Saturday 27 December 2014

Stephen Lewis

ITV sitcom 'On The Buses' star, Stephen Lewis

Stephen Lewis:

Dec 17 1926 – Aug 12 2015

'What's this bus doing here? You're due at the cemetery gates in four minutes! Oh my good gawd! I hate you, Butler!'  Etc, etc...

Another of the great cohort of working class acting talent brought to prominence by Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop in the late '50s. This hulking ex-merchant seaman proved to be a talented writer, creating the play, and later screenplay, for 'Sparrows Can't Sing' (1960), a unique slice of London kitchen sink comedy-drama with the young Barbara Windsor, Roy Kinnear, Brian Murphy, Murray Melvin and James Booth. 

Stephen Lewis, credited as Stephen Cato
An early role as a heavy in 'The Frightened City' (1961). At this point he was
using the stage name Stephen Cato, but soon after reverted to his own name  

Screengrab of Stephen Lewis, British actor
A fleeting appearance as a scrap dealer in the gloomy and pretentious
'Negatives' (1969), which starred Glenda Jackson and Peter McEnery  

His further acting and writing ambitions appear to have been effectively sidelined when his gawping characterisation of Blakey, the miserable bus company inspector in the grimly dim-witted sitcom 'On The Buses', proved so popular that the programme became a ratings-topping British institution. His performance as Blakey was in such demand that it led to not only a direct spin-off, 'Don't Drink the Water' with Pat Coombs, but a series of near-identical portrayals of sketch-show park keepers, station masters, and traffic wardens. There were also extended spells in the nostalgic Perry & Croft railway sitcom 'Oh Doctor Beeching!' and as 'Smiler' in the long-running 'Last of The Summer Wine', both of which saw him finessing his woebegone Blakey character.            

with Reg Varney, Stephen Lewis, unidentified actress
In a typical 'On The Buses' set up with cheeky middle-aged lothario/sex-pest
Stan Butler (Reg Varney, left) and one of the endless unlikely dolly-bird
conductresses or 'clippies' in thrall to his giggly Brylcremed charms
There were a few small cinema appearances. As well as his own 'Sparrows Can't Sing' (1961), he crops up in a few Brit b-movies including a Soho thug in 'The Frightened City '(1961) and a military policeman in the Army heist movie 'A Prize of Arms' (1962). Naturally, he reprised his role as Blakey in the money-spinning big screen adaptations from the OTB franchise - 'On The Buses' (1971), 'Mutiny On The Buses' (1972) and 'Holiday On The Buses' (1973), as well as similar jobsworth personas in star-studded farces like 'Some Will Some Won't' (1970) and 'The Magnificent Seven Deadly Sins' (1971).

Something a bit different was a turn as a blonde gay pick-up for Rex Harrison in the excruciating Stanley Donen camp-fest 'Staircase' (1968) with Richard Burton, to complete a spectacular hat-trick of miscasting.        

'Staircase' (1968)
'Staircase' (1968) A blonde and booted Lewis finds himself in the middle of
another ridiculous mincing tiff between Rex Harrison and Richard Burton  
These days, he has hung up his raincoat and clipboard, and is apparently comfortably retired from acting - born in 1926, he is approaching 90 after all. At one time he was regularly spotted having a quiet lunch at Peter Jones department store off Sloane Square. Long may he continue to do so.     

Update Aug 2015: So sad to hear that Stephen Lewis has passed on at the age of 88. He was one character actor that I had hopes of meeting one day. That won't now happen, but I thank him here for his quirky contributions to British cultural identity.  

Stephen Lewis-imdb

Saturday 22 November 2014

Janet Henfrey

Actress Janet Henfrey as the school teacher in the BBC series 'The Singing Detective'

Janet Henfrey:

With her rather severe features - somewhere between Edith Sitwell and Geoffrey Bayldon - Janet Henfrey has been called on to play forbidding schoolmarms and formidable aristocrats, although she also has a nice line in charming English eccentricity. You may remember her from the schoolroom flashbacks in Dennis Potter's 'The Singing Detective', or have seen her quite recently in 'Dr Who' or 'Toast Of London'. 

Another scary Dennis Potter schoolteacher. This one from
'Stand Up Nigel Barton', a BBC Wednesday Play from 1965

She has a long association with the RSC and the Oxford Playhouse and her TV and film appearances were relatively sparsely distributed in the period from the early '60s until the early '80s. TV work has seen a variety of period dramas from 'Silas Marner' to 'Tipping The Velvet', and lots of Dickens adaptations. Lighter drama and comedy jobs include 'Jeeves & Wooster', 'Boon', 'Lovejoy', 'Father Brown', 'Agatha Christie's Marple', and a regular turn in 'As Time Goes By' with Judi Dench and Geoffrey Palmer.   

