Bernard Hill obituary: Star of two 11-times Oscar winning films

He had a grave, peremptory air, and a quality of being both fallible and resolute

Born: December 17th, 1944

Died: May 5th, 2024

The actor Bernard Hill, who has died aged 79, starred in two of the only three films to have won 11 Oscars. In Titanic (1997), he was the ship’s captain, Edward Smith, while in The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2003), he reprised the role of King Théoden from the previous instalment, The Two Towers (2002). Both parts drew on his grave, peremptory air, and his ability to be simultaneously fallible and resolute.

It was his fearsome yet pitiful performance as the jobless labourer and single father Yosser Hughes, in Alan Bleasdale’s tragicomic BBC series Boys from the Blackstuff (1982), that made him a television star. The role came to define not only Hill but an entire era. Yosser’s plaintive, hectoring catchphrase — “Gizza job” — was parroted everywhere from the Kop to the corner shop, the playground to the dole queue. An unofficial novelty record, Gis’ a Job, was released by the Blackstuff Lads. The phrase was even used as the title of a 1984 educational film on job interview techniques.

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Yosser traipses the streets with a zombie-like remorselessness, searching for work as his woebegone offspring (played by Bleasdale’s children) trail behind him. The Liverpool Echo called the character “a symbol of the desperation bred by unemployment”. The series, watched by more than five million viewers on its initial broadcast, was a spin-off from Bleasdale’s television play The Black Stuff (written in 1978 but not screened until 1980). Following a group of out-of-work tarmac-layers, the series was widely seen as a howl of anger against the iniquities of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Government, though four of its five episodes had been written before the Tories came to power. Nevertheless, they encapsulated a mood of fury and frustration.

His physical appearance — smudged Chaplinesque moustache, hollowed eyes, cadaverous complexion — came to Hill while shooting The Black Stuff, in which Yosser was openly misogynistic and less sympathetic

Bleasdale wrote the part of Yosser especially for Hill, which the actor found “a bit worrying” since the character communicates largely through the medium of the head-butt. His target is usually other people: a police officer, a haughty foreman. Sometimes, driven to smash his forehead against a wall or the inside of the confessional (“I’m desperate, Dan,” he tells the priest), it is himself.

His physical appearance — smudged Chaplinesque moustache, hollowed eyes, cadaverous complexion — came to Hill while shooting The Black Stuff, in which Yosser was openly misogynistic and less sympathetic. “As the character developed, I decided he would only wear black clothes,” he said. “I thought the white make-up should be really exaggerated to bring out the contrast.”

He had difficulty leaving the character behind on set. “I found myself drinking a bit more and laughing a bit louder,” he said in 1983. “There weren’t many moments when I could relax … If you’re playing somebody who’s heading for insanity, you might as well go there yourself and see what it’s like.”

Even after shooting had finished, the role stayed with him. “I found playing the part opened the doors on my emotions and let them out. But to some extent, the door stuck. Everyone has a shut-off valve on their emotions. I think mine was slightly damaged playing Yosser, and it will take time to heal.”

He was educated at St John Bosco primary school and Xaverian college. While training to become a quantity surveyor, he acted in an amateur theatre group, then applied to Rada in London

His association with Bleasdale continued in the writer’s prickly black comedy No Surrender (1985), set at a dilapidated Liverpool social club where groups of Catholics and Protestants have been double-booked for a New Year’s Eve bash. Reunited with Michael Angelis from Boys from the Blackstuff, Hill was sublimely deadpan as the grim-faced bouncer with a rockabilly quiff.

He was born in Blackley, Manchester. His father served in the royal navy during the war before becoming a miner, while his mother worked in the kitchens of the ICI plant in Blackley. He was educated at St John Bosco primary school and Xaverian college. While training to become a quantity surveyor, he acted in an amateur theatre group, then applied to Rada in London.

After being rejected twice, he began training to be a teacher at De La Salle College in Manchester. It was there that Hill met a part-time tutor, the writer-director Mike Leigh, who encouraged him to throw in his lot with acting. Leigh had previously seen him perform in 1968 with the Salford Players: “He was brilliant,” he said. Following his advice, Hill studied theatre at Manchester Polytechnic (now Manchester Metropolitan University), where his classmates included his future Boys from the Blackstuff co-star Julie Walters.

Hill went with the production when it transferred to London, where it ran for a year and won the Evening Standard award for best musical

Leigh cast him in the television film Hard Labour (1973) as a mechanic living on a dreary estate with his wife, played by Alison Steadman. Hill then spent two years at the Everyman theatre in Liverpool, where his roles included John Lennon in 1974 in Willy Russell’s John, Paul, George, Ringo … and Bert, which told the story of the Beatles up to and including a fictional reunion.

The musical comedy co-starred Trevor Eve as Paul McCartney and Antony Sher as Ringo Starr, while Barbara Dickson performed a selection of Beatles songs. George Harrison was said to have disliked it so much that he withdrew permission for the use of Here Comes the Sun. Hill went with the production when it transferred to London, where it ran for a year and won the Evening Standard award for best musical.

He was the Roman soldier Gratus in two episodes of the hit BBC series I, Claudius (1976). After filming Bleasdale’s series, he went straight into playing the Duke of York in a 1983 BBC adaptation of the three parts of Henry VI, then returned as First Murderer in Richard III.

Other roles included a sergeant in Gandhi (1982), a removal man in the comedy The Chain, the Solidarity leader Lech Wałęsa in Tom Stoppard’s TV film Squaring the Circle (both 1984) and a coroner drawn into a murder plot in Peter Greenaway’s art house oddity Drowning By Numbers (1988).

Hill was sacked from the 1986 Madonna/Sean Penn flop Shanghai Surprise after reportedly crossing swords with Penn

Among his finest post-Yosser roles was another washed-up, down-at-heel father, this time in the taut kidnapping thriller Bellman and True (1987).

Hill was sacked from the 1986 Madonna/Sean Penn flop Shanghai Surprise after reportedly crossing swords with Penn. In the 1989 film of Russell’s play Shirley Valentine, he was a slovenly Liverpudlian whose wife (Pauline Collins) takes off to Greece in search of romance and fulfilment.

He also starred in Dennis Potter’s six-part series Lipstick on Your Collar (1993), the lion-hunting adventure The Ghost and the Darkness (1996) with Michael Douglas, Clint Eastwood’s thriller True Crime (1999), and The Scorpion King (2002), which was part of the Mummy franchise.

Having been nominated for a Bafta for Boys from the Blackstuff, he received a second nomination for playing the former home secretary David Blunkett in the BBC drama A Very Social Secretary (2005), opposite Robert Lindsay as Tony Blair. He also played the Duke of Norfolk in the TV version of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (2015), and can currently be seen as the father of Martin Freeman’s character in the second series of the BBC crime drama The Responder.

Hill is survived by Gabriel, his son from his marriage to the actor Marianna Schwarzkopf, which ended in divorce, as well as by a daughter, Jay, from an earlier relationship with Sue Allen.

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