the quicksilver performance of Robert Hardy (most noted for his Siegfried Farnon in All Creatures Great and Small and more recently his performance as Cornelius Fudge in the Harry Potter movies). As the Prince Consort, Albert starts in a position of weakness (not unlike Matt Smith as Prince Philip in The Crown), but he obtains a modicum of power by using what would be in Victorian literature feminine strategies--he lets Victoria see that her tantrums have hurt him, he rejoices in the domestic, he even withholds intimacy (Victoria, the morning after a tantrum, plaintively reproaches him, "you didn't come to me last night.").

When their son Albert Edward (Bertie) is born, Albert plans a fanatically demanding, no respite, education for their son. It's portrayed as almost sadistic (Magnus's biography is more charitable) and the frustrated Bertie fails at it repeatedly. Albert keeps him to it, with terrible persistence. But Hardy keeps him from devolving into a Gradgrind. His affection for Victoria (and forgiveness of her outbursts), his enjoyment of their children, gives him a likability that makes clear that his mistreatment of Bertie is not out of cruelty, but misplaced zeal.

Later, when Bertie is an adult, and Bertie has been caught in an affair with an actress (the first of many), the notoriously strait-laced Albert confronts his son. Albert respects Bertie's refusal to tell him who set up the party where he met his mistress, and puts the matter behind them. Instead of the martinet, we finally see the worried father, who gently admits that he has been so intent on training his son, that he has not provided the affection that Bertie needs. He anxiously seeks to reassure Bertie that he has been motivated by love, but admits his failure to articulate it. The two reconcile, with the focus not on Bertie's sins, but on Albert's.

It's an extraordinary performance, well matched by [Annette] Crosbie's more overtly histrionic masterpiece [as Victoria]. Hardy deftly underplays when she goes hard, but scintillates when he is with the children (other than Bertie). They match each other well.
So when I bid farewell to Robert Hardy--a little late, I admit--as the Minister of Magic, it's not to Cornelius Fudge; Hardy was Minister of Magic in his own right, long before he played that part.

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