Leslie Phillips has found a use for his old tales – a riveting autobiography
PUBLISHED: 12:07 25 January 2007 | UPDATED: 14:25 07 September 2010
By Bridget Galton AS A self-proclaimed workaholic and hoarder, Leslie Phillips could luckily lay his hands on boxes of old papers when writing up his long and busy life . The 82-year-o
Leslie Phillips has found a use for his old tales - an autobiography
By Bridget Galton
AS A self-proclaimed workaholic and hoarder, Leslie Phillips could luckily lay his hands on boxes of old papers when writing up his "long and busy life".
The 82-year-old sits in a comfy armchair among overflowing stacks in the living room of his antique-stuffed Maida Vale home and gestures at the piles.
One is unanswered fan mail, two holds material for his recent autobiography Hello and yet more brim with scripts, which still land on his doormat almost 70 years after his professional debut.
"Ever since I was a little boy and went on the stage, I used to keep a book. I wrote down all the people I met, like children do. As I got older, I put down the play, director and my part. Amazingly, I keep it up to this day. It was just a bit of fun but it's been terribly useful to jog my memory," says the affable Phillips, who is far warmer than his suave characters and has the mental sharpness of a man 20 years younger.
On February 8, he will attend a Screenwriters Guild ceremony to collect a lifetime achievement award and perhaps a gong for best supporting actor in Venus.
Written by Hanif Kureishi, directed by Roger Michell and co-starring Richard Griffiths and Golden Globe-nominated Peter O'Toole, it portrays a trio of washed-up elderly actors.
"I always work terribly hard. I love working and it's lovely to get a film at my age that's that good," says Phillips, who has a best supporting actor Bafta nomination for the role.
"O'Toole is a bloody good actor who has a wicked sense of humour and the script was excellent. In one scene, we end up fighting and when it was over the crew all clapped. Roger said, of all the films he had done, he had never ever heard a crew applaud."
There's a neat irony that is not lost on the down-to-earth Phillips - that a man famous for playing smoothies and a parade of upper-class judges, lords and sirs was born into a working-class family in Tottenham.
He was the youngest child of Cecelia and Frederick, a gas cooker factory worker who died when Leslie was 10.
Shortly afterwards, his hard-working mum, eager to give him a shot at a better life, marched him down to the Italia Conti children's theatre school.
Cecelia thereafter took no further part in his career - although young Leslie was vitally aware that his wages were needed for the family finances.
He was soon heading to Welwyn Studios to shoot his first film, Lassie From Lancashire, and by Christmas 1937 was paid 25 shillings for a part in Peter Pan at the London Palladium.
After leaving school at 14, Phillips' education, development and character were almost entirely moulded by the theatre folk who surrounded him.
"It's a good beginning to life and a marvellous business to grow up in, full of erudite, interesting people. Generally actors are awfully warm people. Their job is to work and listen and react. You do that in life as well."
The eager, hard-working Phillips acted in films for King Vidor, Zoltan Korda and Carol Reed, understudied small theatre parts, worked in the box office and as a gofer for stars such as Vivien Leigh ("she was sweet, she used to kiss me when she came into the theatre").
He soon developed his distinctive voice, "the most famous part of my body", eradicating his aitch-dropping cockney accent for his part as an upper middle-class youth in Dear Octopus in 1939.
"When I started working in theatre I had to get to rid of any trace of regional accent. It was taboo. Now you can't be an actor without one and you can do Shakespeare with a cockney accent!"
As Luftwaffe bombs rained on London, the teenage Leslie held down three jobs, darting out of the Haymarket Theatre at the interval where he was ASM and call boy on A Doctor's Dilemma to appear as a tumbler in The Nutmeg Tree at the Lyric Theatre, then back to the Haymarket to finish up, before racing up Old Compton Street - often during an air raid - to a fire-watching shift on a roof in Charing Cross Road.
His workaholism - engendered by his actor's weakness of saying yes to everything and youthful memories of poverty - never left him. In later life he would characteristically hold down a West End lead while fitting
in filming and radio recordings by day.
The war was a frustrating time. "You can't imagine what it was like being a child and bloody bombs falling and your brother going off to war before you because he was older and thinking you were going to miss all this."
But by the time of his call-up in 1942, Phillips' acting would lend him the confidence to carry off a swift promotion to officer rank in the Durham Light Infantry. Like the theatre world, the British Army did not care if Phillips was a toff as long as he appeared to be.
