Scotsman Obituaries: Leslie Phillips, British actor known for playing upper class cads

Leslie Phillips CBE, actor. Born: 20 April 1924 in London. Died: 7 November 2022 in London, aged 98

Leslie Phillips made a career out of playing upper-class, often lascivious Englishmen, giving phrases such as “I sa-ay”, “Hel-lo” and “Ding dong” almost Shakespearean depth of character and meaning. But it was all acting, for he came from proletarian stock, the son of a Tottenham factory worker who became a boy actor to put bread on the family table after the early death of his father.

Through the Carry On films in particular Phillips became a symbol of a certain privileged England, hellbent on sensual pleasure. In Carry on Constable he is a new recruit who turns up for duty with a tennis racket, though his most memorable moment came in Carry on Nurse where his character is called Jack Bell and he greets nurse Shirley Eaton with an enthusiastic “Ding dong”.

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People would come up to him in the street and ask him to say it. He even had requests from some wanting a recording of him saying “Hel-lo” so they could put it on answering machines. His plummy voice was instantly recognisable and it served as that of the animated Sorting Hat in the Harry Potter films many years later.

Leslie Phillips hams it up for the camera at an event in 2004 (Picture: Bruno Vincent/Getty Images)
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Carry On became part of the fabric of British society, but itwas only the earliest films in which he appeared, for his posh archetype was already a thing of the past in a vulgarian revolution spearheaded by Sid James and Barbara Windsor. He appeared in only four Carry On films. There were three in the late 1950s and early 1960s and then was a gap of more than 30 years before he appeared in the belated Carry on Columbus as King Ferdinand of Spain in 1992.

Phillips started acting when he was only about ten. At 13 he played the wolf in Peter Pan at the London Palladium and he was still acting three-quarters of a century later, with one of his last credits being Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2.

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Phillips bristled at the automatic association with one particular type of character, yearning to play Shakespeare. He did eventually play several classical roles on stage, including Falstaff for the Royal Shakespeare Company, though he joked that if he were to attempt King Lear it would certainly be dubbed King Leer. He played Sir Plympton Makepiece, a bitter, old Tory MP in On the Whole, It’s been Jolly Good, a monologue that Phillips brought to the Edinburgh Fringe in 1999 before a tour of England and a sell-out London run. He would walk the length of Princes Street rehearsing the monologue.

In the 1980s he had small roles in the Oscar-winner Out of Africa and Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun. And in 2006 he co-starred alongside Peter O’Toole in the light-hearted drama Venus, a performance that brought him a Bafta nomination as best supporting actor.

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Phillips and co-star Jon Pertwee promote BBC radio show The Navy Lark in 1969 (Picture: Ian Showell/Keystone/Getty Images)

The youngest of three children, Leslie Samuel Phillips was born in the Tottenham area of north London in 1924 – he was a keen Tottenham Hotspur fan all his life. He had a Cockney accent until he managed to replace it with the more familiar version at a time when Received Pronunciation was standard in British theatre and cinema.

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His father worked at a factory making gas cookers and died at 44, when Phillips was only about ten. Phillips blamed conditions at the factory

Phillips showed an aptitude for acting, attended the Italia Conti acting school (with fees deferred) and was soon making a significant contribution to family finances. His early acting career was interrupted by the Second World War.

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He was commissioned in the Royal Artillery, reputedly due to his posh accent. He trained in the East Lothian countryside and spent leisure time in Edinburgh. On one occasion he recalled that one friend was challenged to drink a whole bottle of whisky, in a oner, only to then drop down dead. Like many thespians, Phillips could spin a fine story. Exposure to artillery explosions seemingly left him with neurological damage and he was sent to a transit camp in the south of England, where he coordinated the movements of Scottish divisions ahead of D-Day.

Phillips and Geraldine McEwan during a performance of For Better, For Worse at London's Comedy Theatre in 1952 (Picture: Denis De Marney/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
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After the war he had a short stint with Dundee Rep, before he began landing roles in films, including The Barretts of Wimpole Street, with Jennifer Jones as Elizabeth Barrett and Bill Travers as Robert Browning; The Smallest Show on Earth, the comedy about a little old cinema with Peter Sellers; and Les Girls, with Gene Kelly, in which Phillips played a Sir. At the end of the 1950s he began a long association with radio comedy The Navy Lark, which ran from 1959 to 1977. Regulars included Dennis Price, Jon Pertwee and Ronnie Barker.

His first Carry On film, Carry on Nurse, also appeared in 1959. It was the second in the series, and the following year he appeared in Doctor in Love, the fourth. It was the first of three Doctor comedies in which he appeared, though they lack the vigour and irreverence of the Carry On series and have not worn as well. In total he appeared in more than 200 films, TV and radio shows.

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He wed Penelope Bartley in the late 1940s and they had four children, but divorced in the 1960s. She later died in a fire in a nursing home. He was on tour in Australia and said that his family never forgave him for not coming home for the funeral.

He then had a long relationship with Caroline Mortimer, daughter of novelist Penelope Mortimer and stepdaughter of writer John Mortimer, who was only a year older than Phillips and dreaded Phillips calling him Dad. But she wanted children and he did not want any more. In 1982 he married Bond girl Angela Scoular, who was 21 years his junior. She suffered from depression and alcoholism and killed herself in 2011 by drinking drain cleaner.

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In 2013 at the age of 89 he got married for a third time, to Zara Carr, who was more than 30 years younger. She survives him, along with the four children from his first marriage.

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