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The first reaction of any insane Knightmare fan is to exclaim there is no decent television - children's or otherwise - outside of Knightmare. The second is a grudging acknowledgement that there has been a lot to savour from past decades.

To list just a sample: the swashbuckling heroics of Roger Moore’s The Saint; gritty dramas such as The Sweeney; further children’s television in Dramarama; popular earthy sitcoms such as Bread, in addition to more whimsical and feel-good Wodehousian wit or even the epitome of British science fiction, Doctor Who.  

John Woodnutt, better known to us all as Knightmare’s dual-denizen of Merlin and Mogdred, appeared in all of this and much, much more. (See the catalogue of his work on IMDB.)

Following my review of John's Knightmare contribution (John Woodnutt: a Magical Man), here are a few further career highlights together with my own insights into his contribution to the role and to the show as a whole.

Jeeves and Wooster (1990-1993) as Sir Watkyn Bassett

In the very first scene of Jeeves and Wooster, we encounter John in imperious form as the magistrate Sir Watkyn Bassett CBE. He fines our hero, Bertie, for stealing a policeman's helmet of all things!

Sir Watkyn plays an important role in further episodes involving thefts and also romantic complications as the overbearing father of hopeless romantic Madeline and ally of the tyrannical yet ineffectual Roderick Spode.

John gives appropriate gravitas to his vital role and is a treat to watch. Occasional glimmers of Mogdred remain visible in his tones and disapproving facial contortions, but it serves as a wonderful contrast to our favourite drone's buffoonery.

In a series brimming with top drawer stars, John acquits himself admirably. It is great fun to watch his pomposity get punctured!

Jeeves and Wooster is still showing on the Yesterday channel. (Freeview 19)

Bread (1986-1991) as Vicar and Mr Newton

Representing his forays into the world of sitcom, we butter two slices of Bread. While a little poignant to watch given the recent passing of Carla Lane (1928-2016), this still makes for an enjoyable show.

John plays it completely straight amid the occasional overplay. Initially in Series 3, he played a blink-a-few-times-and-you-miss-him 'proddy vicar', who has the dubious honour of baptising young Billy's child.

A couple of series later, despite a fine turn from Nick Conway as the infantile Billy Boswell, John dominates the action as his experienced but clearly exasperated solicitor. With fine verbal dexterity, hearing him recite 'Billyisms' is a joy to behold.

Porterhouse Blue (1987) as the Senior Tutor

Tom Sharpe was either a crass caricaturist or a brilliant exposer of class foibles with a smattering of smut and bad language. Whatever your viewpoint, there is a lot to savour in both of his TV adaptions.

'Blott on the Landscape' featured George Cole, Simon Cadell from Hi-de-Hi! and David Suchet as the eponymous Blott. 'Porterhouse Blue' featured a classic battle between the establishment, embodied by David Jason's aged traditionalist porter Skullion, and the modern-thinking Ian Richardson and his wife as the new Master of Porterhouse.

As Senior Tutor, John enters this gargantuan battle firmly on the side of tradition. His delight in this role is self-evident; he struts and panics with equal aplomb.

Once again, Woodnutt's range of facial expressions is put to good use. As an apparent 'voice of reason', he is dignified, though so duplicitous that even Julius Scaramonger would be hard-pushed to overtake him.

A first-class performance all round!

Doctor Who (1970, 1973, 1975 & 1981) in Various Roles

John appeared in Doctor Who on no less than four occasions.

The first of these was as George Hibbert in Jon Pertwee's first tale, 'Spearhead from Space' (left), where he died for his heroics. Later he had a one-off role as a Draconian Emperor and survived.

He returned for the fan favourite, 'Terror of the Zygons', in a double role with Tom Baker in 1975, which set up the backdrop to the 50th Anniversary tale, 'The Day of the Doctor'. He died as a Zygon, but was rescued as the original Duke.

Finally, he was the noble Seron in 'The Keeper of Traken' - a story as old as this author! However, John's character still died.

John imbued each of these roles with vitality and a keen sense of purpose that is so essential to keeping what can be seen as silly and unbelievable firmly plausible. Such measured portrayals help to establish a credibility which was frequently lacking in the show during these years.

Parkin's Patch (1969) as Chappell

We travel further back in the annals now to an early predecessor of Heartbeat.

The episode 'A Pair of Good Shoes' concerns an alleged assault on Doreen (Pauline Collins) in a rare performance without her husband, John Alderton. Although recognisable, Woodnutt is clearly dishevelled and displays a fine Yorkshire accent.

Playing Chappell, he gets a rare chance to play against type. Almost a country version of a lounge lizard, his squalidness makes you really wonder just whose side he is on, and it's not until the final reveal that we discover the culprit.

The Saint (1964) as Head Porter

The earliest chronicle of John in this article is perhaps the most touching. Watching a more youthful man made me consider his background, his family life, and the questions we will likely never know the answers to.

He certainly appears as a fresh young thing in 'Luella' (Season 2, Episode 19), helping to ensnare innocents in a minor capacity, and no doubt earning more from one successful job than in a week's wages from his patron!

He turns from bad to good as the episode develops and holds his own admirably against the well-established Roger Moore. From low-level cunning to sheepish delight to panic, there is a gamut of emotions on display here, with each played to perfection.

If I were looking at this as his first piece of work, I would definitively say there is something 'magical' about it that augured well for the future!

Conclusion

John was a man of many parts and he played them all with equal vigour. Whenever part of a cast, the overall quality was raised. He took on numerous plays in addition to his many TV appearances and this article has only skimmed the surface of a quite remarkable talent.

He appeared in all genres and seemed at home in each and every one of them. More often than not, he was cast for his facial contortions as well as his received pronunciation, which he was able to abandon or amplify as required.

If my own endeavours on stage are seen with a fraction of his aptitude then I would be very proud indeed - for John Woodnutt, even beyond Merlin, was a truly magical performer who held us all under his spell.

RIP John.

Image credit: John Woodnutt as George Hibbert, The Doctor Who Concordance

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