Less than a second to live... In the 2014 'Dr Who'
episode 'Mummy On The Orient Express' 

Film appearances include 'Reds' (1981), 'The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover' (1989), 'The Man Who Knew Too Little (1998), 'Les Miserables' (1998), 'Metamorphosis' (2012), and her earliest role, in Tommy Steele's 'It's All Happening' (1963). 

As girls' school headmistress, Miss Mapleton, extracting Bertie from
the police station in 'Jeeves & Wooster', thanks to Jeeves's intervention  

With Benjamin Whitrow and Matt Berry in 'Toast Of London'

She has appeared in a substantial number of kids' shows, such as 'Chocky', 'Simon & The Witch', 'Mr Majeika', 'The Famous Five', 'The Worst Witch' and 'Mike & Angelo'. She also has the distinction of having been in two Dr Who stories, the Sylveste McCoy era 'Curse of Fenric' and the Peter Capaldi episode 'Mummy On The Orient Express.

Looking a bit more contemporary in the 1988 BBC
children's show 'Simon & The Witch'.

Janet Henfrey-imdb

Monday 6 October 2014

Graham Seed

Actor Graham Seed, Nigel Pargetter in The Archers

Graham Seed

Perhaps it's too much of a stretch to suggest that, like Leonard Nimoy's autobiography, 'I Am Not Spock', Graham Seed's one-man stage show, 'Don't Call Me Nigel', attempts to free the actor from the shackles of his most famous role. This pixie-faced, genteel actor - or at least, his voice - is best known in the UK for playing Nigel Pargetter in the everlasting radio serial 'The Archers' between 1983 and 2011. In fact, of course, he's acknowledging the popularity of 'The Archers', but it's true that he's been less championed for appearing in some of the better TV and film of the last four decades.      

As Britannicus, in the classic 1976 BBC serial, 'I,Claudius'
His boyish looks and public school accent and manners were put to use in popular TV dramas including 'Wings', 'The Agatha Christie Hour', 'Good and Bad at Games', 'Band of Brothers' and 'Brideshead Revisited', as well as showings in good old 'Midsomer Murders', 'Juliet Bravo', 'Bergerac' and 'Doctors'. He has also turned his hand to comedy, with the banalities of 'Allo Allo' and the silliness of 'The Kenny Everett Television Show' being substantially outweighed by quality like 'Jeeves & Wooster' and a number of Victoria Wood projects.   

In the TV drama 'Band of Brothers'
On the film front, he can be spotted in 'Gandhi' (1982), 'Little Dorrit' (1988), These Foolish Things (2005), and 'Wild Target' (2010).

A bogus curate jewel thief, thwarted by Jeeves in 'Jeeves & Wooster' 
Graham Seed - imdb

Sunday 14 September 2014

Bridget Brice

Bridget Brice, British actress

Bridget Brice:

A great choice for a role needing some glamour but with a confident, business-like edge, Ms Brice may be familiar as Cowley's secretary from 'The Professionals', or from some other cop shows of the '70s including 'Z-Cars' and 'The Sweeney'.  

Damsel in distress in 'Department S'
Further TV appearances include 'Department S' and three different characters in the long-running private detective series, 'Public Eye' starring Alfred Burke. In addition to those Euston Films secretary roles, she also appears in 'Doctor at Sea', 'Doctor in Charge', 'Howard's Way', 'Coronation Street', 'Man at the Top' with Kenneth Haigh, and was memorable as Sal Hawke, a criminal mistress-mind in 'Dick Turpin' with Richard O'Sullivan. She also has the distinction of playing the unlikely girlfriend, Pippa, in 'Sorry!', who finally rescues Ronnie Corbett's timid Timothy Lumsden from his manipulative mother.         

With Richard O'Sullivan in 'Dick Turpin'
Movie-wise you can catch her, uncredited, among the British talent in Mel Brooks' 'The Twelve Chairs' (1970), the ecologically apocalyptic 'No Blade of Grass' (1970), and forgotten caper movies 'Loophole' (1981) and 'Real Life' (1984), as well as a fleeting role in the movie version of 'George & Mildred' (1980). 

