Obituary: Stephen Lewis, actor

Accidental actor best known for his role as Blakey in On the Buses. Picture: PA
Accidental actor best known for his role as Blakey in On the Buses. Picture: PA
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Born: 17 December, 1926, in London. Died: 12 August, 2015, in London, aged 88.

Stephen Lewis became one of the most familiar faces on British television in the early 1970s as Blakey, the sourpuss inspector on the sitcom On the Buses. But he did not want to be an actor at all. He was happy working as a merchant seaman, although he enjoyed trips to the theatre and was always ready to offer free advice… which is how he ended up in showbiz.

When he was on shore Lewis used to go to see Joan Littlewood’s left-wing Theatre Workshop company, which presented plays about working-class people to working-class audiences in Stratford in East London and was hugely influential in English theatre and latterly film in the 1950s and 1960s.

Lewis recalled that audiences would be invited to talk to director and cast after shows and he got to know Littlewood and some of the actors. “Joan Littlewood was talking to me in the bar… She said, ‘You’re so blooming clever, why not do it yourself?’ So I said, ‘Alright,’ and she said, ‘We’re doing auditions.’

“Just for a laugh I turned up and did a little thing for them… Anyway, afterwards in the bar, Joan said she’d let me come in the play. The show got very good notices and afterwards she said, ‘Are you going to be in the next thing?’ I replied that I didn’t know, as I was going off to sea.

“She was angry with me at the time, you know, but I had no intention of becoming an actor. At that time, I just liked enjoying myself. When I came back again the manager came round and said to me, ‘We’re doing a show. Would you like to come and be in it?’ I went back with them and stayed.”

Lewis is obviously best known as the dictatorial Blakely in On the Buses, with his Hitler moustache, manic, wide-eyed expression that mixed horror, disgust and impotence and the catch-phrases “I ’ate you Butler” and “I’ll get you for this, Butler”, directed at Reg Varney’s insolent bus driver character.

He also appeared in 135 episodes of the gentle, record-breaking sitcom Last of the Summer Wine between 1988 and 2007, playing the equally downbeat Smiler.

But Lewis had already had a distinguished career in theatre before On the Buses, not just as an actor, but also as a writer. He wrote the play Sparrers Can’t Sing for Theatre Workshop, which was filmed in 1963, with much the same cast, many of whom became TV stars.

James Booth played a seaman returning home after a lengthy absence to find that his wife, played by Barbara Windsor, has a new baby and is living with another man.

The cast also included Roy Kinnear, Yootha Joyce, Brian Murphy, George Sewell, Arthur Mullard, Harry H Corbett, Bob Grant, who played the conductor Jack in On the Buses, and Lewis himself in a supporting role.

They played the sort of characters who would later feature in EastEnders and the film was shot on authentic East London locations. The set was visited by the Krays, who ended up making a brief appearance in the film. It was also reputedly the first film in English that was released with subtitles in the US.

Lewis was born into a working-class family in Poplar, East London, in 1926, and was in his 30s before his acting career really took off. He made his debut in London’s West End in the Theatre Workshop production of Brendan Behan’s The Hostage in 1958 and began appearing in television in the early 1960s, using the name Stephen Cato before reverting to his real name.

But it was On the Buses that made him a star. He played the role of Cyril Blake in 74 episodes between 1969 and 1973, three feature films and a short-lived follow-up series called Don’t Drink the Water, in which the character moves to Spain, a country that British holiday-makers had recently discovered and found inherently funny.

He was still in his early 40s when he started playing the role, but was made up to look older. Lewis’s character symbolised management and the bosses, although in real life Lewis was a committed socialist who campaigned with Tony Benn.

The audience were invited to identify with the characters played by Reg Varney and Bob Grant, despite their outrageous sexism – women were at best “crumpet” or more succinctly “phwoah”, and their occasional racism.

Hard to believe now, but the first of the three feature films was the second highest-grossing film in the UK in 1971 (behind Disney’s The Aristocats). The films were made by horror specialist company Hammer.

Lewis thought the sitcom’s success had a lot to do with the public’s familiarity with buses and the types of characters who manned them, and he recalled that they filmed on the street in real situations. He said several scenes were quite dangerous.

He was the one forever taking the fall, remembering one scene in the bus garage, when he slipped on foam, ended up in the pit beneath the vehicle, was submerged in foam, could not breath and struggled to get out.

As well as Last of the Summer Wine, he starred in the sitcom Oh Doctor Beeching! in the 1990s, was a regular on The All New Alexei Sayle Show, made guest appearances on several sitcoms and had a cameo as a policeman in the film The Krays, with Gary and Martin Kemp.

He also continued in theatre, came to Edinburgh’s King’s Theatre in Pygmalion in 1981 and particularly enjoyed pantomime.

He left Last of the Summer Wine in 2007 because of ill health – he had had prostate cancer and suffered from arthritis. Latterly he lived in a care home in East London with his sister. He was not married.

Rashid Ebrahimkhan, manager of the home, said: “He still had his sense of humour, very much so, like he was on On the Buses. He had the sense of humour until the last.”