Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Michael Gough's Best Roles

It was 100 years ago today that English actor Michael Gough was born in  Kuala Lumpur, Federated Malay States (now Malaysia). Today Michael Gough is probably best known for playing Bruce Wayne's faithful butler Alfred Pennyworth in the "Batman" movies of the Nineties. While Alfred may be his biggest claim to fame these days, Mr. Gough was a prolific actor who played a large number of diverse roles. Not only did he appear in Hammer Films and horror movies from other companies, but he was also a fixture on British television in the Sixties, Seventies, an Eighties. In fact, many of Michael Gough's roles were closer to the supervillains Batman often faced than they were Alfred Pennyworth.

This was certainly true of what may well be the two most famous roles Michael Gough played on television. It was on The Avengers episode "The Cybernauts" that he played Dr. Armstrong, inventor of the nearly indestructible robots of the title. Dr. Armstrong was a wheelchair-bound former ministry scientist and current chairman of United Automation. Having developed the Cybernauts, he puts them to use killing off business rivals and pretty much anyone else who stands in his way. As played by Michael Gough, Dr. Armstrong is among the best villains ever faced by John Steed and his partner of the moment (in this case, the exquisite Emma Peel). Dr. Armstrong who believes, in his own words, "We human beings are fallible, temperamental, and so often unreliable. The machine, however, is obedient and invariably more competent." As cold hearted as any of his machines, Dr. Armstrong was completely a technocrat who preferred automation to human interactions. "The Cybernauts" would prove popular enough to produce a sequel, "Return of the Cybernauts", in which the villain was also played by a Hammer alumnus: Peter Cushing.

Michael Gough's other famous television role was that of the Celestial Toymaker in the Doctor Who serial of the same name. Sadly, every episode of "The Celestial Toymaker" save for the last, "The Final Test", is missing. Fortunately audio of the serial recorded by fans has survived. From the surviving audio and the remaining episode it is clear that the Celestial Toymaker numbers among Michael Gough's best roles. The Celestial Toymaker is a powerful alien with nearly godlike powers who uses lesser beings as his playthings. To this end, he renders The Doctor invisible and then forces The Doctor and his companions to engage in various games before he will return them to the TARDIS (which, for simplicity's sake, can be described as The Doctor's time machine and spaceship). The Celestial Toymaker is at once arrogant and childish--he is never happy when he loses a game. Of course, it is probably very rare that the Celestial Toymaker ever loses, as he always rigs the games in his favour.

Michael Gough appeared on much more than television shows. He made a good many films as well. As mentioned earlier, he was a veteran of Hammer Films. It was in Hammer's Dracula (1958) that he played Arthur Holmwood, the wealthy socialite who ultimately assists Van Helsing in stopping Dracula. In Hammer's Phantom of the Opera (1962), Mr. Gough played  Lord Ambrose D'Arcy, a pompous aristocrat and patron of the opera. Although not a villain on the level of Dr. Armstrong or the Celestial Toymaker, D'Arcy is still a far cry from Alfred Pennyworth or Arthur Holmwood. He is self-important, lecherous, and wholly dishonest. In fact, he is so thoroughly unlikeable that I suspect most viewers are rooting for the Phantom to give him his comeuppance!

Michael Gough also appeared in horror films beyond those produced by Hammer Films. In fact, his part in Anglo-Amalgamated's Horrors of the Black Museum. In the film Mr. Gough plays crime writer Edmond Bancroft. Seeking inspiration for his stories, he launches a series of grisly murders that draw upon Scotland Yard's Black Museum (a collection of crime artefacts) for inspiration. As villains go, Bancroft is among the most sinister ever played by Michael Gough. He is a writer so preoccupied with his writing that he is willing to kill for it. What is more, he owns his own, private black museum filled with weapons and instruments of torture. Michael Gough plays the role with plenty of relish, so much so that even Vincent Price could not have done better (in fact, producer Herman Cohen had wanted Mr. Price for the role, but Anglo-Amalgamated wanted a British actor).

Even in horror movies Michael Gough did not always play villains. In the portmanteau film Dr. Terror's House of Horrors (1965) he appeared in the segment "Disembodied Hand". Mr. Gough played the tragic painter Eric Landor who finds himself humiliated by art critic Franklyn Marsh (played by Christopher Lee). Of course, Marsh gets his comeuppance in the end.

With his aristocratic bearing, it should come as no surprise that Michael Gough was often cast as nobles. This was true of one of his earliest and best film roles, that of the Duke of Buckingham in The Sword and the Rose. The Duke of Buckingham has his heart set on marrying Mary Tudor, to the point that he is willing to kill to insure that he does. Mr. Gough's Duke of Buckingham is aristocratic, scheming, and entirely villainous. Of course, not all of the English gentlemen played by Michael Gough were villains. He played David Livingstone in BBC's 1971 mini-series The Search for the Nile and Anthony Eden in the television movie Suez.

Michael Gough was remarkable as Alfred Pennyworth in the "Batman" movies of the Nineties. In fact, aside from Alan Napier he may have been the best Alfred ever. That having been said, in a long career that spanned over sixty years he played many more roles, some of which were very different from the faithful doctor. He was an actor of such talent that he could elevate even the worst of films. While some of the films in which Mr. Gough appeared were not necessarily good, he always gave a great performance.

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