Morris Perry – an actor’s life

THE RESPECTED CHARACTER actor Morris Perry, who died on 19 September 2021 at the age of 96, enjoyed a long and diverse career on television and on the stage.

Fans of Survivors are likely to know Perry best from his extraordinarily well-judged performance in the third series episode Mad Dog as the misanthrope former academic Dr Richard Fenton. But this kind of exemplary character acting was the signature of a small-screen career that spanned several decades.

On TV, Perry was rarely – if ever – awarded “leading man” status. But he excelled in those supporting and guest roles that required presence, substance and intellectual or emotional intelligence – and, when the script required it, a sense of controlled menace.

Television remained a perennial feature of Perry’s working life. But while TV acting gave him the most national exposure, it was love of the theatre that shaped Perry’s career more significantly. “There’s no doubt the theatre is much more interesting, most of the time,” he reflected later.

Stage and screen

Born on 28 March 1925 in Bromley, Kent (as Frank Morris Perry), as a young man he learnt his acting craft at The Old Vic Theatre School, “one of the most successful and well-respected conservatoire drama schools in the UK”. In 1953, Perry married the British actress Margaret Ashcroft. The couple had four children, and remained together until Ashcroft’s death in 2016.

After graduating from The Old Vic, Perry began a career that combined work on stage and screen. In the theatre, Perry pursued his deep interest in the writings of Shakespeare, appearing in numerous productions of The Bard’s work.

He excelled in those supporting and guest roles that required presence, substance and intellectual or emotional intelligence

In the late 1950s, Perry appeared in minor and supporting roles in a number of TV productions, including The Man Who Was Two (1956), Charlesworth at Large (1958) and The Life and Death of Sir John Falstaff (1959). During the 1960s, Perry continued to feature in similar one-off appearances in TV shows, including Sergeant Cork (1964) and The Protectors (1964).

But he had also begun to secure more substantial small-screen commissions. In 1964, he appeared as Baron Danglars, the instigator of the plot to frame Dantès for treason, in a BBC serialisation of The Count of Monte Cristo, adapted from Alexandre Dumas’ novel. He took the role of Dr. Heddle in the 1966 BBC serial Lord Raingo, an adaptation of Arnold Bennett’s fictionalised account his wartime government service, which starred Kenneth Moore; and in 1967 appeared as the Reverend Philip Nyren in the serial Witch Hunt, a story of pastoral isolation threatened by the spectre of the black arts.

Recurring TV roles

During the 1970s, Perry’s TV career reached a new peak, with substantial and recurring roles in shows such as the police serial Special Branch (1969-1970), Doctor Who (“Colony in Space”, 1971), The Sweeney (1975-1976), and Secret Army (1979). “Around that period I did quite a lot of telly,” he remembered later. “So you’re sort of ‘known’ by people”, he suggested – most usefully by television producers and directors.

One such TV director Michael Briant, who hired Perry to appear in “Colony in Space”, said of his passing: “he was such a powerful man both physically and mentally. I liked and admired him greatly.”

Morris Perry was 52 when director Tristan de Vere Cole hired him to appear in one of the three episodes of the third series of Survivors he had been commissioned by producer Terry Dudley to deliver. The world-weary, cynical and dismissive former academic Doctor Richard Fenton, instrumental to every strand of the fabric of Mad Dog, was a first-class creation. A superbly crafted role, Fenton was gifted with finely honed dialogue throughout what was arguably writer Don Shaw‘s most accomplished script for the show. Yet it was Perry’s acutely observed portrayal of this most cynical of hermits that made his single appearance in Survivors so memorable and so impactful.

“At the time I hadn’t seen any episodes of the series”, he recalled many years afterwards. “I watched some later and it appealed to me. It’s a rich theme – humanity released from its usual restraints in a melancholy English landscape.”

Everyone involved with the (wholly location based) production of Mad Dog acknowledges that it was a tough and demanding shoot – with cast and crew required to work on day and night shoots in the wilds of the Derbyshire Peak District in the depths of a freezing winter. Leading man Denis Lill (Charles Vaughan) later recalled that the episode was “one of the most exhausting jobs I have ever done” with physical demands that were akin to “living on an assault course”.

