Obituary: Francis Matthews, actor

Born: 2 September, 1927, in Yorkshire. Died: 14 June, 2014, in London, aged 86
Francis Matthews: Actor best known for playing Paul Temple and doing the voice of Captain Scarlet in ThunderbirdsFrancis Matthews: Actor best known for playing Paul Temple and doing the voice of Captain Scarlet in Thunderbirds
Francis Matthews: Actor best known for playing Paul Temple and doing the voice of Captain Scarlet in Thunderbirds

Darkly handsome, suave and blessed with a musical voice, Francis Matthews cut a dash on stage and screen and enjoyed a hugely successful career. He was a fine comedian with an expert line in throw-away put-downs or rebuffs. He played toffs with a benign elegance and was ideally suited for the role of Paul Temple, Francis Durbridge’s gentleman detective. Generations knew his voice when he spoke Captain Scarlet in Thunderbirds. He based his delivery – clipped, mid-Atlantic and slightly tongue-in-cheek – on the very distinctive voice of Cary Grant.

Matthews was also in a host of movies with stars such as Morecambe and Wise and also in numerous horror films.

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Francis Matthews’ father was a shop steward in the Rowntree chocolate factory near York and Francis attended a Jesuit college, St Michael’s, in Leeds, where his enthusiasm for the theatre was rewarded by finding work backstage at the local theatre. He did National Service in the Royal Navy and in 1954 found work as an actor in a tour with Flora Robson in a Welsh play, No Escape. His first television was in 1954 for a BBC drama Prelude to Glory.

Matthews’ first major film was the Raj tale Bhowani Junction (1956), in which he played one of the lovers of the film’s star, Ava Gardner. It also starred Stewart Granger, who won the hand of the star and left Matthews forlorn.

One of Matthews’ first starring roles was in BBC TV’s The Dark Island in 1962. Made by BBC Scotland, the thriller was set in the Outer Hebrides island of Benbecula although most of the filming was done on South Uist.

His co-stars included Robert Hardy, Walter Carr and Angela Browne. Browne and Matthews became engaged while filming the first series and were married the following year. The programme is principally remembered in Scotland for its catchy and beautiful introductory music: Dr Mackay’s Farewell to Creagorry by Iain MacLachlan.

Matthews became great friends with Morecambe and Wise – he and the former shared a love of photography and making home movies. Matthews was a secret agent in their first film, The Intelligence Men (1965(), and had a cameo in That Riviera Touch.

Matthews was one of the few stars to be featured in several of their television shows and to appear in two Christmas specials. In one Eric accused Matthews of being Simon Templar or The Saint. When Matthews tried to do his impression of Cary Grant Eric said to the camera: “I’d go and make the tea now.” The three collapsed laughing.

In 1967 Gerry Anderson had brought the cartoon series Thunderbirds to the small screen and he asked Matthews to voice the Mysteron-battling sci-fi hero in 1967 and 1968.

The puppet and the series became cult classics and Matthews was forever associated with Captain Scarlet. For Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, Matthews’ character led Spectrum, an international intelligence agency on Earth, in its fight against extraterrestrial terrorists. The opening credits read: “This man will be our hero, for fate will make him indestructible – Captain Scarlet.”

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Matthews was generous of his time and attended Thunderbird conventions though he remained astonished at the devotion of some of the fans: “They dress up and stare at you when you’re signing the autograph,” he recalled. “As if you’re some kind of extraordinary god.”

He gained even greater renown when he was cast as the gentleman sleuth Paul Temple, appearing in 64 episodes between 1969 and 1971. Matthews epitomised the role. Suave and urbane, he and his wife (played by Ros Drinkwater) solved the crimes that confounded Scotland Yard. Matthews as Paul Temple was called the “The James Bond of the small screen”.

In 1965 Matthews had worked with Alan Plater and the producer David Rose on episodes of the BBC TV police series Z Cars. In 1975 he joined them for Trinity Tales – an updating of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. In the TV series the pilgrims were replaced by a bawdy group of rugby players and much beer was drunk. Matthews much enjoyed playing Eric the Prologue whose stories, to his consternation, were seldom finished.

Other televisions of the era included Don’t Forget to Write! with George Cole, Graham Greene’s May We Borrow Your Husband? with Dirk Bogarde and as a doctor in both Heartbeat and The Royal and in 2005 with Rik Mayall in All About George.

Matthews once said: “My pastimes are tennis, cricket, trying to write all the time and lending support to the Stars Organisation for Crippled Children.”

His wife died in 2001. He is survived by their three sons.