From White Mischief to Bill & Ted, Joss Ackland was an actor of rare poise, range and pathos


Oss Ackland’s refined demeanor, effortless confidence and British theatrical background ensured he was always in demand on both stage and screen, often portraying authoritative and establishment characters. However, in the 1990s and 2000s, these roles took on a more ironic and satirical tone, much to Ackland’s dismay.

As I matured, my only knowledge of him was through his smooth and pleasant voice, reminiscent of melted butterscotch, heard frequently in a large amount of television commercials. His speech had an air of sophistication with a hint of playfulness and suggestion, like that of a news anchor or clergyman who enjoyed indulging in a fine wine or cigar.

Ackland’s standout role was in Michael Radford’s intense and unsettling film from 1987, White Mischief, which explored the lives of the “Happy Valley” elite. The film, set during the Thatcher era, has since become a cult classic and Ackland’s performance earned him a Bafa nomination. It also helped launch the careers of the charmingly attractive Charles Dance and Greta Scacchi, while Hugh Grant made a brief appearance. Although Ackland played a supporting role and may have been overshadowed by the younger, more visually appealing actors, his performance left a lasting impact.

Joss Ackland with Greta Scacchi and Trevor Howard in White Mischief.

He was Sir Jock Delves Broughton, a prominent member of the group of wealthy British ex-pats living in Kenya during World War II. These colonialists lived a life of leisure, but were also bored and disillusioned, using their income from farming to indulge in drinking, drugs, and extramarital affairs. This excessive lifestyle was made even more decadent by their lack of concern for their country’s struggles during the war. Sir Jock is married to the stunning and high-strung Diana (played by Greta Scacchi), who entered the marriage with the understanding that she could have affairs. She is currently engaged in a passionate and erotic relationship with Josslyn Hay, the Earl of Erroll (played by Dance).

Jock Ackland is a despicable and unfortunate man, who must conceal his feelings of humiliation and betrayal. However, his true emotions are consumed by anger, resulting in violent outbursts and a devastating clash with Diana – a powerful scene with an unexpected conclusion. Ackland embodies the stereotypical elite who despises himself for causing a disturbance, and he resents his spouse for pushing him to do so. His portrayal was impeccable.

But Ackland could also play lower down the social scale — and he had a potent if small role in Michael Tuchner’s brutal 1971 Brit-crime film Villain with Richard Burton as the Kray-esque mobster having to deal with lowlifes and coppers: Ackland played the cringing crim who is partnered up with TP McKenna’s grandee gangster. Ackland was part of the blue-chip generation of beautifully spoken, classically trained British performers who lent substance and flair to many movies like this.

Ackland’s devoted following adores his over-the-top role in the British horror cult classic “The House that Dripped Blood” from 1970. This anthology film features Ackland alongside Peter Cushing in a tale of his character’s fixation on a wax museum exhibit that ends in a horrifying climax.

Ackland bravely accepted some film roles that may not have been top-tier, as he acknowledged himself. He played Matisse in James Ivory’s disturbing Surviving Picasso alongside Anthony Hopkins, and also appeared in two Demi Moore films despite reportedly not holding her acting abilities in high regard.

Ackland in Lethal Weapon 2 (1989).

He had a talent for portraying foreign accents with clever humor and enthusiasm, and was convincing in his role as the Soviet ambassador in John McTernan’s 1990 film The Hunt for Red October, alongside Sean Connery and Alec Baldwin. He also played a Russian character, this time the Soviet defense minister, in Kathryn Bigelow’s K19: The Widowmaker.

In the film Lethal Weapon 2, Joss Ackland played the untrustworthy Arlen Rudd, a politician from South Africa with a sly demeanor. For younger viewers, Ackland’s memorable role was as Chuck De Nomolos, a strange teacher-turned-terrorist from the future in Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, who harbors a grudge against the easygoing protagonists.

Ackland was the model English character actor who probably found his best work on the stage or on television but had a robust career in the movies — and his Sir Jock Delves Broughton was a mighty achievement, exposing the hypocrisy and wretchedness in Britain’s entitled upper classes.


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