Created by Jimmy Perry and David Croft, Hi de Hi first took to our television screens on 1st January 1980. Based on Jimmy Perry's real life experiences as a Butlin's Red Coat, Hi de Hi is set in the fictitious holiday camp of Maplins, Crimpton-on-Sea in the late 1950's when holiday camps were at the height of popularity. The location work for the series which won the 1984 BAFTA Award for Best Comedy along with three other BAFTA nominations in consecutive years, was filmed at a real life holiday camp in Dovercourt, Essex and ran for 55 episodes before finally closing it's chalet doors in 1988. It's strength and huge popularity came as a result not just of brilliant writing but of the superb casting which led to the evolving of some of British sitcoms most memorable characters. For example, who would ever expect the camp to be run by a bashful boffin and ex Cambridge Professor of archaeology AKA Jeffrey Fairbrother played by Simon Cadell. Then there was the man eating, Welsh chief Yellowcoat Glady's Pugh (Ruth Madoc), delightfully dotty chalet maid and Yellowcoat wannabee Peggy (Su Pollard), camp host and loveable rogue Ted Bovis (Paul Shane), the alcoholic and child hating Punch and Judy man Mr Partridge (Leslie Dwyer), the supercilious dance instructors Barry and Yvonne Stuart-Hargreaves (Barry Howard and Diane Holland), Riding Instructor and former disgraced jockey Fred Quilly, (Felix Bowness) and most importantly the naive and often described as hapless camp comedian Spike Dixon, played of course by Jeffrey Holland.
There are few who would question that this role was to be the real turning point in Jeff's career making him a household name. He played Spike for all 55 episodes as well as starring in the musical stage version which toured the UK to sell out houses and also enjoyed major success in London at the Victoria Palace where it's Christmas season was extended to the end of May.
Despite having already worked for Croft and Perry on a number of occasions, Jeff still had to pass an audition before being offered the role of Spike. He believes his success was largely due to his portrayal of a character he had played previously played in It Ain't Half Hot Mum together with an immediate chemistry struck up between himself and Paul Shane.
Over the course of the series as a comedian, Spike could mainly be relied upon to get laughs from his outrageous costumes and for the numerous times he was thrown into 'the Olympic sized swimming pool' but this wasn't all fun for Jeff. For obvious reasons, filming couldn't take place at the height of the summer season which meant the water in the outdoor pool was often freezing. That coupled with the fact that Jeff is not a strong swimmer almost resulted in disaster during the filming of one scene. As the camera's rolled, no one appeared to notice that Jeff was in difficulties. As he began to get colder he started to loose the feeling in his legs and lower body. It was he recalls, the most terrifying moment of his life and as panic set in he truly believed he was going to drown. As he frantically waved his arms, thankfully one of the crew realised his predicament and Jeff was dragged form the pool and plunged into a hot bath to revive him. Due to some brilliant editing, the scene was later screened without any evidence of the near catastrophe. Fortunately for Jeff his other memories of the series are much happier!!!
As the show evolved, new characters were introduced who only served to strengthen the series. With the departure of Simon Cadell came the introduction of a new Entertainments Manager in the form of Sqdn-Ldr. The Honourable Clive Dempster DFC (David Griffin) whose rakish charm brought a complete role reversal to the character of Gladys Pugh. Having spent much of her time perusing the timid Jeffrey Fairbrother, Gladys suddenly found herself trying to avoid the amorous advances of the not so honourable Squadron Leader. Spike acquired a girlfriend in the form of Yellowcoat, April (Linda Regan) and found himself firmly under the thumb if only temporarily and a new children's entertainer Uncle Sammy Morris (Kenneth Connor) was introduced along with a new dance partner for Yvonne in the form of Julian Dalrymple-Sykes (Ben Aris).
The series finally made an emotional exit at the height if it's popularity with the camp closing down but not before Gladys had married her knight in shining armour and Peggy had become the proud owner of her much sought after Yellowcoat. As for Spike, well rumour has it, he left to work in the tax office!
You Rang M'Lord?
You Rang M’Lord aired for the first time on the 29th December 1988 and of all the Croft and Perry productions Jeff appeared in, perhaps surprisingly, remains his personal favourite for several reasons, not least because of the show’s high level of production standards for which it is still noted today. This coupled with the authenticity of the costumes and sets plus the peach of a role in James Twelvetrees, makes this series stand out from the rest for the actor.
