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Michael Gough, RIP

You know, I’m never quite sure what to say about the passing of actors who I only really associate with one particular role. It’s not even that the role is all that I know them from or that I haven’t seen them anywhere else – I am well aware that Michael Gough’s prolific career spanned everything from theatre to movies to television, in the UK and the USA. However, to me, Gough will probably always be Alfred. I just hope I am not doing the distinguished actor a disservice by remembering him like that.

I am, of course, familiar with the performer’s work on any number of cult Hammer Horror films. I got a little bit excited when I heard his voice in Tim Burton’s The Corpse Bride. It’s a shame that his role as the Celestial Toymaker in a classic Doctor Who serial was (mostly) lost to the sands of time, even though he did return for an audio play as the character. (He would have appeared in the role again in the live action series, if not for a last-minute production reshuffle caused by falling ratings.)

Still, when I picture Gough, I imagine him dressed in his suit with those glasses, uttering an affectionate putdown like, “It’s gazpacho; it’s meant to be cold.” Gough played Alfred in all four big screen Batman movies directed by Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher. Along with the late Pat Hingle, Gough provided a comforting sense of continuity across four films which featured three actors as the Caped Crusader and more than a handful of radical production design overhauls.

Much like Michael Keaton’s Bruce Wayne, Gough played Alfred with a reserved and quiet dignity. He lacked the loud sense of humour and warmth that Michael Caine would bring to the character, but there was always a sense of a lot going on underneath the surface. The script to the first two films didn’t exactly offer the two actors a great deal of material to work with, but you got the sense that Alfred was silently supportive of his master – and perhaps quietly hoped that some day his young ward would outgrow these childish revenge fantasies (seeming very excited, for example, when “Master Bruce” would encounter a young lady with an interest in him).

More often than not, it’s Gough I picture when I think of Alfred. Just like one hears a particular voice when reading their favourite character (and, for me, Kevin Conroy is Batman), I seem to superimpose the image of Gough over Alfred in any Batman book I’m reading. It’s hard to figure out exactly why – Michael Caine’s version of the character is more developed and more proactive – but there was just something in Gough’s performance as the eternally stoic and faithful companion (Batman’s only constant companion) that stood out to me.

Perhaps I am selling Gough short. I should be able to suggest a greater accomplishment than a small role in four big budget blockbusters. But I’ll let the papers do that, while perhaps attempting to offer a balanced overview of a long and impressive career. I don’t pretend to speak for some sort of consensus on the classic British actor. I feel it’s only right that I speak to my own thoughts on the man. And they are articulated here.

2 Responses

  1. As bad as it sounds to say this, I was actually under the impression that Michael Gough had died a few years ago. When I saw “Corpse Bride” in theaters, I assumed it was a posthumous voice performance. It was only when Burton’s “Alice” came out, and I recognized his voice, that I checked IMDb and realized my error.

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