Julian Curry, actor known from Rumpole who also created a popular one-man show on wine – obituary

Telegraph Obituaries
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As Claude Erskine-Brown in Thames Television's Rumpole of the Bailey - Thames TV archive/Shutterstock
As Claude Erskine-Brown in Thames Television's Rumpole of the Bailey - Thames TV archive/Shutterstock

Julian Curry, who has died aged 82, was an actor with a list of credits ranging from numerous RSC productions through to Inspector Morse, though he was best known for playing the pompous Claude Erskine-Brown in the ITV series Rumpole of the Bailey (1978–1992).

Curry was also a oenophile celebrated, in 2000, for his one-man show, Hic! Or the Entire History of Wine (Abridged), which he opened with the Italian proverb: “A barrel of wine can work more miracles than a church full of saints”, and performed more than 150 times in small theatres, clubs, wine merchants and hotels all over the world.

Acclaimed: Curry's one-man show inspired by a lifelong love of wine
Acclaimed: Curry's one-man show inspired by a lifelong love of wine

Julian Burnlee Curry was born on December 8 1937 and educated at Dartington Hall School in Devon, where his father, Bill, was headmaster. As a child he enjoyed visits from his maternal aunt Moyna Macgill, a popular actress of the 1920s and the mother of Angela Lansbury.

Both his parents were wine-lovers and Julian was encouraged to drink watered-down wine from a tender age – “as any French child would do”.

Soon after the Second World War, Bill Curry got into the habit of importing a barrel of French wine annually.

“The first time, [Customs and Excise] impounded the barrel, suspecting him of trying to smuggle in something stronger,” Julian recalled. By the time it arrived at Dartington it had turned into vinegar.

Julian Curry himself would continue this tradition, usually sourcing wine from the northern Rhone.

His route into the theatre was via King’s College, Cambridge, where contemporaries included Derek Jacobi, Ian McKellen and Trevor Nunn, as well as the wine writer Hugh Johnson (“who got more out of the college cellars than I ever did”).

The Erskine-Brown family -  Fremantle Media/Shutterstock
The Erskine-Brown family - Fremantle Media/Shutterstock

Bypassing drama school, Curry got a job as second spear-carrier on an RSC tour, and from then on was rarely out of work, appearing frequently with the RSC and the National Theatre, as well as in numerous films and television series.

In 2018 he was nominated for the Theatre Book Prize for his Twelve Leading Actors on Twelve Key Roles in which Sir Ian McKellen observed of Macbeth that he “should have stuck with being a soldier and shouldn’t have gone into civilian politics”.

Curry made his first television appearance in 1965 in an episode of For Whom the Bell Tolls – and one of his last in Midsomer Murders (2004) in which he showed his naked backside on screen “for the first and only time in 40 years”.

But it was as Claude Erskine-Brown, finicky colleague of Leo McKern’s Rumpole, that he became familiar to television viewers.

In one episode Curry’s character, an opera-lover who has twins called Tristan and Isolde, goes to a sex club while investigating a case and is photographed by a tabloid. Forced to leave his wife Phillida (Patricia Hodge) temporarily because of the ensuing scandal, he moves in with Rumpole, charming Hilda Rumpole (Marion Mathie) and irritating her husband with his insistence on having muesli rather than bacon and eggs for breakfast.

With Anna Calder-Marshall in Love at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, London, 2008 - Alastair Muir/Shutterstock
With Anna Calder-Marshall in Love at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, London, 2008 - Alastair Muir/Shutterstock

Curry’s interest in wine led to a diploma from the Wine and Spirit Education Trust. For a time he was a member of the Circle of Wine Writers and wrote and recorded the four-CD Naxos audiobook A Guide to Wine (2003). In later life he led guided tours of vineyards.

Curry’s highly praised one-man show, Hic! was a tour de force culled from musings on wine by diverse authors including Wodehouse, Euripides, Ogden Nash, Thucydides, Shakespeare, Wilde, Dorothy Parker – as well as Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson. He also published it as a slim paperback.

He was also a skilled semi-professional potter, having been taught by Bernard Forrester at Dartington.

Curry’s marriages to the Scottish actress Sheila Reid and Josephine Edmunds were dissolved. He is survived by his third wife, the actress and writer Mary Chater, and by two sons from his second marriage.

Julian Curry, born December 8 1937, died June 27 2020