Michael Angelis entered the nation’s consciousness in the mid-1970s, as Lucien, the brother of one of the flatmates in The Liver Birds, Carla Lane’s hit sitcom set in Liverpool. He was a lovable, loopy character, obsessed with his pet rabbits – “me rabbits” as he called them. “I never get upset,” he says after reading some “shocking” stories in the newspaper. “I just say to meself, ‘You’re lucky’. I say, ‘Just think, there’s rabbits dying every day’.”
But it was with another Liverpudlian character that the mop-headed actor probably made his biggest impact and completed a rather tragic story arc. He was Chrissie Todd, one of the unemployed road layers in Boys from the Blackstuff, Alan Bleasdale’s landmark mini-series set in Thatcher’s Britain in the early 1980s.
While Bernard Hill’s character Yosser Hughes crystallised the themes and dark humour with his manic catchphrase “Gizza job”, Angelis arguably had the single most poignant scene when he goes into his backyard and, with no money for food, blasts his pet geese and chickens with a shotgun. But not the rabbit. “Somebody had better wash the blood off that rabbit,” he says, as he and his wife, played by Julie Walters, embrace in a mix of tears and laughter.
Angelis was as readily identified with Liverpool as the Beatles and a younger generation will be familiar with his voice, or rather multiple, varied voices, from Thomas the Tank Engine. He took over the storytelling in the early 1990s from Ringo Starr, an old neighbour from the working-class area of Dingle where both grew up. Angelis had that same slightly downbeat, world-weary quality in his Liverpudlian lilt, even when saying something upbeat. He provided voices on Thomas and Friends in more than 300 instalments over 20 years.
However, he actually began life in London, born Nicolas Michael Angelis. His father was a Greek immigrant. He was Scottish on his mother’s side. His mother, Margaret McCulla, died when he was only a few years old. His brother Paul also became an actor and in the 1980s and wrote a radio play called Where Are You Now Margaret McCulla?, in which Michael appeared. Paul had a regular role on Z-Cars and voiced Ringo in the Beatles animated film Yellow Submarine.
Angelis lived for a while in Glasgow in his teens, studied at the Royal Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow, and appeared in student productions, winning an award for his performance as the bellows mender Francis Flute in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He had a spell with the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool before heading to London.
“In those days you had to be in London to go for auditions, it was as simple as that,” he said. “I got sick of taking trains there and back and managed to get somewhere to live down in London.”
He slept on the couch of another aspiring thespian, Helen Worth, who was shortly to land the long-running role of Gail in Coronation Street. Their relationship blossomed, they lived together and eventually married in 1991. He had married for the first time in the 1960s, but it did not last long. His marriage to Worth also ended in divorce, after he left her for another woman – Jennifer Khalastchi, a model, became his third wife and survives him. He did not have children.
The Liver Birds was already established when he joined it in 1975. It had starred Nerys Hughes and Polly James as two flatmates, with James as the bouncy, working-class Beryl Hennessey and Hughes as the more sensitive and refined Sandra Hutchinson. When James left, Elizabeth Estensen was brought in as the rather similar Carol Boswell, but Angelis in the role of her brother Lucien Boswell proved more memorable.
James returned to the role of Beryl when the show was briefly revived in the 1990s. Estensen’s character was no longer in it, but Angelis returned as Lucien, who somehow had become Beryl’s brother Lucien Hennessey in the intervening years.
During the 1970s Angelis made one-off appearances in Coronation Street, Z-Cars, Crown Court and Hazell before appearing in the original television drama The Black Stuff in 1980, though it was actually filmed in 1978. It brought a new meaning to the phrase “road movie”, following a small group of Liverpudlian road layers to a job near Middlesborough. When it finally did make it onto TV, the BBC commissioned a series.
Although Boys from the Blackstuff is now regarded as a comment on the Thatcher years, much of it was written before she came to power. Unemployment was already rising under Labour, but it accelerated during Thatcher’s reign and the timing was perfect for Boys from the Blackstuff, which articulated in drama and black comedy the frustration and fury of millions who had been stripped of employment, purpose and dignity.
Angelis went on to work with Bleasdale and Hill again on the 1985 feature film No Surrender, playing the new boss of a Liverpool club, where his predecessor has mischievously double-booked the club for one Protestant group and one Catholic. He also appeared in Bleasdale’s 1990s mini-series GBH, as a poet, and Melissa, playing a police detective.
Angelis had an easy-going charm about him, but he could also play menacing – he was a brutal jail kingpin in The Jump and was Mickey Startup, a Liverpool club owner and white slave trafficker, in the third series of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet in 2002, though he played it with more than a hint of humour – “Get out, find him and kill him – and then bring him here and I’ll kill him again.”
His most recent credits were for voice work on Thomas and Friends, but he told one interviewer that even decades after it was shown people still wanted to talk about Boys from the Blackstuff, a drama that outlived Thatcher “It had such an impact,” he said. “Only today someone shouted out ‘Gizza job’ at me.”