As from today none of us will see 2021 again, though the annual clearout of famous names that the final fortnight of every year always seems to indulge in means some haven’t lived to see 2022. In the last two or three weeks, those added to the roll-call of the deceased include author Anne Rice, journalist and essayist Joan Didion, architect Richard Rogers, cricketing legend Ray Illingworth, anti-apartheid crusader Desmond Tutu, broadcaster Janice Long, and actor Jack Hedley. Perhaps the latter is one of those whose face is more familiar than his name, though he played a prominent part in the BBC’s celebrated ‘Colditz’ in the early 70s, taking the role of Lieutenant Colonel Preston, senior British officer at the infamous PoW camp. Hedley enjoyed several masterful and occasionally moving exchanges with the camp kommandant (played by Bernard Hepton), a difficult relationship that eventually developed into mutual respect. Hedley later graduated to the leading role (following the untimely death of original choice Peter Finch) in the 1977 BBC mini-series set in Crete, ‘Who Pays the Ferryman?’, though he remained essentially a character actor in a supporting slot thereafter.
As has been mentioned here before in reference to several British TV dramas of the 1970s that have routinely constituted my evening viewing habits via box-sets, in that decade there was a virtual television repertory company of actors without whom no such series would have been possible. If you watch enough of them, the same faces keep cropping up time and time again and each tends to fulfil a particular archetype that both face and voice fit. There are some with the correct accent and ‘breeding’ which means they’re guaranteed to play upper-class characters – military men, members of the peerage and so on; others will forever be cast as stiff, humourless authority figures along the lines of headmasters or senior police officers, whereas some are destined to always be petty criminals and lowly villains, either from the burly and beefy school who talk with their fists or those belonging to the ducking-and-diving dodgy geezer brand – the kind who would act as ‘snouts’ for DI Regan and other proper coppers of the era.
Take an actor like Ron Pember – you probably don’t know the name, but you’ll most definitely know the face if you watched TV forty or fifty years ago or have seen output from that period since. Thin in hair and build, the tight-lipped, dog-end-smoking cockney character actor with the nasal drawl and darting eyes was never going to be cast as the head of MI5 or the Prime Minister. He simply had the ideal face and voice for the parts he played to perfection on screen for the best part of thirty years. You want the shifty landlord of a rough East End boozer? Call Ron Pember. You want the proprietor of a shabby cabbie’s café whose speciality was milky tea? Call Ron Pember. You want an ex-con to welcome home another ex-con just released from the Scrubs? Call Ron Pember. Ron Pember must have appeared in every bloody British TV series produced in the 70s, particularly those set in and around the London area. No series worth watching was worth its salt without him in at least one episode, and though his only regular role as the member of an ensemble cast seems to have been in the BBC’s wartime drama, ‘Secret Army’ (1977-79), he was a semi-regular in ‘Rumpole of the Bailey’ throughout the series’ lengthy run (1978-92).
One interesting, if overlooked, series produced in 1972 had the genius idea of bringing together some of the hardest-working character actors of the era and giving them rare leading roles. London Weekend’s ‘Villains’ was a 13-part drama dealing with an audacious bank robbery characteristic of the times. In an impressively-structured narrative that wouldn’t be out of place in a Netflix series today, each episode tends to focus on the individual fortunes of the gang members both before and after the bank job as well as how they fare following a mass break-out staged whilst travelling from the nick to an Old Bailey appeal hearing. The pair of old lags who organise the job (which requires drilling into the vaults of the bank from a derelict underground public convenience next-door) are played by two of the decade’s most visible character actors, David Daker and William Marlowe, both of whom have the well-earned opportunity to show just how good they are when gifted the chance to seize centre stage. What’s also interesting about ‘Villains’ is that it features two future stars who eventually relocated from the ranks of TV rep to leading roles in their own right, Martin Shaw and Bob Hoskins. Even Paul Eddington makes an appearance as an especially seedy solicitor.
Of course I’m digressing into the nostalgically familiar, but it’s increasingly preferable to loitering in the here and now. And 1 January seems as good a time as any to do so. After all, when does a new year ever really open with a bang that isn’t merely a firework display? It’s always ushered in with a whimper. And whereas Xmas episodes of these classic shows are relatively abundant, instalments with a New Year theme are thinner on the ground, though ‘Softly Softly: Task Force’ produced a memorable one as the 1960s hit midnight for the very last time and the 1970s began its ten-year tenancy. In the real world, 1969 had been a culturally significant year, where Woodstock and the Moon Landing shared space with the arrest and conviction of the Kray Twins; in Thamesford, however, the leading criminal act in the closing moments of the decade was rather less dramatic.
The instantly recognisable Victor Maddern, another notable member of the 1970s TV rep company, appeared in this particular ‘Task Force’ episode as an opportunistic thug masterminding the theft of several tyres from Thamesford Police’s HQ on 31 December right under the nose of the pissed-up Force itself – including Mr Barlow. Maddern and his distinctively craggy countenance were immortalised on a well-known ‘Dixon of Dock Green’ outtake in which he stumbled over his lines several times – ‘It’s at Dock Green Dick…no, it’s at Dick Green Dock’ – and he also regularly played the son-in-law of a cantankerous old git on ‘The Dick Emery Show’ back in the day. Again, he was one more must-have character actor that most significant shows of the 70s would be incomplete without. And, as Barry Norman used to say, why not?
As far as I’m aware, none of these familiar faces ever received any of the notable titles and accolades afforded the elite clique of grand thespians; none became Lords or Knights – there was no Baron Pember of Plaistow or Sir Victor Maddern. Yet, bereft of supporting characters, few of the performers who received knighthoods or dame-hoods could have ascended the dizzying heights of the New Years Honours List. They always needed actors resembling mortals to make them seem far more beautiful and talented than they actually were. Perhaps, however, the tawdry prize-giving that the Honours List has descended into has meant those without the kind of gongs dished out to the likes of Chris Whitty and Jonathan Van-Tam for being the Mike and Bernie Winters of scaremongering actually stand far taller as a consequence.
A giant of the stage such as Paul Scofield repeatedly rejected the ‘Sir’ prefix, as did David Bowie. One can’t help but think of Groucho Marx’s famous assertion that he wouldn’t want to belong to a club that would have him as a member; and considering some of the dubious characters one would be bracketed alongside by accepting a Knighthood, maybe there’s far more honour in declining it. Anyway, if nothing else, ending this first post of 2022 by blending a story that combines one of today’s news headlines with a celebration of obscure actors from the past suggests it will be business as usual on here for the fun-packed twelve months we’ve got to look forward to.
© The Editor