Leslie Phillips Obituary

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Leslie Phillips, who died at the age of 98, was an old-school light comedian, closely associated with a list of cads and hitmen in the Carry On and Doctor film series he graced from the late 1950s.

He first coined his trademark phrase “I say, ding dong!” as the lustful Jack Bell in Carry On Nurse (1958) and made the simple “hello” greeting sound like a mischievous and impure invitation, earning him the nickname “King Leer” and lending himself to the one-word title of his immensely entertaining (2006).

He became a national Sunday lunchtime institution on BBC Radio’s The Navy Lark, in which he appeared as a desperate lieutenant on HMS Troutbridge – alongside Stephen Murray, Jon Pertwee, Tenniel Evans, Heather Chasen and Ronnie Barker – between 1959 and 1977. It was never clear – deliberately – whether he was a simpleton or a crook in this company of Royal Navy junkies on the recommissioned frigate stationed off Portsmouth.

Despite his sleazy and carefree acting personality, Phillips was an ambitious and hard-working entertainer who, in the late 60s, toured the world in his own West End hit, The Man Most Likely To… – he rewrote Joyce Rayburn’s play, took the lead, produced and directed it.

He joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in the mid-1970s and starred in several major films, including George Cukor’s Les Girls (1957), with Gene Kelly and Kay Kendall, Sydney Pollack’s Out of Africa (1985), Empire of the Sun by Steven Spielberg (1987) and Venus (2007) by Roger Michell, playing an old comedian alongside Peter O’Toole and Richard Griffiths.

Leslie Phillips with Joan Sims in Carry On Teacher, 1959.

Leslie Phillips with Joan Sims in Carry On Teacher, 1959. Photography: Shutterstock

His prodigious work rate stemmed from his impoverished background in his hometown of Tottenham, north London, where from an early age he was the breadwinner. His suave, polished personality was as much a studious creation as that of Terry-Thomas or Rex Harrison, and it gave his acting a streak of seditious villainy, an air of unofficial villainy.

With the confidence he was often given by being told he was a handsome boy, he developed a taste for fast cars, the high life, and beautiful women when the money came around. For a time he was the West End stage’s highest-earning actor, and joined the Ibiza crowd in the 70s, keeping a home there in an artists’ and writers’ colony that included his great friend Denholm Elliott.

He married three times and had a long relationship (between the first and second marriage) with Caroline Mortimer, the daughter of writers Penelope and John Mortimer.

All of this was a far cry from his humble beginnings as the third child of Cecelia (née Newlove) and Frederick Phillips, a stove maker at Glover & Main in Edmonton. The family moved from Tottenham to Chingford, by the River Lea and on the edge of Epping Forest, in an effort to improve Frederick’s health, but he died of lung disease in 1935, and Cecelia , spotting an ad in a newspaper, packed her up. son to the Italia Conti school to train as an actor.

Leslie Phillips, center, with James Robertson Justice and Fenella Fielding in Doctor in Clover, 1966.

Leslie Phillips, center, with James Robertson Justice and Fenella Fielding in Doctor in Clover, 1966. Photography: Ronald Grant

Phillips had shown talent in plays at Chingford School and soon supplemented his income by delivering newspapers and singing at weddings and funerals at All Saints Church, Chingford, playing a wolf – his debut on stage, in 1937, at the age of 13 – in Peter Pan, with Anna Neagle, at the London Palladium.

After a stint as a cherub in a stained glass window in Dorothy L Sayers’ The Zeal of Thy House at the Garrick, he returned to the Palladium for the 1938 production of Peter Pan, now playing John Darling in a cast led by Seymour Hicks (“despicable “, according to Phillips) as Captain Hook and Jean Forbes-Robertson (“adorable”) as Peter.

By the time he was called up in 1942, he had sung in the children’s choir at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and brushed his young shoulders with those of John Gielgud and Marie Tempest in Dodie Smith’s Dear Octopus at the Queen’s – the the start of a long association with almighty producers Binkie Beaumont and HM Tennent – ​​and Vivien Leigh and Cyril Cusack in Shaw’s The Doctor’s Dilemma at the Haymarket.

Everyone in the company loved him, and it would serve him well after World War II. He looked posh enough to get a commission as a second lieutenant in the Royal Artillery, transferred to Durham Light Infantry, where he was put in charge of the Suffolk transit camp at Chadacre Hall, before being invalided out with a neurological disease in 1944.

His first post-demobilization work was at the Lyric’s box office, Hammersmith. He played Guildenstern in Hamlet at the Dundee Rep and discovered his talent for light comedy during a stint at the York Rep. His first major West End role was in a romantic comedy, Daddy Long Legacy (1946), at Comedy (now Harold Pinter).

