Obituary: Richard Davies, actor

Richard Davies: Welsh actor best known for his roles in Please Sir! and Under Mild Wood
Richard Davies: Welsh actor best known for his roles in Please Sir! and Under Mild Wood
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Born: 25 January, 1926, in Merthyr Tydfil. Died: 8 October, 2015, aged 89

It is 43 years since the original run of the sitcom Please Sir! ended, but those who saw it will readily recall Richard Davies’s cynical science teacher Mr Price, telling John Alderton’s idealistic new arrival Mr Hedges “I pity you, boyo.” The mellifluous Welsh tones and twinkle in his eye did nothing to soften the underlying message about Class 5C.

Although “Pricey” probably remains his best-known role, Davies appeared in supporting roles in a remarkable range of classic films, television and theatre over the years. There was a time when, if a character was specified as Welsh, and there was an element of dark comedy about it, directors would automatically think of him.

Short, balding, bespectacled, and often sarcastic or bolshy, Davies was a private in the classic 1964 film Zulu, pointing out that although they were a Welsh regiment they had foreigners too, from England.

In the 1972 film of Under Milk Wood, with Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor and Peter O’Toole, he played Mr Pritchard, who is already dead, having committed suicide. He was later in the play in the West End too.

In the 1970s he was a guest at Fawlty Towers, clashing with Basil Fawlty because the latter refuses to let him into his room, on account of there being a dead body in it. He had a recurring role in Coronation Street, as Idris Hopkins, who worked at the local foundry, while his wife and mother ran the corner shop. And in the 1980s he welcomed Doctor Who when the Doctor landed at a Welsh holiday camp, instead of Disneyland.

The son of a railwayman, he was born Dennis Wilfred Davies in 1926 in Merthyr Tydfil and began acting at school. He worked briefly in the local pits in his teens. He left to pursue a career as a professional actor, initially with the local theatre company in Colwyn Bay, during which time he married his landlady’s daughter.

During the Second World War he trained as a military policeman, before transferring to an entertainment unit. After the war he resumed his career in theatre. He joined the Old Vic in the early 1950s and toured Europe, visited South Africa and appeared at the Theatre Royal in Glasgow in Othello.

By that time he was also appearing in small roles in film and television and played a policeman in the classic Ealing comedy The Lavender Hill Mob.

His first marriage was short-lived and in 1955 he married the actress Jill Britton, who later appeared with him in the film of Under Milk Wood.

Throughout the 1950s he worked away fairly anonymously in theatre, film and television. In the early 1960s he had an occasional role as an unsavoury police informant on Z-Cars and went on to play the real-life Victoria Cross winner Private 593 Jones in Zulu – there was more than one Jones among the little band defending the mission station at Rorke’s Drift.

It was Please Sir! that really elevated Davies from the ranks. It ran for four series, beginning in 1968. His character was hardly a model teacher. He destroys a school television when his horse loses a race and pupils and staff are delighted when it seems that he might land a job in industry.

But audiences warmed to his downbeat sense of humour and no doubt recognised the accuracy of the characterisation.

Please Sir! drew audiences of 20 million and there was also a feature film and a sequel called The Fenn Street Gang.

Davies played up his Welshness, it brought him work and he played a string of characters called Taffy, including Taffy Evans in the short-lived sitcom Rule Britannia!, which reunited four shipmates from the four different Home Nations.

He also had a regular role as Clive, a member of the committee of the working men’s club that is one of the main elements in the rather more successful sitcom Oh No, It’s Selwyn Froggitt!, with Bill Maynard.

And he played the Chanceller of the Exchequer in the black comedy mini-series Whoops Apocalypse.

In 1992 he made a memorable guest appearance on One Foot in the Grave as an old school friend of Victor Meldrew (Richard Wilson). They meet by chance, but Davies’s character thinks Victor is someone else, called Steve, and launches into a string of stories about Victor, with the sort of long-maintained bitterness at which Davies was very good.

“Victor Meldrew – God, he was a pillock… I gave him my hamster to look after one holiday and when I got home his cat had eaten it – tried to pass it off as suicide.”

Davies had been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and is survived by his second wife, their two children, and by a son from his first marriage.