All West Wing fans in particular were saddened to hear the news of the passing of actor Roger Rees. A Welsh actor of both stage and screen died late last night of what has been only described as ‘died from a brief illness’. His television and movie acting credits reach into the 90’s and are widely considered secondary to his stage resume. Most recently seen performing in the Broadway musical “The Visit”, which a number of sources claim he was forced to leave mid run due to the illness that would take his life. Depending on your age and exposure, there are any number of roles you may be familiar with spanning the spectrum. From Cheers to The West Wing. Boston Common to Robin Hood: Men In Tights. He was a skilled actor whose mark on acting will be sorely missed for anyone who had the opportunity to witness it.
Today in reverence of his passing, we will focus on a few episodes of his short, but unforgettable run on what I believe to be the greatest television show ever produced. The West Wing. Amidst the very American portrayal of life, relationships and conflict resolution inside the offices of the United States White House, a story line develops that introduces us to the very layered character known as Lord John Marbury. His full title is Lord John Marbury, the hereditary Earl of Selborne, Earl of Croy, Marquess of Needham and Dolby, Baronet of Brycey and England’s Ambassador to the United States. That last part comes later. In the wake of a fictional ‘skirmish’ between India, China, and Pakistan over the controlling stake of Kashmir, President Bartlet extends an invitation to what he describes to his Chief of Staff as “an Indian expert”. His Chief of Staff, Leo McGarry knows almost immediately to whom he speaks. And is not in the slightest bit enthusiastic about such an invitation.
Upon his arrival, Lord John Marbury is visibly drunk and has no problem suggesting as much when he describes the flight over as “intoxicating”. This is the first sense of Lord John Marbury’s overall demeanor. It’s also the image the Leo keeps in the front of his mind whenever Lord Marbury’s name is mentioned. However, it is in no way the beginning and the end of this character. While Marbury seems to be at the very least a connoisseur of Scotch, he is also a very educated man with serious opinions about serious issues. The Indian conflict only being the very first one.
During the concern over the Indian/Kashmir issue Marbury makes it abundantly clear that this is a conflict of religion and the United States government need only blame themselves (or Congress specifically) for being as uninformed of the nuances of the conflict as well as permitting these nations to move towards a nuclear standoff. In the West Wing, this is the first time an outsider is introduced into the President’s small circle of advisers. As if that were not contrasting enough, the character of Lord John Marbury is literally a walking and talking contrast to virtually every other character involved. This is a tightrope that only a well skilled thespian can deliver. And deliver, Roger Rees does.
To suggest that Roger Rees effectively portrays the British Ambassador would vastly diminish his performances. Rees literally steals every single scene he’s in. Whether we are referencing his humorously condescending turned term of endearment, “GERALD” or delivering a very eloquent position on an issue of global importance, he always steals the scene. All the way down to something as simple as his response to “Can I call you John?” The West Wing has a cast absolutely saturated with top flight acting talent of the time. I still maintain that it is the only show in history that can boast over 100 cast members of note. Probably none of which except Roger Rees that could have pulled off the performance of Lord John Marbury.
As a relative contrast from his first appearance in the aptly titled episode “Lord John Marbury” to the more adamant episode titled “Dead Irish Writers”, we begin to peel back the layers. As if it were a running gag in the writers room, Marbury repeats many many times, “Brendan McGann cannot visit the White House”. As the episode progresses we see the subtlety that few actors possess. The ability to slowly, snails crawl slowly, transition from forcefully committing to the statement as if it were his own strong conviction to the eventuality that his own actual opinion is quite the contrary. Now this transition almost literally spans the length of the episode. At the conclusion of which, Marbury makes it clear that the United States must invite Mr. McGann in an effort to resolve tension. Even if it is the English government’s firm stance to not associate with a man responsible for death and destruction brought through terrorist acts against England as well as Ireland.
Marbury: A terrorist is a terrorist even if he sings, Danny Boy. Brendan McGann cannot visit the White House.
Toby:Then what can we do but talk to him?
Marbury: Nothing. You must talk to him.
Marbury: Toby, despite appearances, I do have lucid moments, and I know that England is… running out of turns in this particular… but as, uh, Ambassador to Her Majesty’s Government, I must tell you that…
Toby: Brendan McGann cannot come to the White House.
Toby: Understood, Mr. Ambassador.
During season 2 in an episode called, “The Drop In”, there is a very simple matter the ceremonious duty of naming Lord John Marbury to the post of England’s Ambassador to the United States. So simple that Marbury gets pushed back later in the day due to so many such ceremonies being performed in a single day. This opens the door for Chief of Staff Leo McGarry to try an solicit support for a missile defense shield program from his greatest adversary, the about to be newly commissioned British Ambassador John Marbury. Support McGarry will not get.
Leo: And you’re an expert in the field. And I hope I can count on your support.
Marbury: You may hope for it but you’ll not have it.
Leo: Why not?
Marbury: Because the NMD is an absurdly wasteful military boondoggle that will never produce a working missile. It violates any number of elements of the ABM treaty. And any argument you make in its defense will surely be moronic.
There are a number of characters throughout this series who display a desire to beat the other side for the sake of winning. Admitting up front and with no hesitation that the issue or legislation in question has nothing to do with what’s best for the American people. That the goal here is to win. Or more specifically beat the White House. This is not the case for Marbury. He is not out to beat Leo. However, his convictions, knowledge of the issue at hand, and overall understanding of how the world works puts him in a unique situation to battle with Leo and often effectively articulate his side of the debate. Often still, converting those around him to that side of the debate.
The character of Lord John Marbury is more specific and in need of being delivered in just the right way that not just anyone would be capable of delivering it successfully. While we have only looked at three different scenes found in the first half of the series, Roger Rees’ contributions to the series were almost immeasurable. The show in total is so completely magnificent that calling Lord John Marbury the flower amidst the desert would be disrespectful to the rest of the product. Like so many characters in this show, his contribution is impressive. To even suggest the concept of the show without his performance would downgrade the product overall. As it would the performances of John Spencer, Martin Sheen, Allison Janney and many more too numerous to mention.
The West Wing is a phenomenal production in television history for two very significant reasons. The first of which that never seems to go unnoticed is the level of writing that the fans of the show herald as the genius of Aaron Sorkin. The second is the contributions or the interpretation of said writing brought to life by the actors. I cannot speak to whether the character of Lord John Marbury was created from the beginning or if he was created along the way as the story line evolved. What is certain, is that Roger Rees brought Lord John Marbury to life. Each and every moment Rees is on scene, he brings that character to life. Arguably the most colorful and entertaining cast member of maybe the most decorated and lauded cast ever assembled.
It’s important to acknowledge that Rees’ contributions to art of acting by no way is limited to five episodes on an American television show. However, his work therein seems to exemplify the actor that he was. Whether you were introduced to him early or late, stage or screen, Roger Rees brought a certain commanding quality to his craft that not everyone brings. There is a difference between doing the job and excelling at the job. At this point, it goes without saying that Roger Rees excelled at the craft of acting. In today’s age of instant streaming, DVRs, and on-demand libraries, I would strongly recommend you look into the contributions of one “Roger Rees”. Personally, I would suggest starting with The West Wing, but clearly that would be biased on some level.
Roger Rees, who died doing what he loved, passing at the age of 71. He and his contributions will be genuinely missed.