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Robert Powell

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Robert Powell
Powell in 2007
Robert Thomas Powell

(1944-06-01) 1 June 1944 (age 80)
Alma materUniversity of Manchester
Years active1966–present
Barbara Lord
(m. 1975)

Robert Powell (/ˈpəl/; born 1 June 1944) is an English actor who is known for the title roles in Mahler (1974) and Jesus of Nazareth (1977), and for his portrayal of secret agent Richard Hannay in The Thirty Nine Steps (1978) and its subsequent spinoff television series. Other major screen roles have included Tobias "Toby" Wren in the BBC science-fiction programme Doomwatch (1970), David Briggs in the sitcom The Detectives (1993–1997) with Jasper Carrott, and Mark Williams in the medical drama Holby City (2005–2011).

Powell’s distinctive voice has become well known as a narrator of documentaries, especially those concerning World War II including World War II in HD Colour, Hitler's Bodyguard, The Story of the Third Reich and Secrets of World War II.

He was nominated for a Best Actor BAFTA TV Award for Jesus of Nazareth in 1978 and won a Best Actor award at the Venice Film Festival for his performance in the film Imperative in 1982.

Early life


Powell was born in Salford, Lancashire, the son of Kathleen (née Davis) and John Wilson Powell.[1] He was educated at Manchester Grammar School[2] (then a direct grant grammar school), and studied law at the University of Manchester. He has an older brother, Henry (Harry).



Powell began acting at school, playing the title role in Shakespeare's King Lear. He also appeared as a teenager in The Adventures of Samuel Poppleton on BBC Radio Children's Hour from the North of England in Manchester, where he came under the guidance of producer, Trevor Hill, as detailed in Hill's autobiography, Over the Airwaves. He secured a post at a repertory theatre in Stoke-on-Trent. His first film part was in Robbery (1967), which starred Stanley Baker and was about the Great Train Robbery, in which he played the second man or locomotive driver's assistant. He had a small role in the original film version of The Italian Job (1969) playing one of the gang, but had to wait a few years for his first success, playing scientist Toby Wren in the BBC's science fiction series, Doomwatch in 1970.

Having been killed off in Doomwatch right at the end of Series One in a bomb explosion, at his request, Powell became a pin-up and a household name, following up with starring roles in several BBC serials, including television adaptations of the novels Sentimental Education (1970) and Jude the Obscure (1971). In 1972–1973 he portrayed Charles Rolls in the miniseries The Edwardians.[3] He starred in the very first episode of the British series Thriller in 1973. He also appeared in the 1975 series Looking for Clancy, based on the Frederic Mullally novel Clancy.

For several years Powell continued as a television regular, with occasional forays into film, as the Austrian composer Gustav Mahler in the Ken Russell biopic Mahler (1974) and Captain Walker in Russell's film version of Tommy (1975). His role in Tommy had few lines, speaking only during the overture with Ann-Margret, he is primarily seen through the mind of his son as played by Barry Winch (Young Tommy) and Roger Daltrey.

He then played Jesus of Nazareth in Jesus of Nazareth (1977) following a successful second audition with Franco Zeffirelli. The four-part television film had an all-star cast, including Laurence Olivier as Nicodemus, Ernest Borgnine as the Roman Centurion, Stacy Keach as Barabbas, Christopher Plummer as Herod Antipas, Michael York as John the Baptist, Ian McShane as Judas Iscariot, Rod Steiger as Pontius Pilate and James Mason as Joseph of Arimathea. For this role, Powell was nominated for a BAFTA award, and collected the TVTimes Best Actor award for the same performance. His completist performance is frequently considered one of the best portrayals of Christ.[4]

In 1978, Powell took the leading role of Richard Hannay in the third film version of The Thirty Nine Steps. It met with modest success, and critics compared Powell's portrayal of John Buchan's character favourably with those of his predecessors. His characterisation proved to be enduring, as almost ten years later a television series entitled simply Hannay appeared with Powell back in the role (although the Buchan short stories on which the series was based were set in an earlier period than The Thirty-Nine Steps). Hannay ran for two seasons.

In 1980, Powell appeared in the film Harlequin playing the Harlequin of the title, who seems to have the power to cure the son of a powerful politician. For this performance, he won the Best Actor Award at the Paris Film Festival. In 1982, he won Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival for his role in Imperativ.

In 1984, Powell made his U.S. film debut in What Waits Below (also known as Secrets of the Phantom Caverns).[5]

In 1986, Powell narrated and co-starred in William C. Faure's miniseries Shaka Zulu, with Henry Cele in the title role. In 1992, he starred in the New Zealand World War I film Chunuk Bair, as Sgt Maj Frank Smith. In 1993–95, he was the voice actor of Dr Livesey in The Legends of Treasure Island.

