Obituary: Bernard Gallagher, actor
Bernard Gallagher came from solidly working-class Celtic stock, though when he was born his parents were living in Yorkshire and worked in the local mills. He went on to grammar school and university and enjoyed a long and successful career as an actor, during which he not only worked repeatedly in Scotland but found himself elevated to the rank of lord.
During the 1980s he played the unscrupulous Lord Strathmorris on the STV soap opera Take the High Road. But perhaps his most notable role was that of Ewart Plimmer, the assertive “founding father” of the Holby City A&E Department, on the first three series of Casualty (1986-88).
He was often cast as authority figures, despite his own relatively humble beginnings and a disconcerting facial resemblance to comedy actor Bernard Cribbins (though the manner was very different). He played policemen on several series, he had two stints as a judge on EastEnders and he appeared in dozens of episodes of Crown Court in the 1970s and 1980s.
More recently, however, he slipped back down the social ladder when he played Bill Molesley, a keen local gardener and father of the footman Joseph on Downton Abbey (2010-13).
One of four children, Gallagher was born in Bradford in 1929 to Harry Gallagher and his wife Ellen, née McDonald. He went to a local Roman Catholic grammar school, studied English at Sheffield University and did National Service in the Royal Air Force, where he also appeared in stage productions.
After leaving the RAF, he briefly worked as an English teacher before beginning his professional acting career with a small company in Lyme Regis, set up by his old RAF friend Donald Sartain. Between the mid-1950s and mid-1960s he had stints with a few different provincial theatre companies.
In 1965 he appeared in a string of productions at Dundee Repertory Theatre, where Sartrain was director, including Waiting for Godot and James Bridie’s Doctor Angelus. Sartrain once recalled that Gallagher was very good at spotting exciting new contemporary plays.
Later that same year he joined the Royal Court company in London, where he made an impression in John Arden’s Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance and Joe Orton’s The Ruffian on the Stair and The Erpingham Camp. In the 1960s he also began a long association with the National Theatre in London and would later work with the Royal Shakespeare Company. During the company’s 1991-1992 season he played Casca, the first man to stick the knife in, in Julius Caesar.
After moving down to London Gallagher also began getting parts on television. He played a couple of different policemen on Coronation Street in 1967 and then again in 1974. And, sticking with the law, the role of Jonathan Fry, QC, provided him with work on and off for more than a decade from 1972 to 1984.
He also had a recurring role on the drama Couples (1976), with Maureen Lipman and David Swift, he was Drusillus in the BBC’s adaptation of Rosemary Sutcliff’s adventure The Eagle of the Ninth (1977) and he was the holiday camp manager in the Bill Maynard sitcom Selwyn (1978).
When the BBC launched Casualty, their new Saturday night medical soap opera, in 1986, Gallagher was the actor chosen to front the trailer. “OK, sometimes we bend the rules, but that’s Casualty,” he promised viewers. “Look, I’ve got a night shift staff that’s got six months to prove its worth keeping before the boys in suits start yelling closure,” he continued, before introducing the characters in turn.
The viewers decided the new show was worth keeping. It is still going strong, having broken all sorts of records.
Gallagher’s character Ewart Plimmer could be abrasive, but he was dedicated to the job and the NHS. Long hours eventually cost him his marriage. In the second series he did indeed clash with one of the “boys in suits”, except it was actually a woman – the new hospital administrator Elizabeth Straker (Maureen O’Brien).
In traditional showbiz narrative style initial hostility turned to romance. The relationship ended when she moved to the US. And Plimmer suffered the fate of many soap opera characters when he died on screen, of a heart attack, in the hospital.
Gallagher had mixed feelings about leaving. “I was in two minds when I learned Ewart was to be killed off,” he said. “I was happy with the programme but I was also happy to go because it meant I could go back to theatre.”
But he reached his biggest audience on television. He also played six different roles on Doctors between 2001 and 2014. On EastEnders he was the judge who presided over the murder trial of Nick Cotton (John Altman) in 1993 and another judge, or maybe the same one, who sent Graham Foster (Alex McSweeney) down for rape in 2004.
He died of pneumonia and is survived by his wife Sylvia Vickers, son Matthew and daughter Zoe.