Obituary: Sam Kelly, actor

Sam Kelly. Picture: PA
Sam Kelly. Picture: PA
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BORN: 19 December, 1943, in Manchester. Died: 14 June, 2014, in Esher, Surrey, aged 70.

Sam Kelly was one of those actors whose name many of us may not have known, but whose face and voice we most certainly did. He will possibly be most-remembered for his role as Captain Hans Geering in the sitcom ’Allo ’Allo! where his less-than-loyal Nazi salute was always accompanied with a brisk “Tler!” (Heil Hitler). His “drug in the jug” tongue-twister later became a Christmas classic of the series, which pitted the Nazis against the French resistance and British airmen who spent a lot of time in cupboards.

The programmes’ writers, initially Jeremy Lloyd and David Croft, had an uncanny gift for making not only fun but also pathos out of a war that still hit raw nerves in Britain – not to mention Germany, where it eventually belied old-fashioned beliefs that Germans have no sense of humour. Germans came to love the programme. Sam Kelly and the other actors did, too, right from the start.

Kelly also played dyslexic prisoner Bunny Warren alongside Ronnie Barker in Porridge, with Fletch (Barker) famously asking Bunny to “nick” O-level history exam papers to help his cellmate Godber pass the exam and move on to a better life on the outside. In line with the series’ mix of humour, humanity and behind-bars morality, Godber (played by Richard Beckinsale), refused to accept the stolen papers. (The episode was titled A Test of Character, 1977).

Kelly went on to reprise his role as Bunny in a movie version of Porridge (1979, released in the United States as Doing Time – American audiences thought porridge was a form of muesli. The telegenic Beckinsale died soon after the film was made). Kelly also had major roles in the sitcoms Barbara (as the husband Ted) and On the Up (as the Dennis Waterman character’s chauffeur, also featuring Joan Sims).

In whatever role he played, in those classic sitcoms but also on the West End stage and numerous TV series, Kelly was a presence, whether feckless or with gravitas. Twitter lit up after his death with tweets from actors – comic or serious – who had worked with him. Many compared him with Clive Dunn, Lance-Corporal Jones of Dad’s Army, who died in 2012, as one of the most-lovable faces on TV. They were both good-looking men. Through their craft, they were able to make themselves look funny – even laughing stocks when needed.

Samuel Roger Kelly was born in Manchester on 19 December, 1943, but was brought up mostly in Liverpool. He went to the historic pink-stone Liverpool Collegiate School, at the time an all-boy’s grammar school, first finding a sense of art as a choir boy at Liverpool Cathedral where he also became known for his recitals of monologues, something that gave him the drive to perform in public for the rest of his life.

After a logical progression from choirboy to UK civil servant for three years, he took the illogical step of enrolling in the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, graduating in 1967. He then took the natural route, appearing in repertory theatres from Aberdeen to Aberystwyth. He became a fine actor, a perfectionist, with a special vocal delivery, but his face became a major part of the package: likeable, not someone you might want to date, but someone you’d like to have a laugh with.

He got one of his earliest breaks in the classic British Carry On film series. His first pay cheque for was £160, a decent amount of money in the 1970s. He couldn’t even remember what the title of the film was; “Carry on to the Bank,” he once said. It was actually Carry on Dick (1974).

In 1971, Kelly was a member of the Young Vic company that brought The Comedy of Errors to the 1971 Edinburgh Festival. Performed in the Haymarket Ice Rink, it was a riotous success and in Frank Dunlop’s imaginative production the play was set not in Ephesus but in modern Edinburgh. Kelly played Antipholus of Edinburgh and he led the citizens against Antipholus of London (played with a suave air by Edward Fox).

In 1992, Kelly returned with the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith in a production of Granville Barker’s The Madras House with Frances Cuka and Roger Allam. It was the hit of the Festival and one critic called it “electrifying” and singled out Kelly’s performance as Henry Huxtable for particular praise.

Always willing to play in pantomime, Kelly appeared in 2004 as Aladdin at the Old Vic, alongside Sir Ian McKellen as Widow Twankey. Sir Ian had known Kelly from their days at the National Theatre. Kelly was playing the Wizard of Oz in the West End play entitled Wicked earlier this year when he became ill and had to pull out.

Kelly played Hitler in a 1993 TV comedy drama titled Stalag Luft, featuring Stephen Fry and Nicholas Lyndhurst. “He was a great Hitler,” Fry said yesterday.

As a character actor, he was also seen as a “go to” actor for key roles in such dramas as Inspector Morse, Midsomer Murder Mysteries, Doctor Who, Cold Feet, New Tricks, EastEnders (as Stan Porter), Poirot and many more. With a decent musical ear, he performed with the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company in 2002 in HMS Pinafore and appeared in several films directed by Mike Leigh.

Sam Kelly had no immediate family survivors. According to his agent, Lynda Ronan: “He died after a long illness bravely fought. He does not leave any family but a host of friends who were his chosen family.”