Obituary: Peter Baldwin, actor
Born: 29 July, 1933, in Chichister, Sussex. Died: 21 October, 2015, in London, aged 82.
Actor Peter Baldwin was known to a generation of Coronation Street fans as Derek Wilton, love interest of Thelma Barlow’s Mavis Riley for 21 years between 1976 and 1997. To modern soap opera audiences the pair might have made an unlikely couple, but Baldwin and Barlow made Derek and Mavis into an enduringly popular comedy double act through their warm felling for and understanding of these gently bland characters. Their storylines together included Mavis’ 1984 jilting of Derek at the altar (they later married) and Derek’s obsession with a disappearing garden gnome, and each was played with a warm humour to which audiences of the time responded.
Baldwin was born in Chichester in 1993. His father was a primary school headmaster and his mother a teacher. He had one brother, Christopher, five years his junior, and the year after Christopher’s birth the pair were evacuated to their grandparents’ house when war broke out. Baldwin went to Chichester High School for Boys and Horsham Grammar School, and as a young man he completed 18 months’ national service in Aldershot.
His first experience of the theatre came during the Second World War, when his parents took him to see a Chichester Festival Theatre production of Peter Pan starring Ann Todd and Alastair Sim. Decades later, he would still credit the magical experience of seeing that show as instigating his desire to take to the stage as an adult. He trained at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School directly after national service (one of his contemporaries was the actor Annette Crosbie) and worked mainly on the stage for much of the early part of his career, first in repertory theatre and then back with the Old Vic company throughout the 1950s and 60s.
In fact, it was on stage that Baldwin would first encounter both his on and off-screen wives. He made multiple early repertory appearances alongside Barlow; in fact, the pair first played husband and wife in a 1960 West of England Theatre Company production of William Congreve’s early 18th century Restoration comedy The Way of the World, although they weren’t seen onstage together.
He also met his off-screen wife Sarah Long when the pair appeared in a version of Romeo and Juliet for which they toured Europe and America together. This was in 1961, the year after she had appeared in the British horror film Village of the Damned, although the job which defined her career was that of presenter on the long-running Play School, a show for pre-school children, which she appeared in from 1971 to 1986.
Baldwin and Long were married in 1965 and remained together until her death from cancer in 1987. “It all happened quickly and it was very difficult when she died,” he later said. “Going back to work in ‘the Street’ was a good thing for me. It meant I had something I could immediately concentrate on.”
Baldwin’s extensive early theatre career included a 1962 Old Vic production of George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan, which toured to New York, a 1974 Oxford Playhouse version of Gogol’s The Government Inspector, which also featured Richard O’Sullivan and Richard Wilson, and classics including Macbeth and An Inspector Calls. He appeared in the latter again in 1987 at the Westminster Theatre alongside former Doctor Who Tom Baker, immediately before discovering both that Sarah had cancer and that he was to be made a regular on Coronation Street.
Following his arrival as a regular cast member, Baldwin stayed with the show for a decade. He was eventually written out in 1997 by new producer Brian Park, who felt the character had run his course, and Baldwin was dismayed that Derek would leave the show without any chance of return by dying of a heart attack during a road rage incident. “I wish people would stop saying, ‘As one door closes another one opens,’” he said at the time. “I would rather the old door stayed open.”
His television career dated back to the 1950s, and included appearances in The New Dick Van Dyke Show, the original version of Poldark, Bergerac and Tales of the Unexpected, and he returned to guest appearances on game shows such as Countdown and series including Cadfael, Doctors and Last of the Summer Wine following Derek’s demise.
Yet Baldwin’s biggest love in later life was Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop in Covent Garden, the Victorian theatrical toy and memorabilia shop dating back to 1856, which he took over in 1988. “You push the characters on and off, change the scenery, take the curtain up and down, change the lighting,” Baldwin, a toy theatre collector, told the BBC. “You’re totally in charge, it’s an actors’ dream.”
Peter Baldwin died at home in Hampstead in north London after a short illness. He is survived by his adult children Julia and Matthew.