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John Shrapnel - An Obituary

John Shrapnel – actor

Born April 27, 1942; died February 14, 2020

John Shrapnel, who has died aged 77, was an intense and imposing presence as an actor. Onstage, he played numerous classical roles from his early days in Laurence Olivier’s National Theatre company. He cut an equally powerful dash on film, where he played assorted lords, admirals, generals and statesmen. He also appeared in Gladiator and Notting Hill, with his last TV role coming in 2017 as an Archbishop in the small-screen version of Mike Bartlett’s play, King Charles III.

Shrapnel’s surname was indicative of his steely approach, after his ancestor, Lieutenant General Henry Shrapnel, invented the exploding cannonball, giving his name to the shards of metal produced by the blast.

John Morley Shrapnel was born in Birmingham, the eldest of two sons to Norman, who was the Guardian’s parliamentary correspondent, and Mary Lillian Myfanwy (nee Edwards). Shrapnel attended Mile End School in Stockport, Greater Manchester, where he joined the school drama society; then, when the family moved south, the City of London school, where he played Hamlet. He also joined the National Youth Theatre. After studying at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, he made his professional acting debut in 1965, when he played Claudio in Much Ado Nothing at Nottingham Playhouse.

This led to a huge range of stage and screen roles, from stints with the National Theatre working with Jonathan Miller on The School for Scandal (1968), and, in the early 1970s, playing Banquo in Macbeth and Orsino in Twelfth Night. Other notable early roles included Andrey in Chekhov’s Three Sisters, and playing opposite Janet Suzman as Tesman in Hedda Gabler in 1977. He doubled up as Agamemnon and Apollo in John Barton’s ten-play epic, The Greeks, in 1980, the same year he played Brutus in Julius Caesar, and made a stately Claudius in Hamlet at the Donmar in 1982.

He transposed his onstage power in three television productions of Shakespeare throughout the 1980s, and gave King Creon a fresh aura of gravitas in The Theban Plays (1986). On TV, he was the Earl of Sussex opposite Glenda Jackson in Elizabeth R (1971), Sir Percival Glyde alongside Ian Richardson and Diana Quick in The Woman in White (1982). For Tony Palmer, he played  Semper in Wagner (1983), with Richard Burton in the title role, and was Samuel Pepys in England, My England (1995), Palmer’s TV film of Charles Wood and John Osborne's script.

In Notting Hill (1999), he was Julia Roberts’ press agent, and in 2007, was Lord Howard to Cate Blanchett’s Gloriana in Elizabeth: The Golen Age. Onstage, Shrapnel played the title role in Deborah Warner's 2005 production of Julius Caesar, and in 2013, played Duncan in Kenneth Branagh’s production of Macbeth at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester. Two years later he played opposite his son Lex in Caryl Churchill’s play, A Number, which looked at cloning and parenthood. The same year, Shrapnel played what turned out to be his final role as Camillo in The Winter’s Tale. Shrapnel carried both roles with the same sense of authority which had defined his huge body of work over the previous fifty years.

He is survived by his wife, Francesca Bartley, their three sons, Joe, Lex and Thomas, and his younger brother, Hugh.

The Herald, March 11th 2020

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