Powell then agreed to a request from his friend and golf partner, comedian Jasper Carrott, taking the part of an incompetent detective in a succession of sketches that formed part of Carrott's television series. The Detectives proved to be popular and was later turned into a sitcom, Powell's first and only venture into this genre.

Powell's distinctive voice is frequently heard on voice-overs and as a narrator of television programmes such as Great Crimes and Trials, The Century of Warfare and World War II in HD Colour. He read the novel Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez for BBC Radio 4's Book at Bedtime, and has also narrated many audio books including The Thirty Nine Steps, abridged versions of many of Alan Garner's books, and several abridged novels for The Talking Classics Collection. Powell has also lent his voice to musical works, such as David Bedford's album The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,[6] or the 2002 rock opera The Hound of the Baskervilles, by Clive Nolan and Oliver Wakeman, where he played the role of John Watson. He also narrated on two rock albums by Rick Wakeman called Cost of Living and The Gospels (1987).

On 29 October 2001, a state-of-the-art theatre named after him was opened at the University of Salford.[7] He became a patron of 24:7 Theatre Festival in 2004, and continues to operate in this capacity. In early 2005 he became a regular in the UK TV medical drama, Holby City, where he remained for six years before departing to return to theatre.[8] On 9 February 2008, he performed as narrator in Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf with the Huddersfield Philharmonic Orchestra with conductor Natalia Luis-Bassa in the North of England.[9] In 2008–09, Powell was series announcer, (19 episodes), on BBC4's The Book Quiz.

In 2005 Powell began appearing in the BBC soap opera Holby City, as a hospital administrator. He said that regular employment in the series helped him make up financial losses caused by the failure of the pension fund he held with The Equitable Life Assurance Society.[10]

On Easter Sunday 1 April 2018, he appeared in a Smithsonian Channel Documentary Series based on his portrayal of the Franco Zeffirelli mini-series Jesus of Nazareth titled, The Real Jesus of Nazareth, narrated by Judd Hirsch. Based in Israel, it covered the life of Jesus juxtaposed with segments of the television series in which Powell starred in 1977.[11] The characters who appeared in the series are also discussed and their historical significance uncovered. The series covered 4 segments, each one hour in length dealing with historical elements of the story along with Powell interviewing biblical historians such as Helen Bond and Candida Moss. The 1977 series starring Powell differed in at least two scenes from the Gospel's historical account: in the film, the Virgin Mary is shown without the angel of the Annunciation and Jesus carries only the horizontal branch of the Holy Cross to Calvary.[12]

Personal life


Powell met his future wife, the Pan's People dancer Barbara "Babs" Lord, backstage at the BBC.[13] On 29 August 1975, shortly before he was due to start filming for Jesus of Nazareth on location in Tunisia, the couple were married. On 23 November 1977, they had their son, Barney, followed in 1979 by a daughter, Kate.

The couple later took up sailing as a pastime.[14] Babs Lord participated in the BT Global Yacht Challenge and the Polar race. Both took part, in different yachts, in a round-the-world race in 2000, though Powell himself was present for only one leg of the race.[15]

Powell was a founder member of the Social Democratic Party in 1981, and campaigned alongside Barry Norman on behalf of the party's first leader, Roy Jenkins.[16]


Year Title Role Notes
1967 Robbery Second man on Locomotive Uncredited
1967 Far from the Madding Crowd Man at Harvest Dance Uncredited
1969 The Italian Job Yellow
1969 Walk a Crooked Path Mullvaney
1971 Jude the Obscure Jude Fawley 6 episodes
1971 Secrets Allan Wood
1972 Running Scared Tom Betancourt
1972 Shelley Percy Bysshe Shelley TV movie
1972 Asylum Dr Martin (segment "Mannikins of Horror")
1973 The Asphyx Giles Cunningham
1974 Mahler Gustav Mahler
1975 Tommy Captain Walker
1975 Looking For Clancy Frank Clancy 5 episodes
1977 Jesus of Nazareth Jesus Christ 4 episodes
1977 Beyond Good and Evil Paul Rée
1978 The Four Feathers Jack Durrance TV movie
1978 The Thirty Nine Steps Richard Hannay
1980 Harlequin Gregory Wolfe
1980 Jane Austen in Manhattan Pierre
1981 The Survivor Keller
1981 La chanson du mal aimé
1982 The Hunchback of Notre Dame Phoebus TV movie
1982 Imperativ Augustin
1983 The Jigsaw Man Jamie Fraser
1983 Pygmalion Higgins TV movie
1984 What Waits Below Rupert 'Wolf' Wolfsen
1984 Frankenstein (1984) Victor Frankenstein TV movie
1985 D'Annunzio Gabriele D'Annunzio
1986 Shaka Zulu Henry Fynn 10 episodes
1987 D'Annunzio Gabriele D'Annunzio
1988 Laggiù nella giungla Paolo Kruger
1988–1989 Hannay Richard Hannay 13 episodes
1990 Romeo.Juliet Romeo Voice
1991 The First Circle Gleb Nershin TV movie
1991 Merlin of the Crystal Cave Ambrosius, Merlin's father 5 episodes
1992 The Long Conversation with the Bird [pl] John Barth TV movie
1992 Chunuk Bair Sgt. Maj. Frank Smith
1992 The Boer War Narrator Documentary
1993 The Mystery of Edwin Drood Jasper
1993 The Legends of Treasure Island Dr Livesy Voice, 8 episodes
1993–1997 The Detectives Dave Briggs 31 episodes
1993 Remembering Titanic Narrator Documentary
1995–1996 Fantomcat Fantomcat Voice, 26 episodes
1997 Pride of Africa David Webb TV movie
2003 Hey Mr DJ Jerome Jackson
2004 The Alchemist of Happiness Al-Ghazali Voice, Documentary
2005 Dalziel and Pascoe Barry Jemmerson Episode: "Heads You Lose"
2005 Colour Me Kubrick Robert
2006 B-Mail The Pink Professor Voice, Short
2007 The Forgotten Children of Congo Narrator Documentary
2008 Hitler’s Bodyguard Narrator Documentary
2009 World War II in HD Colour Narrator Documentary
2017 The Real Jesus of Nazareth Presenter / Narrator Documentary
2020 Jazz Sabbath Narrator Documentary