Set in the 1920’s, You Rang M’Lord revolved around the upstairs, downstairs existence of Lord Meldrum, his dysfunctional family and their servants. The main focus of the episodes centred on butler Alf Stokes (Paul Shane) and his frequent attempts to swindle his dim-witted employers. His efforts were usually thwarted by the incompetence of the lesser servants or the intervention of the pompous and self righteous footman, James Twelvetrees played by Jeff. In a role in which he completely epitomised the image of a 1920’s male servant, Jeff simply relished the opportunity to develop the character in his own inimitable style from the slicked back hair to the highly polished boots, immaculate uniform and starched wing collars. That said, it wasn’t always the easiest of roles to portray. Long days filming while standing stiffly to attention in true servant stance, often resulted in Jeff suffering severe back pain plus there was always the challenge of not fainting on set as much of the recording was done during blisteringly hot summer months with the actor required to wear a full three piece uniform together with overcoat and bowler hat.
Unlike most sitcoms of the era, each episode ran for 50 minutes as opposed to the usual 30. As with Croft and Perry’s other series, the characters were all immensely strong and in the main, wonderfully eccentric. Using the tried and trusted formula casting actors from their previous series, by the time You Rang M’Lord hit our TV screens, it almost appeared the writers had created their own sitcom rep company. In addition to Jeff and Paul Shane from Hi de Hi, joining the cast regulars were Su Pollard as Ivy, the well meaning but rather naïve maid, Donald Hewlett and Michael Knowles (It Ain’t Half Hot Mum) as the highly respected Lord Meldrum and not so honourable The Honourable Teddy Meldrum and Bill Pertwee (Dad’s Army) as the opportunist P.C. Wilson. Completing the cast were Mavis Pugh as Lady Lavender whose eccentricity bordered on senility, Brenda Cowling as cook Mrs Lipton, Barbara New as Mabel the lowly scullery maid and Perry Benson as bootboy Henry whose insight but unfortunate and inappropriate remarks frequently led him into trouble. New to the team were Susie Brann as Poppy Meldrum, the bright but snobbish younger daughter of Lord Meldrum and Catherine Rabett as her older sister Cissy who despite her striking good looks, favoured dressing as a man and behaving in a tomboyish manner. Thus, although it was never explicitly stated, Cissy displayed distinct lesbian tendencies creating a character of complete contrast to the much heralded camp portrayals of Mr Humphries, Bombardier Gloria Beaumont and Lt Gruber in other such comedy classics of the time.
You Rang M’Lord ran for 26 episodes over 4 years.
Oh Dr Beeching
Oh! Dr. Beeching was written by David Croft and Richard Spendlove and following the pilot, ran for two series from July 1996 to September 1997. It was the last in a line of sitcoms penned by co writer David Croft in which many of the cast members overlapped from previous series. For Jeff, Paul Shane and Su Pollard, nicknamed the A Team, it was a dream come true to be cast together for a third time some 16 years after Hi de Hi and something they never dreamt would happen again.
Set in the early 60's on the small fictional branch line railway station of Hatley under threat of Beeching's axe, the programme was filmed on the Severn Valley Railway. Jeff describes his character of the stern station master Cecil Parkin as 'lovelorn frustrated and something of a control freak' as he arrives at the station determined to get everything spik and span and in apple pie order to avoid the closure of the branch line. His lot was not helped by the discovery that the cafe was being run by May (Julia Deakin) a former sweetheart with whom he had had a passionate fling years earlier and who had subsequently married the station porter Jack Skinner (Paul Shane).
Much of the series gave rise to opportunities for Parkin to pursue his lost love and indeed youth and for the first time to pull rank in character over that of Paul Shane. Not surprisingly the series holds many happy memories for Jeff not least at the little mishaps in filming along the way. 'We had a lot of laughs', he explains. 'Often at my expense. I'm as blind as a bat without my glasses but never wear them to act. There was one scene when I was supposed to unlock the station master's office but couldn't see the keyhole. Eventually I had to admit I couldn't see what I was doing. Everyone thought it was hilarious, I'm still waiting for it to pop up on one of those outtake shows. Another time during a chase scene I was required to slip over in some mud. I fell heavily on my face and from the amount of pain, I was convinced I had broken my nose. Everyone else thought it was hysterical.'
Regular cast members included Su Pollard as Ethel the booking clerk, Stephen Lewis as the ever complaining signalman Harry, Barbara New as Vera Plumtree of Railway Cottages, Paul Aspen as Ethel's witless son Wilfred, Ivor Roberts as Arnold the engine driver and Perry Benson as Ralph his fireman. It is of particular note that both Ivor and Perry were required to learn the rudiments of how to actually drive the LMS Ivatt Class 22-6-0 No 46521 locomotive which was used on the film set.
