Peter Gilmore: Actor who found fame on the stage and as hero of 'The Onedin Line'

 

The rugged good looks of Peter Gilmore set female hearts a-flutter for an entire decade when he starred on television as the mutton-chopped Captain James Onedin, gruff hero of The Onedin Line (1971-80). The actor grew side-whiskers for the role of a man running a late 19th-century Liverpool shipping line, battling to stay solvent as he watched his brother prosper while building up a profitable department store from the shop left to him by their father and his sister inherit the family cottage and marry into money.

With only £25 to make his fortune, James invested it in the three-masted, top-sailed schooner Charlotte Rhodes – which was the other star of the drama – sold to him on condition that he married the seller's daughter, Anne (played by Anne Stallybrass). He set up the Onedin Line in direct competition to his former employer and proved ruthless in his business dealings as he built up a fleet. When Stallybrass wanted to return to theatre acting, Anne died at the end of the second series while giving birth to a daughter, Charlotte. James ended up being married three times – as did Gilmore when he eventually wed Stallybrass.

The Onedin Line, an original idea by Cyril Abraham which spawned five novels, was one of television's most enduring period dramas, with the theme music, Aram Khatchaturian's Spartacus, proving to be another popular element. As the programme reached audiences in 70 countries, Gilmore rode the crest of this wave of success. He claimed that he spent half his time abroad during the 1970s, making public appearances and receiving gifts such as boats in bottles and handkerchiefs embroidered with reef knots. The drama finally ended with James's third wife giving him a son and heir, born aboard ship, while his sister's second husband died at sea. When Gilmore's acting career subsequently faltered, he blamed it on being typecast as Captain Onedin. In the 1990s, he retired through ill health.

Born in Germany, the son of a commercial traveller, Gilmore was sent to England at the age of six to live with relatives in Nunthorpe, near York. He attended the Friends' School, run by the Quakers at nearby Great Ayton. He left at 14, headed for London and worked in a factory. Eventually he saw the chance to realise his dream of becoming an actor when he signed up for a preparatory course at Rada – but he was expelled after just two terms.

While doing National Service in the Army, Gilmore had another chance to fulfill his ambition. Helping to stage variety shows to entertain the troops, he discovered he had a talent for singing. After being demobbed he toured with the George Mitchell Singers. He made his acting début as a stooge in a variety show in 1952 and, two years later, his first London appearance, in the revue You'll Be Lucky (Adelphi Theatre).

For the next two years, Gilmore performed in the revue Jokers Wild (Victoria Palace Theatre, 1954-56), which starred the Crazy Gang, a group of comedy double acts that included Bud Flanagan and Chesney Allen. This was followed by the role of Tom in a tour of Star Maker (1956), featuring Cicely Courtneidge and Jack Hulbert.

Gilmore found his niche in stage musicals but had difficulty in landing a box-office success. He played Peter Haines in the motor-racing yarn Lady at the Wheel (Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, and Westminster Theatre, 1958), before being cast as Freddy Eynsford Hill in the original West End production of My Fair Lady, at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, only to be replaced shortly before it opened because the part was written for a tenor and he was a baritone. He battled on as the shepherd David Tooke in Valmouth (Lyric Theatre Hammersmith, 1958, and Saville Theatre, 1959) and Leander in The Love Doctor (Piccadilly Theatre, 1959), which, despite a cast featuring Ian Carmichael and Joan Heal, closed after just 16 performances.

Some success came with Gilmore's first lead role in the West End, as Tom, opposite Susan Hampshire, in Follow that Girl (Vaudeville Theatre, 1960). His display of youthful masculinity led him to record a pop-style single of the title song, although he had already given his vocal talents to albums, which he continued to do over the next 26 years. Boosted by the popularity of The Onedin Line, he was to record the albums Songs of the Sea (1974) and Peter Gilmore Sings Gently (1977).

His other West End musical roles were Matt, one of the young lovers, in the short-lived The Fantasticks (Apollo Theatre, 1961), Ramble in a revival of Lock Up Your Daughters (Mermaid Theatre and Her Majesty's Theatre, 1962), Sir Lucius O'Trigger in All in Love (Mayfair Theatre, 1964) and Captain Macheath in The Beggar's Opera (Apollo Theatre, 1968), another revival. By then he had notched up a decade of television roles, having made his screen début in an episode of Ivanhoe in 1958. That was also the year in which he appeared in the pop show Cool for Cats and met and married Una Stubbs, then one of the Dougie Squires Dancers and later a star of the sitcom Till Death Us Do Part.

Gilmore also featured in 11 Carry On films (1963-92). He was never one of the "name" stars but could often be spotted in the background messing around. His roles ranged from a petty gangster in Carry On Cabby (1963) and pear-eating ambulance driver in Carry On Doctor (1967) to King Francis of France in Carry On Henry (1971) and Governor of the Canaries in Carry On Columbus (1992).

The actor was also seen as Dr Kitaj in the horror film The Abominable Doctor Phibes (1971) and on television as Brazen, the doomed security chief of a distant human colony, in the Doctor Who adventure "Frontios" (1984) and circus owner Ben Bishop in the second series of the zoo vet drama One by One (1985). His final screen role was in the television film On Dangerous Ground (1996), based on the Jack Higgins thriller. In 1970, a year after his divorce from Stubbs, Gilmore married Jan Waters, who appeared with him on stage in The Beggar's Opera. Following their divorce, Gilmore lived with Anne Stallybrass, whom he married in 1987.

John Peter Gilmore, actor and singer: born Leipzig 25 August 1931; married 1958 Una Stubbs (divorced 1969; one adopted son), 1970 Jan Waters (divorced 1976), 1987 Anne Stallybrass; died London 3 February 2013.

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