Geoffrey Chater, polished and charming character actor acclaimed as Polonius opposite Jonathan Pryce's hamlet – obituary

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Geoffrey Chater as the school chaplain and CCF commander in Lindsay Anderson‘s if…. – LANDMARK MEDIA/Alamy

Geoffrey Chater, who has died aged 100, was a character actor of quiet authority, affable assurance and polished charm for more than half a century in plays, films and on television.

What gave Chater’s acting its distinction was an effortless poise. Whether in the classics or in contemporary drama, he never seemed to have to strive for effect. He brought such an air of naturalism to either period or modern parts that sometimes he did not seem to be acting at all.

If his doctors or clerics, dukes or baronets, peers or landowners rarely stole the limelight, Chater, who saw acting as a means of serving the author before his own ambition, was too well-mannered to think of doing so. Best remembered for a friendly face, reassuring smile and mature manner, Chater was usually cast as likeable nonentities or amusing fuddy-duddies from the vulnerable middle class – though sometimes less respectable than they seemed.

One of his more remarkable stage performances was as Polonius to Jonathan Pryce’s Prince of Denmark (1980): modest, honest, sincere and no man’s fool, for all the efforts of Hamlet to make a fool of him. An often subtle player, especially on television, Chater had but to raise an eyebrow or clear his throat to bring a character to warm and human life.

Chater with Harold Pinter and the cast of Blithe Spirit at the Lyttelton Theatre in London in 1976 – Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Geoffrey Michael Chater Robinson was born at Barnet, which was then in Hertfordshire, on March 23 1921; his mother was the actress Gwendoline Gwynne. Geoffrey went to Marlborough and then served in the Army from 1940 to 1946.

Back in civilian life, having dropped Robinson from his stage name, he began in the theatre as an assistant stage manager at the Theatre Royal, Windsor. He made his first professional appearance there in 1947 in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, his West End debut coming in 1952 as the Constable in a thriller, Master Crook (Comedy Theatre).

After a year in small parts at the Old Vic (1954-55), Chater acted Bildad in Archibald MacLeish’s J.B. (Phoenix, 1961) and joined Peter Hall’s newly formed Royal Shakespeare Company at its experimental branch, the Arts Theatre Club, in 1962.

He was cheery as the stockbroker ready to collude in a murder to hush up a local, profitable scandal in Giles Cooper’s black comedy of suburban corruption, Everything in the Garden (which transferred to the Duke of York’s); and a bewigged, voluptuous and oily Duke of Florence in Thomas Middleton’s 17th-century drama, Women, Beware Women.

As Algernon Wyse in Mapp and Lucia in 1985 with Geraldine McEwan, left, and Marion Mathie – Shutterstock

Chater played Ingrid Bergman’s husband, the estate-owner Yslaev, in Michael Redgrave’s revival of Turgenev’s A Month in the Country (Cambridge, 1965). After a spring tour in 1971 as Lord Lumbercourt in the Prospect Theatre Company’s revival of Charles Macklin’s The Man of the World (1781), Chater returned to the Royal Court for two plays.

First he joined a company of six who between them played 34 parts in N F Simpson’s first full-length play for seven years, Was He Anyone? (Theatre Upstairs); and then in the main house he was a Tory victim of a terrorist plot to blow him up in Howard Brenton’s Magnificence (1973).

In 1976 Chater played Dr Frobisher in Rattigan’s The Browning Version (King’s Head, Islington) and Dr Bradman in Harold Pinter’s revival for the National Theatre Company of Coward’s Blithe Spirit (Lyttelton).

After returning to the RSC as the very English Henry in Cousin Vladimir (Aldwych 1978), David Mercer’s play comparing Britain and Soviet Russia, Chater went back to the Royal Court for Hamlet in 1980.

He was hyperactive on the small screen, amassing around 150 credits, beginning in 1950 with the drama Double Exit. Among his most notable roles was as a British Consul in North Africa in Brideshead Revisited in 1981, and his final part came in 2005 in Midsomer Murders.

He was not as busy in the cinema, making around a dozen films; he debuted inauspiciously in 1958 in the sci-fi horror The Strange World of Planet X (which later attained something approaching cult status). In 1971 he played Christmas Humphreys, the barrister who secured the wrongful conviction of Timothy Evans, in 10 Rillington Place, and four years later he was a doctor in Stanley Kubrick’s period classic Barry Lyndon.

He was suitably starchy as the school chaplain and CCF commander in Lindsay Anderson’s if… (1968), last seen handing out rifles to repel the rooftop revolutionaries led by Malcolm McDowell.

Chater worked well into his nineties, and as recently as 2017 was giving readings of poetry.

Geoffrey Chater married, in 1949, Jennifer Hill. They had a daughter and two sons.

Geoffrey Chater, born March 23 1921, died October 16 2021

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