Despite favourable viewing figures the programme came to an abrupt halt, no pun intended, at the end of the second series for no apparent reason leaving the fate of the station and its occupants unanswered. It is interesting to note however that the show's demise came at the time when television focus began to shift away from family comedy and drift towards the dawn of the soap era.
Shakespeare and Drama
Dixon of Dock Green
Jeff made his television debut in the legendary and still longest running police soap, Dixon of Dock Green. In an episode entitled Pay Off, he appeared alongside series regulars Jack Warner and Peter Byrne with guest star Hazel Bainbridge playing his mother. In his role as Alan Hunt, the storyline portrays him and his wife as a young married couple desperate to own their home. A scenario which seems increasingly unlikely for financial reasons until wife Ann succumbs to temptation! Coincidentally, Judy Buxton also appeared in Dixon of Dock Green in an episode called The Specialist.
A month after his appearance in Dixon of Dock Green, Jeff was signed on a six week contract to appear in eleven episodes of the hugely popular ATV soap Crossroads. Probably not surprising when you consider he is a Midlander by birth. He joined the cast as Mike Hawkins, a friend of Crossroads’ regulars Sheila and Roy Mollison and market fruit stall holder. His storyline was somewhat involved acting as a go between for his friends and a runaway boy. His exit from the series was far less glamorous but rather more mysterious! ‘I went to the motel for some coffee and was never seen again,’ Jeff laughs.
The Mayor of Casterbridge
Dennis Potter’s television adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge provided Jeff’s first major drama role on the small screen and a liaison with director David Giles which was to prove rather fruitful in terms of his career. Jeff was cast in the role of The Carter and appeared in the first four episodes of the seven episode series screened in 1978. Heading the cast was the brilliant Alan Bates in the title role with Anne Stallybrass in the role of his unfortunate wife and Anna Massey as his equally unfortunate mistress. For Jeff the production holds some very happy memories. ‘Well obviously it was a great experience to work with Alan Bates, a real learning opportunity,’ muses Jeff. ‘He was the complete professional in every respect and so well prepared but he was so easy to work with and still managed to be one of the lads. I remember he was a huge Elvis fan like me and he would play Elvis’ Moody Blue album constantly in is car. We would have numerous discussions about Elvis’ music between filming! ‘They were great times.’
Shakespeare - Richard II, Henry V, As You Like It
Following The Mayor of Casterbridge, director David Giles invited Jeff to appear in the role of the Duke of Surrey in Shakespeare’s Richard II alongside an illustrious cast including Derek Jacobi, Sir John Gielgud and Wendy Hiller for BBC TV. In the same year, producer Cedric Messina approached Jeff in the infamous BBC canteen to ask him to play the role of William in As You Like It. He was offered this role in what Jeff feels were slightly bizarre circumstances. Messina had seen Jeff’s portrayal of the multi talented Ormanroyd in It Ain’t Half Hot Mum and decided he was an ideal William. Jeff was a little concerned at first in that he did not know the director; however, he was advised not to worry. ‘I can’t help feeling the director got me whether he wanted me or not,’ laughs Jeff, ‘but it was a wonderful production to be a part of and I thoroughly enjoyed working with James Bolam who played Touchstone.’ This production was filmed in May 1979 and also starred Helen Mirren. Jeff then went on to appear as Stephano in The Tempest and Snug the Joiner, also for David Giles but this time at The Edinburgh Festival, which ultimately led to his most recent television Shakespeare role as Nym in Henry V with David Gwillim. Jeff firmly believes Shakespeare is something every actor should have on his CV. ‘It is quite hard work in that you literally have to translate it all in your mind first to get the emphasis right but I believe it’s a technique that once developed can help you give a performance of greater meaning all round. I don’t profess to be a natural Shakespearian performer but I have enjoyed what I have done and would like to do some more at some point especially Malvolio in Twelfth Night. I really couldn’t refuse that.’
