Remembering Robert Hardy

Robert Hardy at the premiere for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.
Actor Robert Hardy at the London premiere of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Eamonn McCormack / Contributor / Getty Images.

British actor Robert Hardy has died, aged 91.

Robert Hardy’s passing marks the end of a long and distinguished acting career – a career defined, primarily, by his portrayals of two prime ministers; one real, another magical.

Before joining the Harry Potter films as Minister for Magic, Cornelius Fudge, Robert Hardy began his career on stage. In 1949, at the age of 24, he joined the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon. It was a job that would lead to over a decade of theatre roles, establishing him as a serious, classical actor. Yet his most famous Shakespearean role would be on screen: Henry V, who he played opposite Judi Dench in the BBC's An Age of Kings series, in 1960. It was the role that would also ignite his passion for history – especially the Battle of Agincourt.

From there, Hardy's television career flourished. He played businessman Alec Stewart in BBC oil drama The Troubleshooters between 1966 and 1970; he won acclaim for his role as Abwehr Sergeant Gratz in war drama Manhunt, on LWT in 1969; he portrayed the dashing Earl of Leicester in the BBC's Elizabeth R, in 1971; and then took on Prince Albert in the 13-hour historical drama Edward the Seventh, on ITV in 1975.

Readers of a certain age, however, will know him for his role as Siegfried Farnon in All Creatures Great and Small, the hit 70s and 80s BBC series based around a veterinary surgery.

Beyond eccentric vets, however, Hardy's true gift were grand, Henry V-style aristocratic figures, in whom he always found cracks, and hidden depths of vulnerability and/or malice. Perhaps the greatest example is his career-defining take on Winston Churchill, a portrayal so potent that he played the leader in nine different dramas, most notably the 1981 ITV series Winston Churchill: The Wilderness Years.

Churchill was a hero to Hardy, who had grown up transfixed by his wartime speeches. He studied him ferociously, listening to nothing but his speeches – 'morning, noon, and night' – for nine months, adopting every detail, every nuance, until Churchill was born again, black dog and all.

It's little wonder that years later, he would be able to bring another, albeit fictional, politician to life so vividly – Cornelius Fudge, Minister for Magic.

Fudge, of course, was nothing like Churchill, but that was the point. Hardy knew how to play leaders; he knew what made them tick, what made them both authoritative and vulnerable. It was just a case of adjusting the balance. Through body language alone, it's clear to see with Fudge: the way Hardy articulates the minister's carefully honed insincerity, the way he exudes stubbornness and pig-headed hostility, the way his voices crackles under pressure and fear. Hardy took a largely unsympathetic politician and gave him humanity and depth, and hints of a larger story beyond the facade.

Across four Harry Potter films, he made every scene count.

Robert Hardy
1925 - 2017