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Obituary: Fred Feast

WHEN THE legendary landlady of the Rovers Return in Coronation Street, Annie Walker, was instructed by the brewery to take on a pot-man, the roly-poly widower Fred Gee presented himself as being down on his luck but respectable, dressed in a smart blazer, polite and cultured. But, as the actor Fred Feast settled into the role, he relished unveiling the true Fred Gee - an idle, womanising, coarse opportunist who became the object of the barmaid Bet Lynch's scorn as she dubbed him "Fred Face".

Feast had appeared briefly in the television serial four years earlier, before being asked back in 1976 by a new producer, Bill Podmore, who went on to become known as "the Godfather" as he took Coronation Street to some of its greatest heights and used his background in comedy to give the soap a humour to balance the dramas of life in a Northern back street. Podmore had, in the intervening years, seen Feast in other productions and made a point of keeping him in mind for a regular role in the Street. "He made the most wonderful job of creating the bumbling, bashful and much- bullied Fred - the anti-hero we wanted," Podmore recalled.

One of Fred Gee's most cherished storylines, still remembered by Street aficionados, was taking barmaids Bet Lynch and Betty Turpin out for a picnic in Annie Walker's prized Rover 2000 in 1983. After a relaxing few hours sitting beside a lake, the two barmaids got back into the car, Fred threw the picnic hamper in the boot and looked on as the car rolled down into the lake.

Feast, who was himself landlord of a Manchester pub for a while during his Street appearances, had seen plenty of adventure before becoming an actor. Born in Scarborough in 1929, he served as a parachute and physical training instructor in the RAF for six years. This led him to become an adviser on the British Second World War film The Red Beret (1953). Feast gained an interest in performing and entered show business as a stand- up comic between the strippers at the Windmill Theatre in London, alongside another unknown, Bruce Forsyth.

Feast worked in summer seasons, cabaret and pantomime, and earned a living in thin times by taking jobs as a butcher, driving instructor, carpet salesman, barman and compere of a performing dolphin show. Switching to acting, he appeared on television in Nearest and Dearest, Soldier and Me, A Family at War, Country Matters and the Jack Rosenthal plays Another Sunday and Sweet FA and Ready When You Are Mr McGill, as well as in the notable Days of Hope (1975, written by Jim Allen and directed by Ken Loach) and writer Trevor Griffiths's drama series Bill Brand (1976).

He worked as an extra on many Granada and Yorkshire Television productions, and made two appearances credited simply as "Fred" in Coronation Street in 1972, when Edna Gee was occasionally seen with her workmate Ivy Tilsley at the Mark Brittain Warehouse. Four years later, Feast returned to play Edna's widower, following her death in a fire at the warehouse.

Bill Podmore's aim was to achieve more of a balance between the sexes behind the bar of the Rovers Return, where the triumvirate of Annie Walker, Bet Lynch and Betty Turpin had ruled the roost since the death in 1970 of the actor Arthur Leslie, who had played Annie's husband, Jack. "Bill said, `I want a gritty barman that'll take Coronation Street by the scruff of the neck'," recalled Feast. "So I did my research in the bars of Salford and came up with Fred Gee."

The character of Fred Gee had experience in the RAF and had just been made redundant from his job as a storeman at a local foundry. In the story, Annie Walker was advised by the brewery, Newton & Ridley, that she needed a man about the place to do the heavy work. Once installed in the Rovers, his main aim seemed to be to find a wife. He first set his sights on newly separated Vera Duckworth, before she returned to her husband, Jack, then met another married woman, Wendy Williams. When Wendy's husband made it clear that he was willing to let Fred have her, he reconsidered.

Then, Fred redoubled his efforts to get married to increase the chances of getting his own pub, and no woman in Weatherfield was safe. Within just four weeks, he proposed to Betty Turpin, Bet Lynch and Alma Sedgewick, but all rejected him. He turned to Audrey Potter, who told him his bald patch worked against him, so he bought a wig, which ended up in the dustbin after he became the subject of local mockery. Eventually, he married Eunice Nuttall, but their tenancy applications were turned down and the couple later parted.

Fred then tried to increase his power base at the Rovers and, during one of Annie Walker's absences, the brewery made him relief manager. However, when Annie left for good, her son Billy returned, took over the tenancy and gave Fred menial tasks, with the result that the portly pot-man ended up thumping Billy and losing his job. He subsequently became a van driver at Mike Baldwin's denims factory but, after posing as Mike to sell cheap foreign shirts, he was sacked and left the Street for good.

Feast's departure from the serial in 1984, after 552 episodes, was abrupt. Bill Podmore was furious at Feast's refusal to sign a new contract after allegedly agreeing verbally to do so - or to allow storyline writers extra time to write his character out. However, Podmore was not sorry to lose someone who had caused him headaches with his off-screen activities. He wrote in his 1990 memoirs, Coronation Street: the inside story:

Fred gave us all more than our share of trouble. He was not much of an ambassador for Coronation Street and there were several occasions when I hauled him into the office for a dressing down. On one particularly embarrassing occasion he distinguished himself at a Variety Club dinner by shaking bottles of champagne and spraying anyone within range.

Feast was rarely seen again on screen, although he did take a cameo role as the knackerman Jeff Mallock in the television series All Creatures Great and Small and made newspaper headlines in 1985 over a feud with the actor Rodney Bewes when the pair were appearing in a summer show in Jersey.

Feast was dogged by ill-health and had a malignant tumour removed from his throat after cancer was diagnosed. He started a short-lived comeback when, in 1997, the Coronation Street actress Elizabeth Dawn (Vera Duckworth) asked him to play the bartender in her video Liz Dawn's House Party. He found a new theatrical agent and took a cameo role as a pigeon fancier called Arthur in the feature film Little Voice (1998), set in Scarborough. Although he spent the last year of his life in hospital, suffering from an abdominal illness, he left his bed briefly to attend a screening of Little Voice in Scarborough in January.

Before entering hospital, he had taken another cameo, in the popular television series Heartbeat. But Feast's hopes of a comeback were dashed by his ailing health, which prevented him from bringing to the screen once again his down-to-earth qualities. "I'm no Errol Flynn," he once said. "I'm a Northern character. Full stop. I've no other pretensions."

Fred Feast, actor: born Scarborough, Yorkshire 5 October 1929; married 1955 (three daughters); died Bridlington, North Yorkshire 25 June 1999.