The curious career of Derek Aylward encompassed the sophisticated, long vanished world of pre-Osborne West End theatre, the formative years of television drama in Britain and hard-core pornography. Resembling a perennial 1950s juvenile lead, with Brylcreemed hair, velvet voice, debonair manner and increasingly crinkly good looks, Aylward was once told by Noël Coward that he was "a gentleman to your fingertips", and he retained a gentlemanly aura always, despite the unlikely circumstances he found himself in.
Aylward was born in 1922 in Maidenhead, and trained at the Italia Conti School, where particular attention was given to refining his voice, both for speaking and singing. He had minor, unbilled film roles in Knight Without Armour (1937) with Marlene Dietrich, the Anglo-American production A Yank at Oxford (1938) and the Will Hay vehicle The Ghost of St Michael's (1941). In 1944, he was in a touring production of Noël Coward's Blithe Spirit for Ensa, supervised by the omnipotent producer Hugh "Binkie" Beaumont, and Beaumont gave him his West End début, in Coward's uncharacteristic Peace in Our Time, dealing with a Nazi-occupied Britain, at the Lyric in 1947.
From 1948 to 1950, and again for Beaumont, at H.M. Tennent's, Aylward was the juvenile lead at the Criterion in Traveller's Joy, a frivolous comedy by Arthur Macrae, starring Yvonne Arnaud and Dora Bryan. Despite his junior position, Aylward insisted on being paid in guineas rather than pounds, quoting Sheridan's comment that it was "the difference between being treated as a gentleman and being treated like a tradesman". Beaumont agreed, but it marked the start of a tense relationship between the actor and his employer.
It was constantly rumoured that Beaumont had his own particular reasons for employing certain handsome young actors, but Aylward insisted, when interviewed for Richard Huggett's biography Binkie Beaumont: eminence grise of the West End theatre, 1933-1973 (1989), that
we were never in any way lovers. I just wasn't his type. There was a sort of self-importance he carried around with him which I suppose comes from having too much power, and it slightly irritated me.
During the London heatwave of 1949, Aylward was reprimanded for wearing shorts and an open-necked shirt, Beaumont insisting that his actors should wear a suit and tie at all times. Most unforgivably in the producer's view, Aylward, who was reputedly well endowed, kept a plaster cast of his penis in his dressing room, where it elicited more than a few chuckles from visitors; Beaumont confiscated this, telling Aylward, "I gather the cleaners were deeply shocked." Aylward discovered later that Beaumont kept the plaster cast at his country retreat and had turned it into a table lamp.
Aylward was blacklisted by Beaumont, and this effectively ended his career in the West End (although he did appear in the stage version of Harold Pinter's television play Tea Party, at the Duchess Theatre in west London in 1970, with Donald Pleasence). Instead, he concentrated on the new medium of television, in the live days with the BBC as the only channel. He had made his début in 1947 in a play, Blow Your Own Trumpet, as a character called Dick. He became a regular, as a scout named Brayton Ripley, in The Cabin in the Clearing (1954), a BBC western serial for children, and guested in the now unintentionally hilarious Fabian of the Yard (1954), and a No Hiding Place (1959) that was recovered in 1999 as part of the British Film Institute's "Missing Believed Wiped" initiative.
One of his best-remembered roles was in Quatermass II (1955), as a nice young public relations man who perishes after falling into a vat of alien slime; he worked for Rudolph Cartier in Anna Karenina (1961), supporting Claire Bloom in the title role and Sean Connery as Vronsky, and the subsequently wiped Rembrandt (1969), as Banning Cocq, with Richard Johnson. Classic serials included Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone (1959), as Godfrey Ablewhite, with Patrick Troughton, plus some popular swashbucklers: William Tell (1957), Ivanhoe (1958) and The Adventures of Sir Lancelot (1956). There were two appearances during Dixon of Dock Green's long run, and Aylward played an incompetent professor's assistant in a one-off sci-fi comedy, Bellweather Nine (1959). Later, he was a semi-regular in the forgotten BBC soap Compact (1963), had Patrick McGoohan under surveillance in an episode of The Prisoner (1967), and played a military attaché in Stiff Upper Lip (1968), a Comedy Playhouse entry adapted by Barry Took from a Lawrence Durrell short story.
Aylward had a leading role in the Methodist-sponsored John Wesley (1954), in which he played the church's founder's brother Charles. His other films included The Trials of Oscar Wilde (1960), in which he played Percy Douglas, Bosie's brother; and The Verdict (1964), one of the popular series of B movies made at Merton Park Studios, from stories by Edgar Wallace; and he was a guest at a swinging party in John Schlesinger's Darling (1965).
But he eventually became fixture casting in the tatty exploitation films of the director Pete Walker, whose later horror work (in which Aylward did not appear) has become a minor cult. Aylward described I Like Birds (1967), in which he played a hypocritical puritan publisher, as "not just the worst film I ever starred in, but the worst film ever made", adding that "it was hell trying to remember your lines with all these distractions". Walker was to admit that, when he cast Aylward, he mistook him for Tony Britton. Despite this, he gave Aylward top billing, albeit with a daily salary of £20, on School for Sex (1968), as an embittered divorcee declaring that man's Achilles' heel is "crumpet . . . sex". Strip Poker (1968), allegedly written by Walker in one night, Man of Violence (1970, later retitled The Sex Racketeers) and Cool It Carol! (1970), starring the inevitable Robin Askwith, and Aylward as a lecherous modelling agency boss, all followed.
After an unbilled bit part as a diner in Peter Cook's satire The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer (1970), Aylward was largely concerned with military recruitment documentaries. Then, as a lecherous politician in the slipshod but enormously profitable Come Play With Me (1977), he took part in a genuine hard-core sequence, cut from the film's British release print, with Lisa Taylor, a model almost three decades his junior. Of this startling new occupation, he was to say later,
I started off my career singing Carmen in Covent Garden in the 1930s and now I was offered this. I thought, "Sod it, of course I'll do it", and it was very liberating.
The director George Harrison Marks stated that he "didn't have to persuade" Aylward in any way.
Aylward next did several illegal hard-core loops shot on 8mm, with titles like Super Sex Shop and Wet Dreams, rounding it off by being massaged by Mary Millington in the soft-core feature The Playbirds (1978); he also took part in several nude layouts with her in the magazine of the same name, posing in other adult titles like Penthouse and Knave at the same time, despite his age and background.
Interviewed for the second edition of Simon Sheridan's Keeping the British End Up: four decades of saucy cinema (published this year), Aylward had no regrets or embarrassment. He said that when watching previous British porn efforts he had "always been appalled by the quality of the acting" and that he himself had provided "dick and proper diction".
After retiring in 1982, he lived contentedly on the Sussex coast, where he was cordial and amusing whenever contacted in recent years by show-business researchers.
Gavin GaughanReuse content