The character actor Colin Bean was a familiar face to viewers of the classic television sitcom Dad’s Army, initially taking his place in the Walmington-on-Sea Home Guard’s back row as Private Sponge, in charge of the platoon’s second section. He had few lines in the role and lined up behind Clive Dunn, as Lance Corporal Jones – until the death of James Beck, who played the spiv Private Walker.
Bean then stepped forward to the front row, joining Dunn, Arnold Ridley (as Private Godfrey), John Laurie (as Private Frazer) and Ian Lavender (as Private Pike), with Arthur Lowe (as the pompous, grammar-school educated Captain Mainwaring) and John Le Mesurier (as the public-school educated Sergeant Wilson) providing the class joke that ran throughout Jimmy Perry and David Croft’s much-loved comedy series.
However, before his “promotion”, Bean – whose character was a sheep farmer in civilian life – provided the inspiration for one of the writers’ storylines.
He suggested that the platoon should harvest a wheat crop, as he had seen Home Guard members doing when he was young. The result was the 1972 episode “All is Safely Gathered In”, most memorable for the overenthusiastic Jones’s skills with a threshing machine.
Private Sponge himself was asked to provide a ram as a mascot for “The Big Parade” story about Spitfire Week celebrations, but it proved difficult for the platoon to catch because, he explained, it was a time of year when they were “a bit funny”.
In all, Bean appeared in 76 of Dad’s Army’s 80 episodes (1968-77). He had happy memories, even of some of the challenges he faced during location filming in Norfolk. “Some of the things I had to do weren’t too pleasant at the time, but never fail to amuse me in recollection,” he said. “On one occasion I had to lie face-down in a muddy pond while Arthur [Lowe] used me as a rescue pad to help slowly sinking Pike out of the water. Wardrobe were standing by with warmed bath towels and a generous tot of whisky.”
Born in Wigan in 1926, Colin Bean was the son of a footballer who played for Wigan Borough, a team in the Football League’s Third Division North.
Bean caught the acting bug after appearing as a shepherd in a school play at the age of five and later – like Ian McKellen – was a regular in the audience at the Wigan Hippodrome.
On leaving Wigan Grammar School, he was spotted hanging around backstage at the Hippodrome by Arthur Leslie, who ran the Frank H. Fortescue Players there and later played the Rovers Return publican Jack Walker in Coronation Street. As a result, Bean was given a walk-on role in a melodrama The Face at the Window (1944). He also appeared at Wigan Little Theatre.
On reaching the age of 18, he was called up for wartime service in the Army (1944-48), eventually joining the British Commonwealth Occupation Force in Japan after the Second World War. While there, he had the chance to perform in shows and on Forces radio.
On demobilisation in 1948, Bean continued his stage career at Southport Repertory Company, where he made his professional début in The Man from the Ministry, before getting formal training at Bradford Civic Theatre School and taking part in Northern Children’s Theatre tours. There followed many years with repertory companies, in Dewsbury, Bradford, Skipton, Sheffield and York and, in 1962, at the Palace Theatre, Watford, where Jimmy Perry was actor-manager.
He also spent 20 years as a pantomime dame, chaired music-hall shows and, after returning to live in Wigan, ran the Bijou Theatre.
Bean made his television début as a yeoman in Richard the Lionheart (1961), an adventure series starring Dermot Walsh as the crusading king. He then appeared in Z Cars (1963) and No Hiding Place (1966), before he was offered the role of Private Sponge in Dad’s Army, which he also took in the 1971 film version.
The actor also played both a gnome and the bust of Beethoven in The Gnomes of Dulwich (1969, written by Jimmy Perry, starring Terry Scott and Hugh Lloyd, and the first sitcom to be made in colour), Lord Russell in The First Churchills (1969) and a centurion in Up Pompeii (1970), as well as taking bit-parts in The Liver Birds (1971, 1972), Are You Being Served? (1973), Cribb (1981, as a police constable) and Hi-de- Hi! (1988, as a verger).
He was a regular at Dad’s Army fan conventions until last year despite suffering arthritis, which left him wheelchair- bound. Bean's autobiography, Who Do You Think You Are Kidding! was published in 1998.
Colin Bean, actor: born Wigan, Lancashire 15 April 1926; died Wigan 20 June 2009.