Harcourt Williams

Ernest George Harcourt Williams (30 March 1880 – 13 December 1957) was an English actor and director. After early experience in touring companies he established himself as a character actor and director in the West End. From 1929 to 1934 he was director of The Old Vic theatre company; among the actors he recruited were John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson. After directing some fifty plays he resigned the directorship of the Old Vic but continued to appear in the company's productions throughout the rest of his career. He appeared in thirty cinema and television roles during his later years.

Ernest George Harcourt Williams
Williams in 1920
Born30 March 1880
Died13 December 1957
OccupationActor, director

Life and careerEdit

Williams was born in Croydon, Surrey, the son of John Williams, a merchant.[1] He was educated at Beckenham Abbey and Whitgift Grammar School, Croydon.[1] After taking drama lessons he joined Frank Benson's touring company in 1897. He remained with Benson for five years, and made his London debut at the Lyceum in 1900, playing Sir Thomas Grey in Henry V.[1]

Harcourt Williams both co-directed and starred in Rosina Filippi's adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, in a play called The Bennets at the Royal Court Theatre in a special matinee on 29 March 1901. He co-directed with Winifred Mayo, doing double duty by acting as hero Mr. Darcy, opposite Mayo's Elizabeth Bennet. This makes Williams the first known actor to play Mr. Darcy on the professional stage.[2]

He then worked for three other companies, including that of Ellen Terry, which he joined in 1903.[3]

In 1906 Williams made his American debut, with H B Irving, touring the US for a year.[1] After returning to Britain he was in George Alexander's company before returning for another period with Irving. He married the actress Jean Sterling Mackinlay in 1908. Their son John Sterling became a well-known pianist.[4]

In the First World War, as a conscientious objector, he volunteered for the Friends' Ambulance Unit.

One of Williams's most notable parts of this period was General Lee in John Drinkwater's Abraham Lincoln in 1919;[4] he later switched to the role of the Chronicler in the same production.[5] In 1922, in Mary Stuart by Drinkwater, he was "exquisitely repulsive" as Darnley.[6] In a third historical drama by the same author he was John Hampden in Oliver Cromwell at His Majesty's in 1923, to the Cromwell of Henry Ainley.[7] In 1923 he directed G K Chesterton's play Magic at the Everyman Theatre.[8] In 1926 he appeared in John Barrymore's production of Hamlet at the Haymarket Theatre, as the Player King.[9]

In 1929, when he was forty-nine, Lilian Baylis appointed Williams as the new director of her Old Vic theatre company. He was responsible for engaging first John Gielgud and then Ralph Richardson to join the Old Vic as leading man.[4] Over the next four years Williams directed about fifty plays for the company, also acting in many of the productions.[4] He expanded the Old Vic's traditional repertoire to include modern works by Bernard Shaw and others.[4] The biographer Jonathan Croall writes of Williams:

A sweet, gentle and trusting man, a conscientious objector during the Great War, he was universally known as Billie, and as a vegetarian lived on Bemax [a wheatgerm healthfood] and bread and cheese. … But behind the eccentric façade was a fanatical enthusiast for the theatre. … Williams was an imaginative producer, with a great feel for Shakespeare's poetry, and a desire to introduce a more psychological interpretation of character. He was also a man with a mission: to get rid of the mannered "Shakespearean voice", to break down the deliberate style of verse-speaking which made productions over-long and tedious. … Scene changes, which often held up the action, would be swift and simple. Above all, the text would be inviolate.[10]

After leaving the directorship of the Old Vic, handing over to Tyrone Guthrie after the 1933–34 season, Williams frequently accepted invitations to act with the company, for Guthrie and his successors.[4] He appeared in thirty film and television roles between 1944 and 1956.[11] In 1953 he appeared in A Day by the Sea by N.C. Hunter. Williams celebrated his golden jubilee as an actor while appearing in a long-running production of Shaw's You Never Can Tell described by The Times as "the liveliest show in town".[12] He died in London after a long illness, aged 77.[4]

Screen rolesEdit

Williams's cinema and television roles were:

Year Title Role Notes
1944 Henry V Charles VI of France
1947 Brighton Rock Prewitt
1948 Vice Versa Judge
1948 Hamlet First Player
1948 No Room at the Inn Rev Mr Allworth
1949 Third Time Lucky Doc
1949 For Them That Trespass Second judge
1949 Trottie True Duke of Wellwater
1949 The Lost People Priest
1949 Under Capricorn Coachman
1950 The Frog Prince Script TV
1950 The Admirable Crichton Earl of Loam TV
1950 The Lady's Not for Burning Hebble Tyson, the Mayor TV
1950 Thérèse Raquin Monsieur Michaud TV
1950 The Master Builder Dr Herdal TV
1950 Your Witness Richard Beamish, Sam's Solicitor
1950 Cage of Gold Dr Kearn
1950 A Midsummer Night's Dream Peter Quince, the carpenter TV
1951 The Late Edwina Black Dr Septimus Prendergast
1951 Green Grow the Rushes Chairman of the bench
1951 The Magic Box Tom, workman at Lege & Co
1952 Music at Night Charles Bendrex TV
1952 The Bishop's Treasure The Bishop TV
1952 The King and the Mockingbird The Old Beggar Voice
1953 Time Bomb Vicar
1953 The Blakes Slept Here Narrator
1953 Roman Holiday Ambassador
1955 The Flying Eye Professor Murdoch
1955 The Hideaway Mr Collins TV
1955 The Adventures of Quentin Durward Bishop of Liége
1956 The Advancing Shadow George Cornelius TV
1956 Around the World in 80 Days Hinshaw – Reform Club Aged Steward (final film role)


  1. ^ a b c d Parker, pp. 990–991
  2. ^ Looser, Devoney (2017). The Making of Jane Austen. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press. p. 100. ISBN 1421422824.
  3. ^ Hayman, p. 51
  4. ^ a b c d e f g "Obituary, Mr Harcourt Williams", The Times, 14 December 1957, p. 11
  5. ^ "Abraham Lincoln Revisited", The Times, 28 November 1919, p. 10
  6. ^ "Mary Stuart", The Times, 26 September 1922, p. 8
  7. ^ Parker, p. lxi
  8. ^ Parker, p. lxvii
  9. ^ Parker, p. cxvi
  10. ^ Croall, pp. 113–114
  11. ^ a b "Filmography", British Film Institute. Retrieved 24 February 2014
  12. ^ "Wyndham's Theatre", The Times, 4 October 1947, p. 6


  • Croall, Jonathan (2000). Gielgud – A Theatrical Life, 1904–2000. London: Methuen. ISBN 0413745600.
  • Hayman, Ronald (1971). Gielgud. London: Heinemann. ISBN 0435184008.
  • Parker, John (1925). Who's Who in the Theatre (fifth ed.). London: Sir Isaac Pitman and Sons. OCLC 10013159.

External linksEdit