Created from the pen of prolific drama writer Gerard Glaister, this brilliantly produced wartime classic took to our television screens in 1977 and ran for three series until 1979. Set in war-torn Belgium, the storyline followed the danger ridden lives of a group of Resistance fighters in occupied Belgium throughout World War II. Much of the action centred on La Candide, a bistro style café from where many escape plans for the allied forces were masterminded. Central characters included café owner Albert Foiret brilliantly portrayed by Bernard Hepton, his mistress and waitress Monique (Angela Richards), Resistance leader Lisa Colbert ‘Yvette’ (Jan Francis) and Kessler, a relentless Gestapo Officer (Clifford Rose). If all this sounds a little familiar, it is because the series is reportedly the inspiration behind the hit comedy Allo Allo. That said, there was nothing remotely humorous about Secret Army. Tense, gripping and compelling it was heralded as one of the BBC’s finest ever drama series. Jeff appeared in episode nine of the first season entitled ‘Too Near Home’. He portrayed a young Resistance member named Michel , a role he now reflects on as ironic with his connection to the stage show of Allo Allo in which his wife Judy also plays ‘Michelle of the Resistance’ albeit of the opposite gender! ‘Mine was very much a cameo role’, said Jeff. ‘But I was very impressed with Secret Army especially the speed at which they turned it all round. They did it weekly as well. They had already recorded film to put in with the studio stuff and they pulled it off so well. It was quite something for me, I was surrounded by Bernard Hepton and Jan Francis and people like that’.
Comedy & Light Entertainment
Dad’s Army was first broadcast on TV in 1971. Written by comedy writing legends David Croft and Jimmy Perry, the series was based on the exploits of the fearless if not dysfunctional Home Guard of the fictional seaside town Walmington on sea. As with all Croft and Perry collaborations, the strength of the show lay in its cast of hugely diverse characters led by the pompous bank manager Captain Mainwaring played by Arthur Lowe. Joining his platoon among others, were Sergeant Wilson, a laid back character of superior background! (John Le Mesurier), Corporal Jones, the local butcher prone to panic (Clive Dunn), Frazer, the pessimistic undertaker, (John Laurie) Godfrey the frailest of the squad who took on the role of medic but had major health issues of his own (Arnold Ridley) and Pike a naïve young lad often referred to by Capt Mainwaring as ‘stupid boy’ (Ian Lavender). Following Jeff’s success in the stage version of the show, he was offered the role of an army squady in an episode of the TV series entitled Wake –Up Walminton. During the platoon’s attempts to alert the town of the danger from a possible enemy attack, Jeff’s cameo sees him make a forceful contribution as a driver of an army transport vehicle thus strengthening his link with the writers for greater things to come. Dad’s Army remains as popular today as it did when it was first shown and enjoys numerous repeats.
Are You Being Served
Written by Jeremy Lloyd and David Croft, Are You Being Served first appeared on our television screens in 1972 and ran for 10 seasons finally bowing out in 1985. Ranking as one of the greatest sitcoms of all time, the series was set in the dated Grace Brothers department store and followed the unlikely antics of its staff whose characters were more colourful than the fashions displayed on their shop floor. Central to every plot were the stayed and pontificating floor walker Captain Peacock (Frank Thornton), the snobbish Head of Ladies Fashion Mrs Slocombe (Mollie Sugden) and the often outrageously camp sales assistant Mr Humphries (John Inman), ably supported by a large cast of actors many of whom became household names as a result of the series including Wendy Richard and Trevor Bannister. Jeff appeared twice in the series, the first time in 1977 in an episode entitled The Old Order Changes when he was cast rather bizarrely as a character called the Afro Pants Man in which he portrayed an Afro American. He returned two years later in the episode The Apartment as a rather aloof and bewildered customer at the mercy of Messer’s Humphries, Lucas and Goldberg as they diploid the hard sell method on him in respect of buying an expensive blazer. These cameo roles undoubtedly made their mark with the writers.
It Ain't Half Hot Mum
David Croft and Jimmy Perry’s sitcom It Ain’t Half Hot Mum was perhaps a natural progression to their series Dad’s Army and was based on their own wartime experiences in India. The series revolved around the activities of a fictional Royal Artillery Concert Party during World War II. During the show’s seven season run, the concert party moved from Bombay to Burma which allowed the series to accommodate a number of enforced cast changes along the way, the most notable due to the untimely death of actor Michael Bates in the pivotal role of Bearer Rangi Ram. That said, the programme continued to enjoy success on the strength of its remaining and new characters for several years. Jeff first joined the series in an episode entitled Flight to Jawani playing an RAF Airman. This paved the way for a second appearance as Aircraftsman Ormanroyd in the episode The Superstar, a year later. When asked to describe his character Jeff smiled warmly claiming that Ormanroyd could only really be described as ‘A bit of a gormless twit’. The character may well have been a gormless twit but the performance was one of inspired genius and Jeff is firmly convinced that it is on the strength of this portrayal that he was offered the role of Spike in Croft and Perry’s next creation, the immensely successful Hi de Hi. The challenge was to create a character that would stand out against the hugely diverse array of those already firmly established. He achieved this with a brilliantly crafted comic portrayal in which Ormanroyd transforms from a timid introvert to a show biz superstar through the course of his audition with the concert party. In so doing he demonstrates his ability to sing opera, play classical piano, jazz trumpet, tap dance and do a ventriloquist act all at the same time, thus outshining all his contemporaries single handed!