Other work


In 1995, Powell was one of the readers of Edward Lear poems on a specially made spoken word audio CD bringing together a collection of Lear's nonsense songs.[17]

He provided the narration for Clive Nolan and Oliver Wakeman’s 2002 adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles as a Progressive Rock album.[18][better source needed]


  1. ^ "Robert Powell Biography (1944-)". Filmreference.com. 1 June 1944. Retrieved 12 October 2013.
  2. ^ Walsh, John (6 March 2010). "Sir Ben Kingsley: 'I was blessed by being a very popular child". The Independent. Archived from the original on 8 March 2010. Retrieved 7 March 2010.
  3. ^ Stanton B. Garner (1999). Trevor Griffiths: Politics, Drama, History. University of Michigan Press. p. 105.
  4. ^ Bulgarelli, Massimo (12 April 2020). "Robert Powell e la sua condanna per aver intepretato "Gesù" di Zeffireli" (in Italian). Archived from the original on 29 May 2021.
  5. ^ Mann, Roderick (27 October 1983). "Man who played 'Jesus' to make U.S. film debut". Los Angeles Times. p. E1. Retrieved 12 September 2009. Six years after making his initial impact on American audiences as the star of Franco Zeffirelli's 1977 television film "Jesus of Nazareth", British actor Robert Powell has just finished his first American-made film.
  6. ^ "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner at CD Universe".
  7. ^ Quilliam, Wendy (30 October 2001). "What a performance!". University of Salford News. Archived from the original on 27 January 2006.
  8. ^ Powell, Robert (25 January 2011). "Steve Wright in the Afternoon: with Holby City actor Robert Powell and travel expert Paul Evans". Steve Wright in the Afternoon (Radio interview). Interviewed by Steve Wright; Tim Smith; Janey Lee Grace. BBC Radio 2. Archived from the original (audio) on 18 July 2012. Retrieved 27 January 2011. I've been there for six years, and that was five years longer than I ever anticipated staying, and it just struck me that it was probably time to move on and go back to [my] roots.
  9. ^ Baldwin, Andrew (18 January 2008). "Classic tale for actor of many parts". Huddersfield Daily Examiner.
  10. ^ Roz Lewis (17 June 2018). "Robert Powell: 'My Holby City salary allowed me to rebuild the pension I lost with Equitable Life'". The Telegraph. Retrieved 26 November 2019.
  11. ^ "Speaking for Jesus, an interview with Robert Powell". History UK. Retrieved 26 November 2019.
  12. ^ Ciavarella Aurelio, Mario Ciro (1 April 2019). "Una foto, una storia: il Gesù che non c'era".
  13. ^ Roz Lewis (28 February 2014). "Robert Powell: My family values". The Telegraph. Retrieved 26 November 2019.
  14. ^ "Powell and the passion". Dorset Echo. 10 May 2006. Retrieved 26 November 2019.
  15. ^ David Harrison (3 September 2000). "Policeman quits Downing Street duty for round-the-world yacht race". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 26 November 2019.
  16. ^ Barry Norman (2013). See You in the Morning. Doubleday. p. 175. ISBN 978-0-85752-164-4.
  17. ^ "Nonsense songs (Audiobook on CD, 1995) [WorldCat.org]". Libcat.calacademy.org. 4 January 2019. Retrieved 16 March 2021.
  18. ^ "Clive Nolan & Oliver Wakeman – The Hound Of The Baskervilles". Discogs. Retrieved 23 April 2021.