Obituary: William Lucas, actor

Born: 14 April, 1925 in Manchester. Died: 8 July, 2016 in London, aged 91.

William Lucas. Picture: The Kobal Collection
William Lucas. Picture: The Kobal Collection

Before he was seen as the benign and kind-hearted Dr Gordon in The Adventures of Black Beauty (1972-74) William Lucas was a recognised face on both the stage and television. But it was Black Beauty that made him well known and his handsome features, broad smile and generous nature suited the role of the Yorkshire GP perfectly.

The series was very much an early Sunday evening show for the family and gained large audiences. Although the series was adapted from Anna Sewell’s much-loved Victorian novel, the series carefully preserved its original atmosphere and style. That was much attributed to the shrewd scripts by Ted Willis (the original writer of BBC’s Dixon of Dock Green) and Richard Carpenter, but Lucas and his children took care never to become over-indulgent.

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Lucas brought to his character of the local doctor and widower a real charm and vitality. In the opening episode he saved the life of the disabled owner of a black stallion – and is presented with the animal as thanks. His children fall for the grand horse and it becomes central to many of the family’s adventures. The horse saved the village and its inhabitants and sought out any villains: Black Beauty was undemanding but showed good winning over bad and was excellent entertainment. Lucas epitomised that background with his clear understanding of the character.

William Thomas Lucas (born Clucas) was the son of a Sheffield steelworker. He attended Burnage High School in Manchester and initially worked in a bank, then served in the Royal Navy during the Second World War. After several jobs Lucas won a scholarship to study at the Northern Theatre School. On graduating he worked in repertory theatres before making his debut in the West End in The Witch of Edmonton in 1962. Another West End appearance included Tom Stoppard’s Artist Descending a Staircase in 1988.

He suited the television studio and he was seen in the BBC thriller written by Francis Durbridge, Portrait of Alison (1955), and in TV dramas such as Danger Man, The Professionals and The Saint. Lucas got the role of Range in Doctor Who in 1963 as the original actor (Peter Arne) had been brutally murdered. Also that year Lucas was in a special BBC series celebrating the plays of JB Priestley: he played Robert Caplan in Dangerous Corner opposite Julie Christie. Four years later he was the lead in The Prior Commitment (1969) which was set in the Hebrides and involved Russian submarines.

He was twice in Coronation Street: firstly as Dennis Maxwell in 1971, a crooked personnel manager who had a steamy affair with Elsie Tanner. In 1996 he was a judge who pronounced Steve and Vicky McDonald guilty after they had accepted stolen whisky. Lucas was also seen in Z Cars and the BBC’s short-lived Eldorado. His final appearances, a decade ago, included Last of the Summer Wine, Doctors and The Bill.

Lucas was a powerful presence in the episode of Sherlock Holmes (with Peter Cushing and Nigel Stock as Dr Watson) in the 1963 BBC series. He played Inspector Lestrade who arrests the wrong man. But even Holmes was confused about the murderer and Lucas’s detective whispered, “Cherchez la femme”. It was delivered by Lucas with obvious dramatic relish.

Lucas played the title role in a TV version of Verdi’s Rigoletto. He quipped, “Happily, the singing was dubbed.”

But it is the two series of The Adventures of Black Beauty (1972-74) for which Lucas will be remembered. Lucas and his co-stars found themselves part of a television phenomenon that owed much to the original development by Ted Willis. The series was seen worldwide and was particularly popular in America.

Willis carefully expanded the role of Dr Gordon from the original novel and Lucas delivered an exceptional performance as the gracious country GP. There was one episode that has become a classic – when Albert (played by Tony Maiden) cleared Beauty and Dr Gordon of a crime they hadn’t committed. Lucas brought a touching reality to the scene when he was proved innocent.

Indeed, his acting, and the entire series, was widely acclaimed for the high production values and the quality of writing and acting throughout.

The series gained a wider fame when Dave King’s award winning theme tune (Galloping Home) was used at the climax of the first series of Absolutely Fabulous with Edina dreaming of running through a field as Black Beauty.

In 1990 a New Zealand company revived the show (The New Adventures of Black Beauty) and Lucas played Dr Gordon emigrating. In retirement he furthered his interests in angling and cooking.

Lucas is survived by his second wife Camilla and two sons of his first marriage.

Alasdair Steven