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

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