Geoffrey Hughes: Versatile actor who was happy to be cast as the lovable scouser
Tuesday 31 July 2012
Geoffrey Hughes invariably played an overweight, gap-toothed, slightly suspect but friendly layabout with a Scouse accent in such popular programmes as Coronation Street and The Royle Family, but he did not object to being typecast. It was an advantage to be fat because there was less competition for the roles: "I have always been an actor who works, which is nice in such a precarious business," he told me in 1999.
Geoffrey Hughes was born in Wallasey in 1944 to a Scottish mother and Welsh father, and his love for Celtic folk music came from them. His father worked on the docks and he was raised on Merseyside, attending Abbotsford Road secondary modern school in Norris Green, and inevitably he got involved in the beat music of the early '60s. "Everyone in Liverpool was playing music at the time and we called ourselves the Strangers because we thought that nobody else would want to know us. We got some gigs at the Blue Angel in Liverpool and the Jive Hive in Crosby, but sadly not at the Cavern. I did some funny voices in 'Little Egypt' and we would play a terrible Russ Hamilton song, 'Rainbow', to get everybody smooching at the end of the evening."
Hughes did some acting with the left-wing group, Unity Theatre, in Liverpool, where he was spotted by actor Tom Bell and playwright Alun Owen. In 1964-65 he appeared as a juvenile character lead in a new musical, Maggie May, by Owen and Lionel Bart, which was set in Liverpool's dockland and starred Georgia Brown. It ran for a year in the West End and provided him with invaluable experience. "Paul McCartney came to see Maggie May with Jane Asher," he said, "and when I auditioned for Yellow Submarine, I told them I had met Paul McCartney."
Hughes regularly had one-off roles in such TV series as The Likely Lads (1966), Z-Cars (1968) and Till Death Us Do Part (1969). The first series in which he was featured was the infamous Curry And Chips for London Weekend Television in 1969. On paper it looked promising, as the series starred Spike Milligan and Eric Sykes and was written by Johnny Speight to combat racial discrimination. Unfortunately, the series was taken as encouraging discrimination rather than mocking it.
Hughes made several film appearances, including Smashing Time (1967), The Bofors Gun (1968), The Virgin Soldiers (1969) and Carry On At Your Convenience (1971), but his most significant film role was one in which he was heard but not seen. In 1968 he auditioned for the cartoon Yellow Submarine, as the Beatles were reluctant to provide their own voices for the soundtrack. Hughes played McCartney and I have seen him demonstrate, in a very funny five minutes, that he could have done any of the voices.
"The producers were looking for Beatle voices and my agent sent to me to do George Harrison," he said. "I told George Dunning, who was a Canadian, about the difference between posh Scouse and normal Scouse, that is, the difference between John and Paul on the one hand, and George and Ringo on the other. They put the emphasis in different places when they speak and I was asked to do Paul McCartney instead. Incidentally, I am the whole of the Everton football team in that film. It's 11 of me in the 'Eleanor Rigby' sequence. It was such an inventive film that I was proud to be part of it but it was a year out of my life."
His first appearance in Coronation Street was a thug who beat the grumpy pensioner, Albert Tatlock. "Some of the public thought I should have killed him," he said. His most celebrated role came in 1974 when he joined Coronation Street as the ne'er-do-well Eddie Yeats. When he joined Stan Ogden's window-cleaning round he used it as an opportunity to case the joints for burglaries. The producers realised they had comedy gold with the relationships between Stan and Hilda Ogden and their dodgy lodger, who with his huge grin and silly laugh created havoc with his every move.
"I had done lots of work for Granada and they wanted a character to replace Jed Stone, who was played by Kenneth Cope, as Minnie Caldwell's lodger," Hughes said. "They asked me in for three episodes and then they invited me to stay. I loved with working with Jean Alexander and Bernard Youens. There were scenes which we would gladly do 20 times as they were such fun to do. I left after eight and a half years because I wanted to do other things, but it was great."
After Coronation Street he had a long run in the West End farce Run For Your Wife, but he and his wife Sue also ran a sheep farm in Northamptonshire and they converted an old building into a craft centre. Later, they moved to the Isle of Wight, where he ran a timber company and could enjoy his love of yachting. He was appointed Deputy Lord Lieutenant in 2009.
After a succession of roles in the theatre and on TV, Hughes played Onslow, the slobbish brother-in-law of the snobbish Hyacinth Bucket in Keeping Up Appearances (1990-95). In 1998 he played the suspect but good-natured Twiggy in The Royle Family, which led to exceptional repartee between himself and his old friend, Ricky Tomlinson. He was also Vernon Scripps in Heartbeat (2001-07) and Uncle Keith in Skins (2007-09). Invariably he would play pantomime, while in 2007 he was the Archangel Gabriel in the BBC's Liverpool Nativity, which was broadcast live.
Given the chance, Hughes was a versatile actor, but he could wander from one production to another playing the same type, and it is that role of Eddie Yeats which defined him. About 15 years ago, someone introduced himself to me in Liverpool and said, "Hello, I'm Eddie Yeats' brother."
Hughes loved the countryside and old-time traditions like Morris dancing. He compèred Fairport Convention's Cropredy Festival and sometimes joined them on stage with his bodhran. "I love the moment at the end of every Cropredy Festival when all the guests come on the stage and sing 'Meet On The Ledge'. The fans are so loyal and happy and that wonderful image is among the favourite moments of my life."
Geoffrey Hughes, actor: born 2 February 1944; Deputy Lieutenant, Isle of Wight 2009-; married; died 27 July 2012.
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