Robert Powell

Robert Powell (/ˈpəl/; born June 1, 1944) is an English actor and voice actor, best known for the title roles in Mahler (1974) and Jesus of Nazareth (1977), and for his portrayal of secret agent in Richard Hannay in The Thirty Nine Steps and its subsequent spinoff television series. Other major screen roles have included Mark Williams in the BBC One medical drama Holby City, (2005-11) David Briggs in the sitcom The Detectives alongside Jasper Carrott, and Tobias 'Toby' Wren in the science-fiction programme Doomwatch.

Robert Powell
Robert Powell
Born (1944-06-01) 1 June 1944
OccupationActor, voice actor
Years active1966–present
Barbara Lord (m. 1975)
  • Barney Powell (b. 1977)
  • Kate Powell (b. 1979)

His distinctive voice has become well known in advertisements and documentaries, especially in World War II documentaries including World War II in HD Colour, Hitler's Bodyguard, The Story of the Third Reich and Secrets of World War II.

Powell has been nominated for a BAFTA Award and won a Best Actor Award from the Venice Film Festival.

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 the Royal College of Advanced Technology, Salford.


Powell took up acting while an undergraduate, although he had already 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 had aspired to become a lawyer and in 1963–64 attended an external London University LLB degree course at the Manchester College of Commerce but at the same time took acting roles under Trevor Nunn. At the College of Commerce he swapped roles with Bernard Brandon in a week-long College Revue of Comedy Sketches to see which role gave him "the best laughs". This early comedy experience was later to be fulfilled with Jasper Carrott. After this he secured a post at a repertory theatre in Stoke-on-Trent. His first film part was in Robbery when he played the engine driver who was coshed in the Stanley Baker film about the Great Train Robbery. 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). 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.

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.

Powell then agreed to a request from his old 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.

In 1984, Powell made his U.S. film debut in What Waits Below (also known as Secrets of the Phantom Caverns).[3]

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's distinctive voice is frequently heard on voice-overs, advertisements and as a narrator of television programmes such as Great Crimes and Trials and 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,[4] 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.[5] 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.[6] 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.[7] 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.[8]

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 film series in which Powell starred in 1977.[9] The characters who appeared in the film 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.

Personal life

Powell met his future wife, the Pan's People dancer Babs Lord, backstage at the BBC.[10] In 1975, shortly before he was due to start filming for Jesus of Nazareth on location in Morocco, the couple got 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 [11] Babs 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.[12]

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.[13]


2017The Real Jesus of NazarethNarratordocumentary
2008-2009World War II in HD ColourNarratordocumentary
2007The Forgotten Children of CongoNarratordocumentary
2006B-MailThe Pink Professorvoiceover, short animation
2004The Alchemist of HappinessAl-Ghazalivoiceover, documentary
1997Pride of AfricaDavid Webb
1995–1996FantomcatFantomcatVoice, animation
1993–1997The DetectivesDave Briggs
1993The Mystery of Edwin DroodJasper
1992Das lange Gespräch mit dem VogelJohn Barth
1992The First CircleGleb Nershin
1992Chunuk BairSgt. Maj. Frank Smith
1991Merlin of the Crystal CaveAmbrosius (father of Merlin
1988–1989HannayRichard Hannay
1986Shaka ZuluHenry Fynn
1985D'AnnunzioGabriele D'Annunzio
1984What Waits BelowRupert 'Wolf' Wolfsen
1983The Jigsaw ManJamie Fraser
1982The Hunchback of Notre DamePhoebus
1981The SurvivorKeller
1980Jane Austen in ManhattanPierre
1980HarlequinGregory Wolfe
1978The Thirty Nine StepsHannay
1978The Four FeathersJack Durrance
1977Beyond Good and EvilPaul Rée
1977Jesus of NazarethJesus Christ
1975Looking For ClancyFrank Clancy
1975TommyCaptain Walker
1974MahlerGustav Mahler
1973The AsphyxGiles Cunningham
1972ShelleyPercy Bysshe Shelley
1972AsylumDr Martin
1972Running ScaredTom Betancourt
1971SecretsAllan Wood
1971Jude the ObscureJude Fawley
1969The Italian JobYellow
1969Walk a Crooked PathMullvaney
1967RobberyDeltic Train Guarduncredited


  1. "Robert Powell Biography (1944-)". 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. 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.
  4. "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner at CD Universe".
  5. Quilliam, Wendy (30 October 2001). "What a performance!". University of Salford News. Archived from the original on 27 January 2006.
  6. 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.
  7. Baldwin, Andrew (18 January 2008). "Classic tale for actor of many parts". Huddersfield Daily Examiner.
  8. 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.
  9. "Speaking for Jesus, an interview with Robert Powell". History UK. Retrieved 26 November 2019.
  10. Roz Lewis (28 February 2014). "Robert Powell: My family values". The Telegraph. Retrieved 26 November 2019.
  11. "Powell and the passion". Dorset Echo. 10 May 2006. Retrieved 26 November 2019.
  12. David Harrison (3 September 2000). "Policeman quits Downing Street duty for round-the-world yacht race". The Telegraph. Retrieved 26 November 2019.
  13. Barry Norman (2013). See You in the Morning. Doubleday. p. 175. ISBN 978-0-85752-164-4.
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