A FEW years ago during a chat with a film-loving colleague, I asked him to nominate his favourite actor. He came up with Robert Duvall, who won an Oscar for Tender Mercies although I remember him best as the mad Lt Col Kilgore in Apocalypse Now – ‘You smell that? Do you smell that? Napalm, son. Nothing else in the world smells like that. I love the smell of napalm in the morning.’
It took a deal of thought before I supplied my own selections, also American – Randy Quaid, who specialised in goofy characters such as Lester Marlow in The Last Picture Show and the thieving seaman Larry Meadows in The Last Detail, plus the great comic actor Gene Wilder for his roles in, among others, the Mel Brooks classics Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. Not to mention Jason Alexander in Seinfeld playing that perennial ball of frustration George Costanza.
It took no time at all, however, to list my least favourite actors, starting with Rodney Bewes and James Bolam. The pair became household names in 1964 with the advent of BBC 2’s The Likely Lads, about two friends who work in a Newcastle factory. Bewes played Bob Ferris, a social-climbing dreamer, and Bolam was Terry Collier, his lazy and cynical friend. Despite a sparkling script from Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, I could never enjoy the pair’s interaction because of their wooden delivery and staginess. Here’s an example from an episode shown at Christmas, 1964.
The programme, shot in black and white, ended in 1966 after three series with a depressed Bob trying to join the Army but being rejected because of his flat feet. Terry, who had decided at the last minute to enlist to keep him company, was accepted and carted off for three years. Mercifully, only eight of the 20 episodes were kept by the BBC.
Worse was to come with Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?, made in colour in 1973, which introduced us to Bob’s fiancée, the prissy librarian Thelma Chambers, played by Brigit Forsyth. She took over-acting into a whole new territory as she clashed with Terry over his simplistic class-warrior views. And to put the tin lid on it, her father was played by that dreadful ham Bill Owen, later to appear as Compo in Last of the Summer Wine.
In my memory, every scene from the Likely Lads series could have come from the worst amateur dramatics production ever made. Despite this, Bolam has never been short of work and is still with us at the age of 88. However Bewes struggled to find rewarding roles amid a 40-year feud with Bolam which started over an innocuous remark about the latter’s pregnant wife. Bewes claimed that he would have been rich from repeat fees of up to £4,000 an episode had Bolam not vetoed further showings of the Likely Lads programmes. In his final interview, aged 79, he pleaded unsuccessfully with his former colleague to bury the hatchet. Following Bewes’s death in 2017, Bolam insisted, in true luvvie style, that he ‘remembered him with great warmth’. However in an earlier interview he complained: ‘Just because one played great friends, it doesn’t mean that you are great friends.’
One facet of bad acting that really gets my goat is bad accents. Who can forget the American Dick Van Dyke’s ludicrous take on Cockney when playing Bert the chimney sweep in Mary Poppins?
Next we have Laurence Harvey’s complete Yorkshire pudding of an accent in the 1959 film Room at the Top.
But the most egregious accent-mangler of them all, in my book, is Jane Leeves. This one-time Benny Hill sidekick, born in Ilford, Essex, and brought up in East Grinstead, Sussex, moved to America in search of acting work. Eventually she landed the role of Marla the virgin in four episodes of Seinfeld which highlighted her tragic lack of talent. Worse was to come.In 1993 Leeves joined the cast of Frasier as the live-in therapist Daphne Moon. For some reason the writers decided that she was from Manchester, leading her to adopt the most ridiculous faux-northern accent ever heard. It might have passed muster with the Yanks, but set my teeth on edge to such an extent that I could not bear to watch the programme – and as I have said before I was a huge fan of Cheers, where the character of Frasier Crane was born.
Bad accents seemed to run in the Moon family. Among Daphne’s brothers who appeared in the series, Simon, played by the Australian Anthony LaPaglia, opted for Cockney. Unconvincingly. That quintessential jock Robbie Coltrane, who played Michael, was persuaded to attempt a Brummie twang, which came out with a distinct flavour of Glasgow. Unintelligible. And Richard E Grant played Stephen Moon, undecided whether to speak Received Pronunciation or EastEnder. Unfathomable.
I agree with precious little in the Guardian, but when columnist Lucy Mangan described Daphne’s accent as Frasier’s ‘only weak link’, she was bang on the money. There is a 2023 remake of the programme on the go, mercifully Daphne-free.
Interviewed on the BBC in 2011, Leeves said that the Frasier producers ‘wanted something a bit working-class but they wanted something an American audience could understand. So it’s just a slight working-class accent.’ When host Bill Turnbull suggested that Mancunians wouldn’t recognise it, she reluctantly agreed: ‘It’s not really right.’
You said it, lass.
Old jokes’ home
What happened after David had his ID stolen?
We had to call him Dav.
A PS from PG
When I was a piefaced lad of some twelve summers, doing my stretch at Malvern House, Bramley-on-Sea, the private school conducted by the Rev Aubrey Upjohn, I remember the Rev Aubrey give the late Sir Philip Sidney a big build-up because, when wounded at the battle of somewhere and offered a quick one by a companion in arms, he told the chap who was setting them up to leave him out of that round and slip his spot to a nearby stretcher-case, whose need was greater than his. This spirit of selfless sacrifice, said the Rev Aubrey, was what he would like to see in you boys – particularly you, Wooster, and how many times have I told you not to gape at me in that half-witted way? Close your mouth, boy, and sit up.
PG Wodehouse: The Mating Season