A crushing early discharge from the Army - training with thunderous artillery shot his nervous system weeks before
D-Day - forced him back to a job he no longer considered a career.
"I was in a terrible mess, I was not terribly well and literally at a crossroads of my life. I didn't want to be an actor. I thought I ought to get a proper job."
Unable to find better-paid work, an old theatre contact offered him a job by chance and, "by sheer magnetism and coincidence, I gradually got drawn back into acting".
At Dundee rep, he floundered hopelessly as Guildenstern in Hamlet where the director found "increasingly imaginative reasons to give my lines to the Rada-trained Rosencrantz". But at York rep he hit the right note with a comedy ensemble, Army Of Preoccupation, about men adapting to military life.
"I didn't have any idea to become a comedian but I had found my natural metier in comedy and there I was to stay for the next 35 years."
Ever-larger roles in Charlie's Aunt, The Winslow Boy, Arsenic And Old Lace and For Better, For Worse led him to Hollywood in 1956 to work with Gene Kelly in the George Cukor-directed Les Girls. But he missed England so much he returned to make smaller British films such as The Smallest Show On Earth, shot next to Kilburn Station.
A career landmark came in 1959 when he was paid "a measly £500" for five weeks playing bunion patient Jack Bell in the second of the Carry On franchise - Carry on Nurse. Greeted by Shirley Eaton's sexy nurse Denton, with the inquiry "Mr Bell?", Phillips' reply, "Ding dong! You're not wrong", became an enduring catchphrase he good-naturedly continues to trot out.
He made two more Carry Ons - Teacher and Constable - and says the ribald scripts spilled over into cast shenanigans that included willy-size contests, outrageous ad-libs and Kenneth Williams' constant goosing. During a break on Constable, Williams held up traffic in Ealing while in police uniform before blowing his whistle and taking a pee in the street to the amazement of a tottering old lady and the hysteria of his fellow actors.
But the notorious parsimony of producer Peter Rogers put paid to further Carry Ons for Phillips, who could pull in thousands for more lucrative films.
Although working with Charles Hawtrey ("liked his drink"), Joan Sims ("a slight weakness for the booze") and Kenneth Connor ("my favourite and a dear friend") was hilarious, Phillips is relieved he did not go on for "umpteen years". "The scripts had no great gravitas. But nevertheless they were a hint to an orderly nation that our great institutions were not beyond reproach. I don't regret any of them. I did have an awful lot of fun but we got screwed rotten."
Around that time he landed a role in the series of comedies about junior doctors, acquiring his second catchphrase - a suggestive "hello" - in Doctor
In Love in 1960.
Phillips observes that whenever he has worked with a team - Carry On, Doctor or The Navy Lark, the long-running radio comedy - it has made him more famous. "Suddenly people wanted to know the most intimate details of your life - how old you are, how much money you have and who do you go to bed with.
"The only problem is I seem to have outlived most of the rest of the teams. They've all bloody died and I'm the only one trooping on," he laughs.
For all his typecasting as a lecher, Phillips is more a serial monogamist, marrying his first wife, Penny, in 1948 at All Souls, Loudon Road, St John's Wood, and second wife, the comedy actress Angie Scoular, in 1982. He and Penny had four children but divorced in 1963, as much due to his frequent work absences as his affair with Penelope Mortimer's daughter, Carrie.
Now living in Maida Vale, by the late 1970s Phillips realised he had entered a career cul-de-sac and, with Angie's encouragement, took the courageous step of turning down light comedies for serious roles.
The gamble worked. Not only has he been praised for West End work in The Cherry Orchard and Peter Nichols' Passion Play, but he has notched up an impressive film CV including Empire Of The Sun, Out of Africa and Scandal.
"There is nothing like a bloody good comedy. Comedies made my career but it got to the stage where the more I did, the more I wanted to break away from it. When I felt myself getting bogged down, I made the supreme effort to go after different parts."
Phillips cites his career high as playing Falstaff while in his 1970s. "Pulling off a great leading role in Shakespeare on the RSC stage - that was very exciting. It thrilled me to pieces."
And fortunately, this national treasure has no plans to stop working. "It's like a drug this business. It gets hold of you. You can't ever give it up. You never want to retire. I don't think about stopping. I don't think about age. I think, 'Does someone want me and can I still do it?'"
Hello is published by Orion. Venus, released on January 26.