Perry’s acutely observed portrayal of this most cynical of hermits made his single appearance in Survivors so memorable

But alongside Lill, Perry had an especially demanding time of it – required to depict the suffering of a rabies carrier in the full throes of contagion; to be bound and dragged prone through slush and snow; to be drenched in icy water; and finally to collapse to the freezing mud after Fenton is shot and killed.

When Shaw visited the shoot at Monsal Dale and Ilam, he was deeply impressed by Perry’s uncomplaining commitment to the demands of the role. When he met him again, during one of Perry’s appearance in a production of Shakespeare at Stratford, he reminded him of the challenges of the shoot. “My god, you were hours being dragged around by a horse in the snow… supposed to be suffering from rabies – you must have been absolutely frozen.” Shaw remembers that Perry was sanguine. “‘Well’, he said, ‘it comes with the job – you do it.'”

An agreeable shoot

When talking to fans, Perry was keen to downplay any sense that the actors suffered the privations of the cold on Mad Dog. “They usually have blankets standing by for that kind of thing,” he explained. “There are members of the crew who dash after you as soon as you’ve stopped filming and throw things over you – and your horse! And then take them away again before you’re on to the next take.” While he did accept that “it was good to get back to the hotel where I remember low rafters and real blazing fires”, his abiding memory of working on Mad Dog was that he “found it very agreeable.”

In August 2005, at the age of eighty Morris Perry was reunited with director Tristan de Vere Cole at a sound studio in London to record an audio commentary for Mad Dog, for inclusion in the special features of the DDHE DVD release of the third series of Survivors. The following day, Perry joined the cast of his next London-based theatrical production to continue working.

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to moderate that Mad Dog commentary session, and was greatly impressed by the detailed reminiscences of both these Survivors‘ alumni of a one-week shoot that they were involved with some 28 years earlier. It was such a pleasure to be able to contribute, in a small way, to the creation of a ‘time capsule’ of memories of what, for many fans of Survivors, is one of the most highly regarded episodes of the show’s three year run.

Perry’s theatre work continued unabated in the decades following Survivors, over time eclipsing his more infrequent TV appearances. “I haven’t done much telly lately,” he noted in a letter from the late 1990s. “I seemed to be into priests and judges for a bit but that’s dried up.” At the same time, theatrical roles, large and small, continued to draw his interest. “I did my second King Lear recently at The Tabard,” he explained in the same correspondence. “Currently, I’m doing a butler in An Ideal Husband at The Old Vic.”

Perry was keen to downplay any sense that the actors suffered the privations of the cold on Mad Dog

Throughout this, his close attention to the nature of the actor’s craft remained keenly in focus. Reflecting on roles in The Merchant of Venice and The Honest Whore at the signature Globe Theatre in 1998, he observed: “It’s important to get really prepared to go on stage, getting the mind right. It means getting your imagination into a state that is responsive. You probably need to be much more alert than usual.” 

Perry’s intellectual curiosity, and in particular his fascination with words and language, continued through his eighties and into his nineties. “He’s the kind of chap who is… learning Latin and Ancient Greek in his spare time”, Toby Hadoke noted, when promoting a podcast interview with Perry in 2016.

Those who worked with Morris Perry are most likely to recall a gregarious actor possessed of talent, quiet professionalism and a warm and self-effacing demeanour. To return to the words of Don Shaw, Morris Perry can quite properly be remembered as a: “Great trooper, wonderful actor, and a delight to work with.”

Morris Perry (28 March 1925 – 19 September 2021) 

Morris Perry (Fenton, Mad Dog) dies aged 96

Tristan de Vere Cole and Morris Perry at the Survivors series three DVD special features studio day in 2005

MORRIS PERRY, THE celebrated theatre and television actor who played the role of the misanthrope Dr Richard Fenton in the acclaimed third series Survivors episode Mad Dog, has died at the age of 96.

Expressing his sadness of Perry’s passing, Toby Hadoke praised him as: “A very subtle actor with presence and elan, memorable in so much excellent TV.”

An appreciation of the stage and screen life of Morris Perry will be published on this site in the next few days.

Photo: Director Tristan de Vere Cole (left) and actor Morris Perry reunited at a London studio in 2005 to record an audio commentary track for the episode Mad Dog for inclusion in the DDHE DVD release of the third series of Survivors. Credit: Rich Cross