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Christopher Knight Mantell (OS 1963)

Knight Mantell

Actor-director who worked with Alastair Sim and Anthony Sher

The Daily Telegraph, 4 Jul 2017


Mantell: heroic style of acting

KNIGHT MANTELL, who has died aged 72, was an actor and director who learnt his craft as an early graduate of the then fledgling drama department at Manchester University in the early 1960s.

He went on to play alongside Alastair Sim and Alec Guinness, and directed Anthony Sher in The Bells at the National Theatre as part of Laurence Olivier’s 80th birthday celebrations in 1987.

Christopher Knight Mantell was born at Romiley, Cheshire, in August 1944, one of three sons of Christopher and Elsie Mantell. His eldest brother, Michael, became a test pilot but was killed in a plane crash in his early twenties. His other brother, Charles Knight Mantell, became an eminent judge.

Mantell was educated at Stockport Grammar School before going on to Manchester University, where he studied under Professor Hugh Hunt, the former director of the Old Vic, and Stephen Joseph, founder of theatre-in-the round in Britain.

His exuberant talent soon showed itself when he gave a memorable performance as Mortimer in Marlowe’s Edward II. After graduating in Drama and History of Art, he was picked up by talent scouts and was soon cast in leading roles at the Liverpool Playhouse.

These included Gary Essendine, in Coward’s Present Laughter, which was received with acclaim, followed by Shylock, Malvolio, Salieri in Amadeus, and (one of his favourites) the Headmaster in Alan Bennett’s Forty Years On.

In some respects Mantell was born into the wrong era, as his heroic style of acting, reminiscent of such actor-managers as Donald Wolfit, was already giving way to the more realistic acting style of Albert Finney or Tom Courtenay.

Undaunted, however, he continued with his own vision and, through the sheer force of his personality and absolute conviction, always persuaded audiences of the truth of his performances.

His bravura characterisation, for instance, in the premiere of Rodney Ackland’s Absolute Hell (1988) received enthusiastic reviews and led to Mantell appearing at the Chichester Festival Theatre in a season starring Maggie Smith, Topol and Margaret Leighton. He was also in demand in the West End where he appeared with Alastair Sim – an early mentor – in The Magistrate (1969), Cicely Courtneidge in Breath of Spring (1974), and Alec Guinness in A Family and its Fortune (1975).

One of his heroes was the 19th-century actor-manager, Sir Henry Irving, and Mantell developed three highly successful one-man shows based on Irving’s life, including Henry Irving, The Knight from Nowhere and He Who Plays the King. His performance as Irving led to his being invited to direct Antony Sher in Irving’s The Bells, at the National Theatre.

As ill health dogged his later years, he turned increasingly to directing – in which capacity he had an equally distinguished career, doing everything from pantomime to Bernard Shaw and opera.

Among his many outstanding productions were Pygmalion for the Malvern Shaw Festival, The Importance of Being Earnest at the Salisbury Playhouse and a remarkable Tosca at Dover Castle.

In addition to his theatrical work, Mantell always maintained his academic interests with teaching at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, and serving as as an external examiner as well as writing.

Knight Mantell’s house was a theatrical treasure trove containing historical posters and programmes as well as just about every theatre book, CD, or DVD that he could lay his hands on.

A man of great enthusiasm, although often critical of others who failed to meet his exacting standards, he was devoted to his many friends, and gave them love and kindness without stint.

He is survived by his partner and two nieces.

Knight Mantell, born August 17 1944, died May 9 2017

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