Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Late Great Lionel Jeffries

Character actor, screenwriter, and director Lionel Jeffries died at the age 83 after a long illness. He appeared in films ranging from The Quatermass Xperiment to First Men in the Moon to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. He directed such films as The Railway Children and Wombling Free.

Lionel Jeffries was born in Forest Hill, London on 10 June, 1926. He attended Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School in Wimborne, Dorset. During World War II he served in the Oxford and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry. For his service he was awarded the Burma Star. Following the war he attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA). He debuted on stage in Carrington V. C. at the Westminster Theatre in 1949. He made his film debut the following year in Stage Fright, in a bit part credited as the Bald RADA Student. In 1952 Mr. Jeffries made his television debut on BBC Sunday Night Theatre in 1952. In 1953 he had a small role in the film Will Any Gentleman..? His first major film role was in the 1954 thriller The Black Rider.

The late Fifties saw Lionel Jeffries' career well underway. He appeared in The Colditz Story, the Hammer sci-fi horror classic The Quatermass Xperiment, Doctor at LargeThe Vicious Circle, Blue Murder at St. Trinian's, and The Trials of Oscar Wilde, among other films. On television he guest starred on Assignment Foreign Legion, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Tales from Dickens, Dick and the Duchess, and The Four Just Men.

The Sixties saw Lionel Jeffries appear in such films as Fanny, The Notorious Landlady, The Scarlet Blade, Call Me Bwana, and 12 + 1. Mr. Jeffries played some of his best known roles during this period. He played Inspector Oliphant in The Notorious Landlady, Joseph Cavor in First Men in the Moon, King Pellinore in Camelot, and Grandpa Caractacus Potts in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (even though he was six months younger than the man playing his son, Dick Van Dyke). In 1970 Mr. Jeffries made his directorial debut, directing an adaptation of E. Nesbit's The Railway Children, which won much praise.Throughout the Seventies he would direct four more films, including The Amazing Mr. Blunden, Baxter!, Wombling Free (featuring The Wombles of television fame), and The Water Babies. As an actor he appeared in Whoever Slew Auntie Roo, What Changed Charlie Fleming?, Royal Flash, and the 1979 remake of The Prisoner of Zenda. He also provided the voice of the title character in the animated series Fred Basset.

Starting in the Eighties, Lionel Jeffries appeared increasingly on television. He was a regular on the show Shillingbury Tales, and starred in the series Father Charlie and Tom, Dick, and Harriet. He guest starred in the shows All For Love, Minder, The Collectors, and C.A.T.S. Eyes. He appeared in the telefilms Ending Up, First and Last, and Jekyll and Hyde. He appeared in the films Better Late Than Never and A Chorus of Disapproval.

In the Nineties Mr. Jeffries guest starred on Inspector Morse, Boon, The Mixer, Casualty, and Lovejoy. He was a regular on the series Rich Tea and Sympathy and Woof. His last role on screen was a guest appearance on the series Lexx.

There can be no argument that Lionel Jeffries was one of the greatest comic actors of all time. His talents were put to great use in comedies ranging from Doctor at Large to Royal Flash. He had utterly perfect timing and a knack for making the most outrageous characters believable. At the same time he could be very convincing in more serious roles, such as that of Joseph Cavor in First Men in the Moon. Of course, Jeffries was also a talented director and screenwriter. His adaptation of The Railway Children was one of the best adaptations of a book ever filmed. Lionel Jeffries was a multi-talented artist with a considerable gift for inducing laughter. Very few actors were ever his equal, and it's doubtful very many ever will be.


Toby O'B said...

Mr. Jeffries made a big impression on me as a boy with "First Men In The Moon" and if I knew a movie on TV had him in it, I'd make sure to watch it after that.

Sadly, because most of his TV work never showed up over here, I thought he had died years ago.

I'll have to get a copy of "First Men In The Moon" and "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" to show my little nephew. He should get a kick out of those.....

Rupert said...

I can't believe he was only 83!! He always seemed rather mature in his films of long ago! Very good actor though. Thanks for the post.