Yet again I have my rigorously scheduled writing plans thrown to the wind by another death. Believe it or believe it not, I do plan these things! This time it is not such a surprise though. Leslie Phillips CBE was ninety eight years old and had been ill for some time. Perhaps he isn’t as well known as some of the other people I’ve written about but he has had some success. He has also been part of some of the big franchises. However, I can’t help but think that, were he starting out today, he would have to have a very different career to the one we know him from.
Leslie Samuel Phillips was born in 1924 in the North London borough of Tottenham. Anyone who knew Leslie from his cut glass, RP accent might assume that Tottenham is one of the posher areas of London. It was, in fact, one of the more working class areas. Leslie has described his street as “beyond the sonic reach of the Bow Bells but within the general footprint of cockneydom.” Back then, regional accents were, quite literally, unheard of in the media and so it had to go!
Leslie Phillips – Early Days
His father died when Leslie was just eleven. Fortunately his mother recognised his talent and aspirations and sent him to the Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts. While there he got on top of his accent. He said that “the biggest elocution lessons came from mixing with people who sounded right, people in theatrical circles and in the officers’ mess during the war.” I grew up hearing and watching Leslie Phillips and I never knew he was a cockney!
Like most people of my vintage, we know Leslie Phillips as the dashing rake with an eye for the young women; a smooth talking cad and a lady-killer. It was this louche, lecherous character, which he played so well, that could well prove to be problematic for today’s audience’s. While his catchphrases “Helloooo”, “I say”, and “Ding dong!” may seem ludicrously innocent by today’s standards but the relentless womanising is a bit worrisome in the post Me Too era.
Oh What A Carry On!
My first memories of Leslie are seeing him in TV repeats of Carry On and Doctor films. I had to watch them as repeats as I was only a toddler when they came out. But, by that time, he had appeared in over fifty films, TV, radio, and stage roles. His stage debut was at the tender age of thirteen. He started as a wolf in a production of Peter Pan alongside Anna Neagle at the London Palladium. In the following season, he was promoted to the role of John Darling.
His first film work was a small part in Lassie From Lancashire and that was followed by a number of similarly small and uncredited parts which kept him working until he was called up for active service in 1942. His acquired RP accent meant that he was selected for officer training and joined the Royal Artillery as a Second Lieutenant. He was invalided out of the forces due to a neurological condition that caused partial paralysis.
Back To Civvy Street
He was demobbed as a Lieutenant and started performing again in “the murkiest rat-infested old playhouses and music halls in the north of England” before managing to get uncredited bit parts in films. These included the 1948 versions of Anna Karenina and The Red Shoes. He hit the, relative, big time with the lead in the 1952 BBC TV comedy series My Wife Jacqueline. This was in the days when the shows were broadcast live from Shepherd’s Bush and there are no extant copies available.
That’s probably not too bad a thing to have happened though. In his 2006 autobiography, Hello, Phillips said “The script was as light as a feather, with characters who appeared to live in a social, political and cultural vacuum that made Mrs Dale’s Diary look like a profound study of social history.” He also said “we were all surprised how this production reached the public.” Still…he will have been seen by everyone watching that night!
The Big Break Through
His big screen big break came in 1957 with Les Girls in which he appeared alongside Gene Kelly. The film was a commercial and critical success. Leslie could have have hopped on a boat and set sail for Hollywood. He decided against this, though, as “I didn’t want to become a poor man’s David Niven” he said in a 2004 interview in The Guardian. He also thought of himself as a theatre actor and didn’t see America as “a theatre place.”
To anyone of my generation the very thought of Leslie Phillips being a “theatre actor” comes as a bit of a non sequitur. He is, to people my age anyway, known as the epitome of caddishness, the loungiest of lizards. To be fair though, that reputation wasn’t helped by his choice of work: Carry On Nurse, Carry On Teacher, and Carry On Constable were his first entries into the Carry On franchise. After those he decided to bow out, but producer Peter Rogers found him roles in films that were not that dissimilar; Please Turn Over, No Kidding, The Fast Lady, Doctor In Love, Doctor In Clover, and Doctor In Trouble to name but a few. The nadir of his louch-ness was, probably, the TV series Casanova ’73 which evoked the ire of Mary Whitehouse!
A Turning Point
Whether that was the tipping point or not is hard to say but it wasn’t long before Leslie decided that his suave, lecherous roles were “a bit of a rut” and looked to branch out into proper dramatic roles. He told his agent that he was ditching the Lothario image and set about reclaiming a professional reputation that had been built as a child actor learning the ropes from Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, Rex Harrison and John Gielgud. He was in his seventies when he joined the RSC.
He secured a small role in Out Of Africa. Being given the chance to act in the same vehicle as Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, led to a bigger part working for Steven Spielberg on Empire Of The Sun. From then on he established himself as a proper character actor. I originally wrote “serious character actor” but changed my mind. “Serious” had overtones of pomposity and Leslie Phillips was far from that. He secured parts in Venus, Scandal, The Jackal, and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider as well as popping up on TV in The Bill, Holby City, and Midsomer Murders.
A Fine Character Actor
His biggest role as far his contribution to the blockbuster franchises is concerned is a voice only role. In three of the Harry Potter films (Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone, Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets, and Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows-Part 2) he plays the voice of the Sorting Hat. The last HP film is one of his last recorded performances. He does have another two films listed on his IMDb page. However, I have a feeling that this may well be the same film being given a new title and a re-release.
To finish though I’d like to mention a role of Leslie’s that was a particular favourite of my father. From 1959 through to 1977 he was in The Navy Lark. He played the part of Sub-Lieutenant Phillips on board the fictional HMS Troutbridge. My father was a former Chief Petty Officer on board the HMS Ark Royal and The Navy Lark was one of his favourite programmes. We even played the The Trade Wind Hornpipe, the theme tune, at his funeral. I, quite literally, grew up listening to Leslie Phillips at my father’s knee.
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Former teacher, lecturer, homelessness administrator, pharmacy dispenser now happily retired, happily married, and a very happy granddad. I live next to the Mersey but on the side Daniel Craig and Taron Egerton come from rather than the side the Beatles came from!