To television audiences for more than 10 years, Robert Hardy was the cantankerous vet Siegfried Farnon in TV series All Creatures Great and Small. He was also the incarnation of Winston Churchill in eight different screen or stage productions over four decades and his talents were revealed to a younger generation when he played the bumbling, rule-enforcing Cornelius Fudge, Minister for Magic, in four Harry Potter films.
Hardy had spent 20 years acting authority figures on TV when the role of Siegfried Farnon came along. The character from Alf Wight’s semi-autobiographical novels, written under the penname James Herriot, was based on his senior partner in a North Yorkshire veterinary practice, Donald Sinclair.
‘All Creatures Great and Small’: Hardy (left) with Chistopher Timothy and Peter Davison (BBC)
Frustrated at some of the programme’s scriptwriters simply resorting to making the eccentric, temperamental Siegried volatile in certain scenarios, Hardy sometimes irked them by rewriting his lines. “Out of these battles comes, if you’re lucky, quality,” he said. “It needs steel and a stone to make a spark.”
Up to 19 million viewers watched seven series and three Christmas specials between 1978 and 1990. In between them, the eight-part Winston Churchill: The Wilderness Years (1981) featured Hardy’s first portrayal of the statesman and wartime leader – but focused on his years in political exile between 1929 and 1939. His towering performance made him the definitive screen Churchill, with The New York Times commenting on his “aggressive slouch, the slumping stride, the truculent lower lip, the use of spectacles for peering over”.
Hardy played Churchill on TV again in The Woman He Loved (1988), the mini-series War and Remembrance (1988-9), Bomber Harris (1989), The Sittaford Mystery episode of the series Agatha Christie’s Marple (2006), and Churchill: 100 Days That Saved the World (2015). There were also two stage portrayals. As Cornelius Fudge in the Harry Potter films , Hardy said he was playing “high politics” again.
‘High politics’: Hardy in his role as Cornelius Fudge in the Harry Potter films
The actor was born in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, son of Henry Harrison Hardy, headmaster of Cheltenham College, and Jocelyn (née Dugdale), and attended Rugby school. His studies at Magdalen College, Oxford, were interrupted by national service in the RAF, but he returned to complete a degree in…