Nicholas Donnelly obituary

·3 min read

My brother-in-law Nicholas Donnelly, who has died aged 83, was an actor best known for the role of Mr MacKenzie in the BBC television series Grange Hill. From 1985 to 1993, he played the Scottish woodwork teacher in the fictional north London comprehensive, a popular character for a generation of children.

His other roles included 16 years as Sgt Johnny Wills in the BBC television police series Dixon of Dock Green, from 1960 to 1976. This began as a walk-on part but he persuaded the director to let him develop the role.

Nick was a Londoner, born in Kensington to Irish parents. He enjoyed telling stories of how at the start of his career he waylaid directors for parts. If they had said casually they would see him, he held them to it. His contemporaries and friends included Tommy Steele and Lionel Bart, young men enjoying the jazz clubs.

A lifelong supporter of Queens Park Rangers, Nick was amused one day, taking his sons to a match, when the fans started whistling the Dixon theme tune: An Ordinary Copper. He was also in The Saint, the 1960s television thriller series starring Roger Moore, and his film roles ranged from the horror thriller Venom (1981) to the comedy Carry on Sergeant (1958).

Nick was the second of four children born to Margaret (nee Barry) and James Donnelly, who had left Waterford and Carlow respectively for west London, where they met. James had a window cleaning business in Bayswater, Maida Vale and Little Venice, and Margaret was catering manager at a girls’ prep school. The family was bombed out twice in the blitz. Nick aged two was dug out of the rubble. His mother steeled herself as she told a rescuer: “If he is dead, you can tell me.” When someone said a toddler had asked for “Kinkie”, Nick’s name for his sister Peggy, she knew he was alive.

He went to what was then Cardinal Vaughan grammar school in Holland Park. Surprisingly for those of us who knew Nick as a gentle soul, he is still on the disciplinary ledger. He threw something in a lesson at a bully who had made fun of a pupil who did not know the answer to a question. Nick got the cane. But later the headmaster gave him an apple because he had immediately owned up to the crime.

While stationed in Germany for national service in the late 1950s, Nick met his wife, Alrun Sauré, a Berliner. They married in 1959 and settled in Twickenham, where they had two sons and twin daughters. They were married for over 62 years. In 1993, he and Alrun retired to Hastings, where he became a special minister of his Catholic church, St Mary Star of the Sea. He was a member of the Knights of St Columba and the Catenians.

Nick died suddenly. He had not been ill. He went to sleep on a Saturday night, and did not wake up. A happy man, he was a gracious host and great raconteur.

Nick is survived by Alrun, his sons, James and Barry, his daughter Abigail, five grandchildren, his sister, Peggy, and brothers, John and Martin. His daughter Alexandra died in 2016.

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