Michael Attwell

Actor and political cartoonist


Michael John Attwell, actor and cartoonist: born Watford, Hertfordshire 16 January 1943; (one son, one daughter with Inger Cederstrand; one daughter with Caroline Cornish); died London 18 March 2006.

In true EastEnders fashion, Michael Attwell arrived in the all-friction television soap as Pauline Fowler's brother, Kenny Beale, became embroiled in a family storm and left while it was still exploding in everyone's faces.

The actor's run in the serial was short, but his character's reputation preceded him. Pat Wicks, a former Clacton-on-Sea Miss Butlin's beauty contest winner and Albert Square's tart-with-a-heart minus the heart, had slept with Kenny while married to his younger brother, Pete Beale. As a result, the parentage of the couple's two sons, David and Simon, was always in doubt.

Pete left Pat, who married Brian Wicks, walked out on him after constant beatings and returned to Albert Square, where Simon ("Wicksy") lived with Pete, believing him to be his father.

Kenny, who had emigrated to New Zealand, arrived in 1988 with his daughter Elizabeth, just as Pat was reunited with her old flame Frank Butcher. The inevitable rows about David and Simon's parentage followed but, in the end, Pat confessed she had slept with both Kenny and Pete at around the same time - as well as Den Watts and Brian Wicks - and could not be sure which was the father. With glee, she added that both brothers had been lousy in bed.

Attwell caused explosions of a different kind as the political cartoonist Zoke - named after two of his children, Zoë and Jake - in The Sun, the Sunday People and News of the World. One of his most memorable cartoons was of Michael Foot, with walking stick, under the heading "A Labour Party Film - E.T. The Eternal Trauma" and captioned: "He is afraid. He is totally alone. He is two million light years from No 10 Downing Street!"

Born in Watford in 1943, Attwell was a talented artist as a child but always wanted to act. After training at Rada, he went into repertory theatre at the Newcastle Playhouse, where the cast appeared naked in the rock musical Orgy - although Attwell, as Pentheus, was one of the few to wear a posing pouch. His other notable stage roles included Pharaoh in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls (both Haymarket, Theatre, Leicester), Buckingham in Richard III (Young Vic Theatre) and Bill Sikes in the musical Oliver! (Albery Theatre).

He supplemented his theatre income by producting cartoon strips for comics such as Bunty, Buster, Whizzer and Chips and The Hotspur, before turning his hand to political works at a time when colourful characters such as Margaret Thatcher, Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock led the two major parties. This finished when he landed the role of Kenny Beale in EastEnders and the News of the World wanted him to file a diary from the set but he refused.

Attwell had made his television début as Henry St John in The First Churchills (1969) and become a prolific character actor on screen, seen in episodes of many popular series over almost 40 years.

More prominently, he played Razor Eddie Malone in the cockney thieves drama Turtle's Progress (1979-80), Private Norman Pain in the wartime romp Then Churchill Said To Me (starring Frankie Howerd, 1982), Bill Sikes in a BBC adaptation of Oliver Twist (1985), Ray Cromer in the "Cromers and Prestons" family melodrama Westbeach (1993) and M Dufosse in the Second World War mini-series Monsignor Renard (featuring John Thaw as a French Catholic priest, 2000).

He also took two roles, 18 years apart, in Doctor Who, as Isbur, one of the alien race from Mars, in "The Ice Warriors" story (1967), and Bates, one of the Cybermen's slaves on their home planet of Telos, in "Attack of the Cybermen" (1985).

Attwell recently played Derek Crisp, the doorman, in Hotel Babylon (2006), a series based on Imogen Edwards-Jones's exposé of life behind the scenes in a five-star London hotel. Next month, he can be seen as Archie Stone in Agatha Christie: Marple - The Sittaford Mystery.

The actor Jim Carter, who first worked with the 6ft 4in Attwell at the Newcastle Playhouse, recalled him as an "eccentric golfer", explaining:

At that size, he could hit the ball an awful long way, but not necessarily in the right direction! Michael was a huge bloke, but so benign and gentle and easy-going. We had known each other for 34 years and just laughed together. He had this huge laugh.

Attwell's daughter Zoë, now a designer on the New York Post, previously worked for The Independent.

Anthony Hayward

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