With a dashing Frank Langella in 'The Twelve Chairs' (1970)

Bridget Brice-imdb

Wednesday 10 September 2014

Alan Dobie

Alan Dobie in 'Cribb'

Alan Dobie:

Alan Dobie seems a rather dour, astringent sort of actor, but perhaps that's because I find it a little difficult to separate him from the character of Inspector Cribb, as seen in the '80s Victorian detective series of that name. His career on the big screen has been one interesting oddities, with early roles including 'Captured' (1959), originally an army training film about resisting interrogation that has come to be seen as a classic POW drama, and the Brit-noir 'Seven Keys' (1961) in which he plays an ex-con unravelling a mystery while seeking hidden loot.    
In 'Captured' (1959), a military training film that remained
unseen by the general public until 2004

He also appears in the popular Disney adventure serial, later released as a feature film, 'Dr Syn, Alias The Scarecrow' (1963) opposite Patrick McGoohan as the eponymous smuggler, and he's in the curiously seedy Kenneth More drama, 'The Comedy Man' (1964).

In the Walt Disney adventure serial 'Dr Syn' (1963)
For much of the '60s and '70s, he became a stalwart of the television play, appearing in various strands such as 'The Wednesday Play', 'BBC Sunday-Night Play', 'Theatre 625', and 'Play For Today'. He also in some heavy drama serials like 'Resurrection',  'The Plane Makers', 'War and Peace' and 'Hard Times', before getting the starring role in 'Cribb', itself a spin-off from an original play. Other highlights of the '80s include the post-'Secret Army' series 'Kessler', the highbrow, but rather fleshy, drama-documentary about the life of Ingres, 'Artists and Models', and the tour-de-force portrayal of Rabbi Moses Ben Nachman in the medieval religious debate of 'The Disputation'.           

As Prince Bolkonsky in the 1972 BBC epic 'War and Peace' 
As befits such an accomplished actor, he's more often been seen on the stage and is a regular of the Peter Hall Company at the Old Vic Theatre in London and the Theatre Royal, Bath.

Alan Dobie - imdb

Thursday 4 September 2014

John Castle

British actor John Castle

John Castle:

A serious actor, strikingly handsome in a sullen way, looking rather like a cross between Derek Jacobi and Oliver Reed. Trained at RADA, he hit the acting scene with a modest bang, securing early appearances in 'Blow Up' (1966), 'The Lion in Winter' (1968), and the most talked-about TV show of the day, 'The Prisoner', though he didn't seem to quite grab the public imagination like some of his illustrious young contemporaries. He played Caesar in Charlton Heston's unloved film version of 'Antony & Cleopatra' (1972) and the Duke in 'The Man of La Mancha' (1972), but then things seemed to go a little bit quiet.  

As Number 12 in 'The Prisoner' episode 'The General'
At the circus with Charlton Heston in 'Antony & Cleopatra' (1972)

There was a certain amount of television drama in the late '60s and early '70s, such as Johnny Speight's 'If There Weren't Any Blacks You'd Have to Invent Them' and a sprinkling of one-offs like 'ITV Sunday Night Theatre', and 'The Wednesday Play'. His next high profile role was as Postumus in the BBC's toga-ripper 'I, Claudius', which seemed to kick-start another spate of varyingly prestigious work. There are quite a few costume dramas and period pieces, which seem to suit his austere, brooding presence, such as 'The Fight Against Slavery', 'King John', 'Lillie', 'Penmarric' and a Jeremy Brett 'Sherlock Holmes'. He also plays Teddy, the destructive love-interest in 'The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie' with Geraldine McEwan. There were also a few action and police jobs like 'Strangers', 'The New Avengers', 'Softly, Softly' and 'The Professionals'. Not much in the way of comedy.

In the BBC's 2013 Christmas ghost story, MR James's "The Tractate Middoth'
The '80s and beyond have seen more of the same on TV, with the emphasis on providing some slightly sinister class to cosy crimes, ho-hum hospitals and political potboilers. Less cosy, perhaps, was the unenviable job of portraying racist historian David Irving in 'The Holocaust on Trial'. The big screen has also not been as forthcoming with good parts as one might hope, offering only the likes of 'RoboCop 3' (1995), Finnish mid-ocean thriller 'Merisairas' (1996), the Richard Gere Old Testament epic, 'King David (1985) and a few others.   

He is, however, in the excellent Mark Gatiss adaptation of the MR James ghost story, 'The Tractate Middoth', which is where I was reminded of his great presence and ability. 


John Castle - imdb

Friday 22 August 2014

Selina Cadell

Selina Cadell, National Theatre, 2012

Selina Cadell:

The sister of the late Simon Cadell, who played the endearingly shy and anxious Mr Fairbrother in 'Hi-De-Hi!', Selina Cadell has similarly made a number of popular comedy roles her own. Most recently, she has been playing the infatuated pharmacist Mrs Tishell in 'Doc Martin', constantly mooning over Martin Clunes' insensitive doctor.     