Leslie Phillips as Sir Sampson Legend in William Congreve's Love for Love at the Chichester Festival Theater in 1996.

Leslie Phillips as Sir Sampson Legend in William Congreve’s Love for Love at the Chichester Festival Theater in 1996. Photography: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

The first of over 100 film appearances came in Lassie for Lancashire (1938). The Girls’ Hollywood adventure could have led to a modern career at C Aubrey Smith in California, but he preferred London and Pinewood Studios – where he was the last living actor to work there when they opened. He was also part of the cast of the BBC’s first live show since Alexandra Palace in 1948 – Morning Departure, on a wartime submarine with Michael Hordern – and had his first starring role on BBC television in 1952. in My Wife Jacqueline (opposite Joy Shelton), a pioneering but mediocre (he says) sitcom about married life, broadcast live from Lime Grove in six 30-minute episodes.

Over the next 10 years, he established himself in the Doctor movies as philandering consultant Dr. Tony Burke, and in the Carry Ons, usually glued to Joan Sims. After the huge stage success of the superb Boeing-Boeing farce (which succeeded David Tomlinson in 1963), he launched the first television series Our Man From St Mark’s, in which he played an eccentric new village priest. When his affair, while still married, with Caroline Mortimer became public knowledge, he was deemed no longer suitable as a clergyman and was replaced in later series by Donald Sinden.

Opening at Vaudeville in 1968, he played 655 performances as upper-class parlor lizard Victor Cadwallader in The Man Most Likely To… and later toured Australia (where an audience member in Adelaide is said to have literally died of laugh), New Zealand and South Africa, defying cultural boycotts and working in townships as well as commercial theatres.

He starred in another “naughty” comedy, Sextet, at the Criterion in 1977 (Julian Fellowes was also in the cast), then directed a hugely successful revival of Ray Cooney and John Chapman’s Not Now, Darling at the Savoy in 1979, followed by another world tour.

Phillips said he finally broke his own mold when he was cast by Lindsay Anderson as the hesitant and weak Gayev in The Cherry Orchard at the Haymarket in 1983 (Joan Plowright played his sister), and he went on again. further in a brilliant Mike Ockrent revival of Peter Nichols’ lacerating comedy Passion Play at Leicester Haymarket, then Wyndham’s in the West End, in 1984. In 1990 he unexpectedly appeared in The Comic Strip and, also on television , in Chancer, which casts Clive Owen, playing Owen’s scheming boss.

There was no pattern or predictability left as he entered the final phase of an astonishing career. He played the professor in another Chekhov, Julian Mitchell’s rewrite of Uncle Vanya, August, with Anthony Hopkins at Theatr Clwyd, Mold (1994), then joined the RSC to play a fruity saloon bar robbed of a Falstaff in Ian Judge’s The Merry Wives. of Windsor (1996) on the Stratford-upon-Avon grand stage and, in The Swan, a cynical hotelier in Steven Pimlott’s discovery of Tennessee Williams’ “lost” fantasy, Camino Real. Also in 1996 he played Sir Sampson Legend Sir Sampson Legend in William Congreve’s Love for Love at the Chichester Festival theatre.

All in all, It’s Been Jolly Good was the fitting title for a solo play by Peter Tinniswood which he took to the Edinburgh Fringe in 1999, returning to a more raffish type as Sir Plympton Makepeace, a Tory MP bitterly ‘dumped’ from the Shires with nothing good to say of anyone: ‘That loud-voiced woman…I think she was the prime minister, but to me she looked like a power-crazed bath attendant .” His last stage appearance came as an aging judge with a back problem in John Mortimer’s Naked Justice at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in 2001.

In the new millennium he had good television roles in Monarch of the Glen and Miss Marple. An excellent television version of Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honor trilogy, adapted by William Boyd (2002), cast him as Gervase Crouchback, father of Daniel Craig’s anti-heroic Guy, and he found her dog collar in Nigel Cole’s charming film Saving. Grace (2000), with Blenda Blethyn. For the Harry Potter films, he voiced the Sorting Hat at Hogwarts.

In 1997 he received a lifetime achievement award from the Evening Standard, and 10 years later another from the Critics’ Circle. In 1998 he was appointed OBE, and in 2008 CBE.

Phillips married actor Penelope Bartley in 1948, and they had two sons and two daughters. They divorced in 1965, and in 1982 he married actor Angela Scoular; she committed suicide in 2011. Two years later he married Zara Carr, and she survives him and his children.

• Leslie Samuel Phillips, actor, born April 20, 1924; passed away on November 7, 2022

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