Frank Thornton: Actor forever remembered as Captain Peacock in 'Are You Being Served?'

 

Few British character actors so typified their class more than Frank Thornton, whether looking scornfully down at Tony Hancock or berating the staff of Grace Brothers as the supercilious Captain Peacock from Are You Being Served? Towering as he did above most actors at six feet two inches, Thornton tended to be cast in comedies as aloof, somewhat superior characters, men in authority, all of which made him such a good foil for the likes of Hancock and Spike Milligan.

His face, too, a mixture of bank manager and mournful bloodhound, also made him ideal for the type of character he'd become accustomed to playing, what he referred to as "the smell under the nose" parts typified by Captain Peacock, the character for which he made the biggest indelible impression upon the British public consciousness.

Frank Thornton was born in London in 1921. He religiously attended Saturday morning pictures at his local cinema, adoring the likes of Laurel and Hardy and acting out their funny skits on the long walk home. But his first artistic leaning was towards music, for which he first showed an aptitude at school, appearing in Gilbert and Sullivan productions as well as playing the cello in the orchestra. It wasn't until 1982 that he returned to his beloved opera, appearing as the First Lord of the Admiralty in HMS Pinafore.

While he was keen on an acting career his father, who worked in a bank, demanded his son secure a "proper" job and take up the theatre as an amateur. It was while working as an insurance clerk and seeing a colleague leave to try his luck on the stage that finally prompted Thornton to enrol at an acting school, one that offered evening classes, enabling him to carry on working during office hours. When invited to become a day student for his second year, Thornton managed to persuade his father to finance his studies.

The advent of the Second World War saw him evacuated with the drama school and led to his first professional engagement in 1940, touring with four plays around small towns and village halls in Ireland. Bolstered by that experience Thornton joined legendary actor/manager Donald Wolfit's Shakespearean company at London's Strand Theatre. Here he met a young actress called Beryl Evans, appearing as a page opposite his Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice. Despite her critique that his Bassanio was the worst she had ever witnessed the couple soon married and were still acting together on stage as late as 1989. Their daughter, Jane, also entered the theatre, as a stage manager.

Thornton continued to work in the theatre during the war, notably in John Gielgud's production of Macbeth and Terence Rattigan's Flare Path, as well as making several Allied propaganda broadcasts and serving as a navigator with the RAF. After demob in 1947 he was luckier than many of his contemporaries, who faced the daunting task of rebuilding their careers, and went straight back into repertory theatre, where his talent for comedy began to surface; he appeared alongside such accomplished comics as Robertson Hare and Alfred Drayton. Years later Thornton enjoyed joking about his early acting days, revealing how he'd take any job on offer. As he steadily built his reputation the question became, "What's the part like?" And then, "What's the money like?" But as he approached pensionable age the question was invariably, "What's the parking like?"

Soon television began to play an increasingly prominent part in Thornton's career. He guest-starred in the classic blood donor episode of Hancock's Half Hour and appeared in Michael Bentine's madcap It's a Square World, which also featured a young Ronnie Barker and a pre-Dad's Army Clive Dunn. A precursor to the type of surreal humour championed by Monty Python, It's a Square World established Thornton as a much sought-after supporting actor for comedy series. He played Commander Fairweather in the short-lived sitcom HMS Paradise, a pale imitation of the more popular Navy Lark, and teamed up with Spike Milligan for the sketch show World of Beachcomber. There were small roles, too, in movies as diverse as Carry on Screaming, The Bed Sitting Room, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes and the all-star Three Musketeers.

Playing second string to the likes of Hancock and Milligan appealed to Thornton and he never hankered after a show of his own, feeling the public would soon become "fed up with me." So after years of playing a variety of roles, to be suddenly identified with just one character, that of Captain Peacock, was a strange and career-changing experience.

Are You Being Served? was one of the 1970s' seminal British sitcoms. Dismissed by critics, it achieved huge ratings and ran from 1973 to 1985, spawning a stage show and a spin-off movie. Out of a wonderful ensemble cast Thornton's Captain Peacock emerged as an enduring figure, patrolling the floors of Grace Brothers department store, immaculately dressed and never missing his trademark carnation, his pomposity often burst by the likes of Mrs Slocombe (minus her pussy) and John Inman's immortal Mr Humphries.

But typecasting was the inevitable consequence of being identified by the public with one character. Even when Are You Being Served? went off the air Thornton was constantly recognised as Peacock. Despite this he never regretted taking on the role, although other television work became increasingly difficult to come by.

Whereas in America something like 39 episodes of a popular show would be made yearly, in England with the BBC it was nearer six or seven, so to keep in steady employment Thornton was forced back almost exclusively to the theatre, clocking up an impressive 594 performances in the West End musical Me and My Girl. He also worked with Derek Nimmo's touring theatre company in Asia and the Middle East.

Yet it was Are You Being Served? that continued to cast the biggest influence over his life, particularly in the 1990s, when the show unexpectedly became a massive cult success in America, a market BBC executives never anticipated tapping, believing they wouldn't understand its quintessential English humour. After it was repeated on British prime time in the late 1990s, achieving higher ratings than brand new sitcoms, a sequel was devised, Grace and Favour, which re-teamed the original cast as Grace Brothers moved out of their department store and into the countryside to look after a dilapidated hotel. Alas, the middle-class charms of this new show belied its lack of true comic invention.

Off-screen Thornton was nothing like the dour, little Hitler, Captain Peacock; he was essentially a quiet, rather serious man and a keen conservationist and birdwatcher. He was also a keen portrait photographer, mostly of his fellow actors. Some of his photographs made it into the pages of Spotlight, the actor's employment bible.

In 1997 Thornton finally moved out of the shadow of Are You Being Served? when he was offered a lead role in perennial favourite Last of the Summer Wine, coming in to replace regular Brian Wilde, who dropped out due to illness. The chance to play Truly Truelove, an ex-police officer always nostalgically recalling the past, placed Thornton in the unique position of having starred in two of the longest-running television comedies of all time.

Frank Thornton, actor: born London 15 January 1921; married 1945 Beryl Evans (one daughter); died 16 March 2013.

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