Clifford Rose, who has died aged 92, won his greatest renown as an actor in BBC Television’s Second World War drama Secret Army playing Ludwig Kessler, the coldly sadistic head of the Gestapo in Belgium who is no respecter of the Geneva Convention.
Over three popular series (1977-79), Rose – unsmiling, with close-cropped hair and rimless spectacles – was the nemesis of Bernard Hepton’s café owner, Albert Foiret, who provides the base for Lifeline, a Belgian evasion group risking their lives to rescue Allied aircrew shot down by the Luftwaffe.
High-quality scripts and totally convincing performances by Rose and others made for tense drama, notably in Kessler’s sharp exchanges with Major Brandt (Michael Culver), the less brutal head of the Luftwaffe. Tensions reach a peak in the third series as Kessler’s fanatical loyalty to the Führer clashes with the melancholy disillusionment of Terrence Hardiman’s Reinhardt, a “good German”, war hero and recipient of the Iron Cross, who sees that Germany is losing the war but is nevertheless determined to penetrate the resistance.
Rose’s character, based on the real-life SS chief in Belgium, Ernst Ehlers, who committed suicide before being brought to justice, rises to the rank of Standartenführer as the Allies sweep into Belgium. Rose convincingly portrays Kessler’s scheming malevolence – for example, to save himself after he has been captured he callously betrays Reinhardt, who has finally succeeded in uncovering the truth about Lifeline – and also sentimental, in tender moments with his Belgian girlfriend, Madeleine Duclos (Hazel McBride).
The chilling persona that Rose brought to the screen convinced BBC bosses to spin him off into his own series, Kessler (1981). In this sequel set in the present day, he had a new identity, Manfred Dorf, and was a rich industrialist and neo-Nazi who is revealed to be a fugitive from the Israelis.
But the series lacked the ingredients that had made Secret Army so riveting – and a direct inspiration for the sitcom ’Allo ’Allo, which spoofed the deadly earnest original.
Perhaps surprisingly, Rose’s fan mail was overwhelmingly positive, applauding his realistic portrayal. “Anthony Valentine, who had played a similar character in Colditz, told me he used to get lots of really nasty letters,” he recalled.
For a while, Rose was typecast and found himself playing Moltke, a Gestapo officer, in the TV movie The Cold Room (1984) and Heinz Kammler, an SS general, in the epic American mini-series War and Remembrance (1987).
More recently, he had a small role as the Dean of Windsor in a 2019 episode of The Crown.
John Clifford Rose was born in the village of Hamnish Clifford (after which he was named), near Leominster, Herefordshire, on October 24 1929, the eldest of three sons, to Violet (née Pratt), a piano teacher and former nurse, and Percy Rose, who farmed a smallholding and was a lay preacher.
After the family moved to Whitton, near Ludlow in Shropshire, he attended King’s School, Worcester, but his hopes of getting into medical school were dashed when he was turned down five times.
Instead, he planned to follow his younger brother, David – who was training at Rada – into acting but first took a degree in English at King’s College, London. David Rose became a television actor whose roles included that of Harry Wade, a married man whose affair with Sheila Harvey in Crossroads caused a frisson of excitement among the soap opera’s viewers in the early 1970s.
After graduating in 1953, he joined the touring Elizabethan Theatre Company, based in Devon and performing Shakespeare plays directed by John Barton and Peter Hall.
He made his debut as the French ambassador and other characters in Henry V, which was also staged for a live BBC television broadcast.
In 1960 Barton and Hall took Rose to the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, and he became a founding member of the Royal Shakespeare Company the following year.
From 1961 to 2006 he appeared in more than 100 RSC productions, acting in all but three Shakespeare plays.
His roles included the ghost to Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet in 1992-93 and he particularly enjoyed playing Antonio in The Merchant of Venice on tour (1993-94).
On television, alongside one-off authority roles – as doctors, judges and the like – he took some more subtle parts, among them as the sadistic psychologist Dr Snell in Callan between 1969 and 1972; the ambitious, self-righteous journalist Quintus Slide in 1974 episodes of The Pallisers; the ruthless, wheeler-dealer air-freight company boss Charles Burton in Buccaneer (1980); the slave spaceship captain Rorvik in the lacklustre 1981 Doctor Who story “Warriors’ Gate”; Challon, in the second and third series (1984-87) of the vet drama One by One; George V in the TV movie Wallis & Edward (2005); and a priest in a US cable television version of Four Weddings and a Funeral (2019).
Rose’s occasional film roles included a bailiff alongside Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011). In the same year, he appeared as Margaret Thatcher’s gynaecologist at a dinner party in The Iron Lady.
Clifford Rose married in 1957 the actress Celia Ryder, who died in 2012. He is survived by their daughter and son.
Clifford Rose, born October 24 1929, died November 6 2021