As the lovelorn Mrs Tishell in 'Doc Martin'
Other comedy roles include: 'French & Saunders', 'Victoria Wood', 'This Is David Lander', 'Birds of a Feather', 'A Bit of Fry & Laurie', 'Jeeves & Wooster', 'Bremner Bird & Fortune', 'The Catherine Tate Show' and a leading role in the curious laboratory sitcom 'Lab Rats'. She seems also to have been much in demand for kids' shows in the '80s and '90s, cropping up in 'Just William', 'Bodger & Badger' (as the nice hippy teacher Miss Moon), 'T-Bag', and 'The World of Peter Rabbit'.  

Brother and fellow actor Simon Cadell, who sadly died in 1993.  

In 'Prick Up Your Ears' (1987) pictured with her
fellow outraged librarian, played by Charles McKeown
Light television drama is another of her strengths, as evidenced by roles in 'Lovejoy', 'Miss Marple', 'Midsomer Murders', 'Jonathan Creek', 'Kavanagh QC', etc. She has also appeared in quite a few feature films, including 'Prick Up Your Ears' (1987), 'Mrs Caldicott's Cabbage War' (2002), Clint Eastwood's 'Hereafter' (2010), the Vanessa Redgrave film version of 'Mrs Dalloway' (1997), and a couple of Martin Freeman's less well-regarded films, 'Confetti' (2006) and "Nativity!' (2009).

BBC publicity shot for 'Lab Rats'

Trivia: From a theatrical family, she is also the cousin of actor Guy Siner, Lieutenant Gruber from 'Allo Allo', and she's apparently best pals with Sigourney Weaver.  

Selina Cadell - imdb

Thursday 31 July 2014

The All-Time Greats

'What do you mean, 'I'm not in it?' 
The top ten greatest British character actors of all time?

A purely personal choice.

I've chosen to leave out some of my all-time favourite actors from this list on the basis that they are bona fide 'film stars'. Otherwise I would definitely have had to find room for 'top billing' names like Alastair Sim, Terry-Thomas, Margaret Rutherford, Peter Sellers, Sid James and others of the golden era. 

I've also excluded living actors who are already saluted elsewhere in this 'Familiar Unknown' blog, which cuts out the likes of Dudley Sutton and Aubrey Morris.

So here are ten actors who brighten any film when they unexpectedly appear in supporting roles, rather like bumping into an old friend in a strange town, or finding a tenner in your coat pocket.   

1. James Robertson Justice
2. Richard Wattis

3. Athene Seyler

4. Hattie Jacques

5. Sam Kydd
6. Wilfrid Hyde White
7. Eric Barker
8. Arthur Lowe

9. Esma Cannon

10. Michael Ripper

On another day I might have picked a different ten. Where are Irene Handl, Thorley Walters, George Cole, Herbert Lom and Harry H Corbett? What about Roy Kinnear, Denholm Elliot and Ronald Lacey? Perhaps a top 100 is called for.

Whom would you have chosen?
Feel free to submit your own top ten in the comments box below.

Tuesday 29 July 2014


Curtain calls...

By way of a change, I thought I'd share a few of my favourite character actors who would certainly have been high on my list, but who fell outside of my self-imposed restriction of including only actors who are still alive (at time of writing at least - some of the posts on here have subsequently become obituaries - see Eric Sykes, Graham Stark, Ken Jones, Stella Tanner, Philip Madoc, et al).

Sykes and Stark are possibly more properly thought of as comedy stars than as 'mere' character actors, and there are a few more of their ilk gone since this started: Richard Briers, Clive Dunn, Frank Thornton, Roger Lloyd-Pack and Rik Mayall, for example, all of whom I'd have liked to have included even if they were not at all 'unknown'. 

Rik Mayall (1958-2014)
In any case, in belated tribute, here are some others who have sadly died since I started this project in April 2010, a few of whom I'd actually started to prepare as entries, but who passed away before I got round to them.

I salute you.

Ingrid Pitt (1937-2010)
 Graham Crowden (1922-2010)
Barbara New (1923-2010)
Joe Melia (1935-2012)
Pamela Green (1929-2010)
John Horsley (1920-2014)
Malcolm Tierney (1928-2014)
Angus McKay (1926-2013)
Robin Davies (1954-2010)
Cy Grant (1919-2010)
Patricia Gage (1940-2010)
Trevor Bannister (1934-2011)
Nosher Powell (1928-2013)

I'd be interested to hear other suggestions for recently deceased (post 2010) character actors who would have made interesting entries on the Familiar Unknown blog. I will probably run another of these 'Curtain calls...' posts.

Let me know via the comments box below.