Obituary: Bill Wallis, actor

Bill Wallis
Bill Wallis
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Born: 20 November, 1936, in Guildford, Surrey. Died: 6 September, 2013, in Bath, Somerset, aged 76

Bill Wallis began a lengthy association with Peter Cook when they were students at Cambridge in the 1950s. And while Wallis never became as big a star as Cook, he had a distinguished acting career that included three series of Blackadder and on stage the roles of King Lear and Harold Wilson, the latter part he claimed he got because the director thought he was boring.

Cook was part of the quartet, along with Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett and Jonathan Miller, who breached the artistic ramparts of the official Edinburgh Festival in 1960 with the irreverent, satirical sketch show Beyond the Fringe. Although Wallis was not in the original show, he took over from Bennett in the London production.

Wallis was reunited with Cook in the mid-1960s on the television sketch show Not Only… But Also. He appeared with Cook, Moore, Joe Melia and John Wells, performing the gloriously pointless and now classic song about Alan-a-Dale. They were all dressed as Robin Hood’s Merrie Men, with Wallis still wearing heavy 1960s spectacles.

The song consists of virtually nothing but a huge amount of passion, some whistling and the endless repetition of the phrase “This is the tale of Alan-a-Dale,” although there is no tale whatsoever. It was, as John Cleese might have said, “very silly” and is now on YouTube.

Wallis also appeared with Cook and Moore in the 1969 post-apocalyptic film The Bed Sitting Room, playing the Prime Minister. He had already played Harold Wilson on stage in Mrs Wilson’s Diary, a stage spin-off from the satirical column in Private Eye, written by Wallis’s old friend John Wells and Richard Ingrams.

Short, bespectacled, just a little plump and generally rather jolly looking, Wallis was unlikely ever to be cast as a romantic lead, and he claimed he got the role of the Labour PM – remembered now largely for his pipe and raincoat, only because director Joan Littlewood thought he was so boring and middle class at the audition.

The son of an engineer, William Wallis was born in Guildford, Surrey, in 1936. He was a grammar school boy, just like Wilson, and went to St John’s College, Cambridge, on a scholarship. At Cambridge he joined the famous Footlights dramatic society, which was just beginning to make a name for itself with its revues.

He was a contemporary of both Peter Cook and David Frost, and became part of that loose grouping that gave British comedy a satirical and social bite in the 1960s.

He played the sports minister in Yes, Minister, he had the recurring role of Jan Francis’s boss on Just Good Friends and he appeared in Doctor at Large, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾ and the radio version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which preceded the novels, television series and film.

In 1975 he played Sir Watkyn Bassett in the original West End production of By Jeeves. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s least successful musical, it closed after just one month. During the 1970s and 1980s Wallis was a regular on the satirical Radio 4 show Week Ending.

But Wallis kept his finger on the pulse of British comedy and maintained links with a later generation of comic talent that took comedy in a slightly different direction.

He was one of the few actors, apart from the main stars, who appeared in three series of Blackadder, playing a knight in the first series, a jailer in the second and one of the officers in Blackadder Goes Forth. But Wallis was by no means restricted to comedy. He had spells at the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Old Vic and back in 1967 with Dundee Repertory Company, when he appeared in productions of Henry IV Part I and Moliere’s The School for Wives. His stage roles include Lear, Richard III, Titus Andronicus and Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman.

On television he was in the likes of Z Cars and The Avengers in the 1960s and the largely forgotten 1988 version of The Bourne Identity, with Richard Chamberlain as Jason Bourne.

He was a Nazi in the mini-series War and Remembrance, a political reporter in the original version of House of Cards, doctors in Inspector Morse and Midsomer Murders and a judge in a couple of episodes of Bad Girls.

He was diagnosed with bone marrow cancer several years ago, but continued to work until fairly recently, largely in radio and doing voice work for audio books, though he played Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in the 2008 historical drama The Other Boleyn Girl, with Scarlett Johansson and Natalie Portman.

His first marriage ended in divorce. He is survived by his second wife and by four children, two from each marriage.