Russ Abbott Madhouse
Russ Abbott’s Madhouse took to the airwaves on London Weekend Television in 1981. A light entertainment programme, it provided the perfect showcase for a number of performers to display their talents in support of Russ Abbott’s madcap comic creations. This was another particularly period in Jeff’s career although he almost missed out on the experience as when the opportunity first arose it clashed with the casting for Hi de Hi. However, where there’s a will…….. Jeff knew Russ Abbot’s format well and was very aware of the type of character actor they would be looking for to join the team. As a result and determined to succeed he was very well prepared for the auditions where he found himself up against Sam Kelly later of Allo Allo fame. Armed with a huge pile of photographs depicting a vast array of assorted characters in a variety of costumes and make up from his earlier career in Rep. This coupled with a selection of impressions and funny voices, impressed the producers and gave Jeff the job which was to last a very happy four years. Packed with contrasting sketches, musical numbers and multiple costume changes, Jeff admits to it being ‘Damned hard work but great fun’. The regular cast also included Michael Barrymore, Les Dennis, Sherrie Hewson, Susie Blake, Dustin Gee and Bella Emberg. Among Jeff’s most noted portrayals were his impression of Prince Charles and as a member of Vince Prince’s backing group, The Tone Deafs.
The Les Dennis Laughter Show
Following Russ Abbot’s Madhouse, comedians Les Dennis and Dustin Gee formed a popular double act and created their own series, The Laughter Show which ran until Dustin’s sudden death forced Les to rename the programme The Les Dennis Laughter Show. Similar in format to that of the Madhouse, Jeff teamed up with his former colleague to guest on a number of the shows which also included Bella Emberg in the cast.
Kenny Everett Television Show
Kenny Everett’s shows could be described as zany, eccentric and outrageous but ‘always in the best possible taste’. In addition to Kenny’s own regular flamboyant performances, he was joined each week by a number of well known guest stars including Gareth Hunt, Sheila Steafel, Cleo Roccas, Vicki Michelle and of course Jeff who appeared in three episodes, playing in a number of sketches. Particular favourites include a Punch and Judy sketch in which he played the policeman and a spoof sketch of the former popular quiz show Ask the Family in which the Royal Family competed against the Thatchers where Jeff once again gave his impression of Prince Charles and Sheila Steafel portrayed a highly convincing Margaret Thatcher. Recognised in his day as being a comic genius, Kenny had a reputation for not turning up at rehearsals. Jeff describes him as ‘Amazing. Everyone else would rehearse and then Kenny would arrive and just do it and we would all adjust accordingly’.
The Ballard of Johnny Vanguard
In 1986 while still starring as Spike in Hi de Hi, Jeff was targeted by casting director Sheila MacIntosh to take the lead role in a pilot sitcom for Southern Television entitled The Ballad of Johnny Vanguard. The story is basically that of a forty year old one hit wonder from the revolutionary pop era of the 60’s living off his success of 1959. Such is his ego, he has dined out on is one hit for twenty five years believing his lack of further fortune since to be nothing more than a glitch! Even his agent uses every tactic to avoid him in a wonderfully acted portrayal by John Bird, aided and abetted by his waspish secretary, the then totally unknown Lesley Joseph. Johnny meets and strikes up a partnership with an attractive traffic warden (Nicky Croydon), who has a beautiful voice. They perform at a couple of gigs with disastrous results leaving Johnny no alternative but to return to teaching the guitar for a living, no doubt to the dismay of his number one fan and would be stalker brilliantly played by the late Diane Bull. The character of Johnny Vanguard was something of a contrast to Jeff’s earlier roles and one he thoroughly enjoyed. ‘Obviously it’s always good to have your own spot,’ he remarks. ‘I even got the chance to sing the theme song. It’s a shame they never made a series of it but I have some great memories. Johnny’s mother was played by my great friend Pamela Cundell then there was the record shop owner played by an actor called Fine-Time Fontaine and an amazingly energetic cameo performance by a young Peter Capaldi as a screaming Scottish punk rocker providing an unbelievable rendition of Mull of Kintyre’.