The screen and stage actor Laurence Payne made his biggest impression as the titular detective in Sexton Blake, a children’s television series which is fondly recalled by a generation of now middle-aged viewers.
The series, which ran from 1967 to 1971, went out in a tea-time slot that meant that most of the crimes investigated by the sleuth, who was created by Harry Blyth in 1893, were of a nonviolent nature. Throughout a string of films, and television and radio serials, Blake had laboured in the shadow of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, with whom he shared two characteristics – he operated from Baker Street and had a housekeeper.
Payne, however, left an indelible imprint on ITV’s 1920s-set production, which was memorable for two of the detective’s non-human allies – his beloved Rolls-Royce, the Grey Panther, and his trusted bloodhound Pedro.
Dorothea Phillips played the housekeeper, Mrs Bardell, with Roger Foss as Blake’s assistant, Tinker. A typical mystery was one which involved a villain who became invisible under the strobes of the Invicta Ray.
Payne, a skilled swordsman who choreographed fights, lost the sight in his left eye while rehearsing a Sexton Blake duel with another actor.
“We were in the middle of a really violent stage fight when he gave me a wrong stroke and his sword went straight in my eye,” he recalled. “I was trained to duel at the Old Vic and I absolutely adore it. I really go for it.
The audience have to know it’s a fight to the death and they can sense the excitement. But you should never put a sword in the hands of someone who doesn’t know what they are doing. It wasn’t until later that we found out this guy had never held a sword in his life. He just wanted to get the part, poor bloke.”
Born in London in 1919, Payne was three when his carpenter father died, leaving his mother to bring him and his older brother and sister up while earning a living as a cleaner. Payne attended Tottenham Grammar School, where he excelled in art but hated studying Shakespeare, before taking a job as a clerk with Pillman & Phillips, a flour importer. During his five years in the job he continued to go to the cinema – as he did as a child – and there he saw a 1936 Western, Three Godfathers, which contained a line from Macbeth: “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.” The words gave him the love for Shakespeare he had not found at school.
“Why a cockney boy should latch on to something like that I have no idea,” he said. “But that was the turning point. Shakespeare became my God.” Payne started an amateur theatre company, the Diversity Players, and mounted a production of Macbeth, in which he took the title role, at a hall in what is now Haringey.
That led him to an audition at the Old Vic theatre, where he swapped his cockney accent for the Queen’s English.
Joining the company in 1939, he acted at its London base and on tour over the next five years and by 1943 he was playing Romeo. He subsequently co-founded the Chanticleer Theatre (1944-45) and acted at the Arts Theatre (1945), before touring post-war Germany with Ensa.
Having learned the art of swordfighting at the Old Vic, Payne directed a duel there between himself, as Tybalt, and Peter Finch as Mercutio in a 1952 production of Romeo and Juliet.
However, West End offers were not forthcoming after he turned down an invitation by the impresario Binky Beaumont to appear in The Brothers Karamazov and he spent most of his stage life in regional theatres.
Payne made his television debut in the Adrian Brunel play Till Tomorrow (1948). He played Captain Bluntschli in an adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man (1952) and Troilus in The Face of Love (1954), a modern and comic version of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. His first film was the Ealing Studios drama Train of Events (1949), directed by Charles Crichton, but – apart from an appearance as Joseph in the opening scenes of the biblical epic Ben-Hur (1959) – most of his screen work was on television.
Payne played D’Artagnan in a BBC’s The Three Musketeers (1954); Gratiano in The Merchant of Venice (1955); Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet (1955); Philip Truscott in the sci-fi serial The Trollenberg Terror (1956-57, before reprising the role in the 1958 film); King Magnus in The Apple Cart (1962); Colonel Andrev in the Balkans-set political thriller The Midnight Men (1964); Lieutenant Rinaldi in A Farewell to Arms (1966); Capulet in Romeo and Juliet (1976); and Weaver in Psy-Warriors (a 1981 “Play for Today” written by David Leland and directed by Alan Clarke).
Payne also had three roles in Doctor Who over the years: Johnny Ringo in the wild west story “The Gunfighters” (1966); Morix in “The Leisure Hive” (1980) and Dastari in “The Two Doctors” (1985).
Payne also wrote crime novels, including The Nose on My Face (1961), Birds in the Belfry (1966) and Spy for Sale (1969). He retired from acting after moving to Northumberland in 1989 with his third wife, the equestrian journalist Judith Draper. His first two marriages, to the actresses Sheila Burrell and Pamela Alan, ended in divorce.
Laurence Stanley Payne, actor: born London 5 June 1919; married 1944 Sheila Burrell (marriage dissolved); married 1954 Pamela Alan (marriage dissolved); 1974 Judith Draper; died Morpeth, Northumberland 23 February 2009.