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Bill Pilkington

Actor who had a distinguished and unusual war

After distinguished service with the Army during the Second World War, Bill Pilkington had a long career in acting, taking supporting roles in Coronation Street, Till Death Do Us Part, Z-Cars and many other television sitcoms, as well as films including O Lucky Man! (1973) and The Mind of Mr Soames (1970).

William Pilkington, actor and army officer: born Wallasey, Cheshire 9 December 1916; BEM 1989; died Altrincham, Cheshire 24 August 2004.

After distinguished service with the Army during the Second World War, Bill Pilkington had a long career in acting, taking supporting roles in Coronation Street, Till Death Do Us Part, Z-Cars and many other television sitcoms, as well as films including O Lucky Man! (1973) and The Mind of Mr Soames (1970).

He also made money for charities by sponsored sit-ins in places alleged to be haunted: pubs, houses, castles, morgues and churchyards. The press used to give him the title of "Ghostbuster", which he detested. In 1989, he was awarded the British Empire Medal for having raised £1m by these efforts. By the time illness forced him to retire a few years ago, he was close to his second million.

Besides these activities, Pilkington served for 21 years as editor-in-chief of the Talking Newspaper for the Blind in the Greater Manchester area, where he lived for most of his life.

Bill Pilkington, son of a Wallasey police inspector, studied Medicine at Liverpool University but, two years into the course, realised that his father would never be able to afford the £2,000 then needed to start a practice. He switched to a general arts degree followed by a spell at Rada. When war was declared in 1939, he was master of ceremonies at the Argyle Theatre, Liverpool.

He joined up and was sent to France, where he drilled with a spade and in civilian clothes because that was all they had. When the Army discovered that Pilkington spoke passable Norwegian, having learned at night school, he was recruited into military intelligence and sent to what was then the Ringway Airport near Manchester for parachute training. Soon, Pilkington found himself in the Norwegian campaign with the task of testing the extent of enemy infiltration into local Norwegian society.

Killing was not what Pilkington had in mind on a spring morning in 1940 as he and a colleague, Jim Beech, walked along a country lane approaching the small town of Bodo. Both were dressed in what somebody in an office back home had said was correct Norwegian clothing. An elderly, grey-haired lady with a pleasant smile approached them. "Good morning," she said, in English. "I think that you are British, is that so?"

"Yes," Pilkington replied.

"I can always tell the British. If you will come to my house, I will give you breakfast. We are allies in this terrible thing that has happened to my country. Come with me."

The woman led them to her house in which was her son, a teenager. "Ingvald," said the nice lady in Norwegian. "These are British spies. Go out and telephone the SS that we have them here."

Ingvald began to put on his boots.

"Do you have a toilet?" said Beech.

"My boy will show you," said their hostess. Then, to Ingvald, "Show him, then get off quickly."

Beech followed the youth round to the rear of the house. There he drew his knife and, with a swift, professional thrust, stabbed Ingvald through the back and into the heart.

In the kitchen, the lady turned from the stove and Pilkington said in Norwegian: "Madam, you should have found out first whether we spoke your language." Drawing his revolver, he shot her as Beech returned wiping his knife. In later years, whenever he was asked if he had killed anyone in the war, Pilkington would reply: "Yes, I shot a nice old lady who was just going to give me breakfast."

He served with distinction in the Norwegian campaign and earned the DCM. He was then sent to France in time to be evacuated from Dunkirk. Transferred to the newly created Special Operations Executive, set up by Churchill with the instruction "Set Europe ablaze", Pilkington was given the job of teaching unarmed combat to members of the secret resistance force being formed in case Britain was invaded and occupied. (Some of his unarmed combat methods are incorporated in the current police training manual.)

Promoted from sergeant to captain, he was appointed to teach Princess Elizabeth the same techniques. "For myself and the princess, it was a complete waste of time," he said afterwards:

You are not supposed to throw a future queen over your shoulder when teaching karate! So I could go no further than theory: sometimes, her Highness would appear in WAAF uniform and would shake hands with me if she was wearing gloves. At the end of the course, she said: "I think you must be a hard man, Mr Pilkington."

Pilkington also gave the Prime Minister a lesson in how to use a sub- machine-gun and Churchill was much photographed in the press a few days later cuddling the same gun.

Raised to lieutenant, Pilkington found himself having a crash course in conversational Arabic at the Royal Language School in Beirut, followed by attachment to the Eighth Army in the desert campaign to look for enemy infiltrators. Dropped by parachute into Italy, he had a period of liaising with Communist partisans before being brought home and promoted to major and landed on Gold Beach on D-Day. In Berlin, he was entrusted with accumulating evidence to be used at the Nuremberg trials.

Instead of being demobbed, Pilkington had to spend the next two years as an inspector with the Palestine Police. He was only 200 yards from the King David Hotel when it was blown up in July 1946. He returned at last to civilian life when the state of Israel was declared in 1948.

Bill Pilkington was always contemptuous of those ex-army officers who insist on still being known by their title. Address Bill as major and he would growl: "I'm a civilian."

Cyril Bracegirdle