Ronald Magill

Dour Amos Brearly in 'Emmerdale'


Ronald Edmund Magill, actor, director and writer: born Hull, East Yorkshire 21 April 1920; died 6 September 2007.

The bushy sideburns sprouted by the actor Ronald Magill became just as much a trademark of Amos Brearly, the character he played from the start of the soap opera Emmerdale in 1972, as the television pub landlord's dour manner and pernickety ways.

But they were not an intentional part of the original character profile, just a result of Magill rushing from an Edwardian stage play to audition for the role of the bachelor licensee. He had expected to shave the sideburns off if he landed it but was told they were perfect for the part and not to do so.

Within a year, Magill was joined behind the Woolpack bar by the actor Arthur Pentelow, who as the widower Henry Wilks, became the gossip Amos's business partner, establishing a screen double-act that lasted for almost 20 years, with plenty of comic moments.

Having run the pub since 1948, Amos was set in his ways, so Henry – a successful Bradford wool merchant – struggled to get his ideas accepted. When Dolly Acaster arrived on a brewery training scheme, Amos was initially unnerved by the idea of employing a woman behind the bar, addressing her as "Miss Acaster" and showing himself to be unco-operative, although later he was won over.

Women always seemed a bit of a mystery to the long-time single landlord, but that did not stop him proposing to a barmaid, Alison Gibbons, and the recently widowed matriarch Annie Sugden – both in the same year. Refused by both of them, he continued to enjoy the company of Henry, until deciding to retire to Spain in 1991 following a stroke the previous year. However, Magill made several brief return visits to Emmerdale between 1993 and 1995, with Amos whisking Annie off for long holidays in the sun and eventually marrying her.

The actor saw much of himself in his screen alter ego. "Amos was the village gossip and very much a loner."

"I saw him as a man who found it difficult to make friends, yet, once he was behind the bar and lord of all he surveyed, he was able to relate to people. But he had the bar between them, of course. Originally, Henry Wilks had nothing to do with the pub, but Kevin Laffan, the creator, spotted a rapport between me and Arthur Pentelow and came up with the idea of moving Henry into the Woolpack. Henry was originally to have been the villain of the piece and Amos was to find a wife and get married. Arthur and I had so much in common. We both loved doing The Times crossword every day – which is a great bond – both smoked a pipe and both liked good food and a bottle of wine."

Something that Magill did not entirely share with Amos was the character's country ways. "I'm a city slicker, I must admit," he explained.

When someone remarked that Amos was rarely seen outside the pub and I never had any location filming to do, Kevin Laffan dreamed up the idea of him becoming local correspondent for the Hotten Courier. He also made him a keen gardener, tending his marrows. I loved it. It wasn't exactly strange to me because my father came from farming stock in Ulster and I used to go to the farm during holidays as a child. But, when I joined Emmerdale, I was gobsmacked by the Dales and the villages we used to visit.

Born in Hull, East Yorkshire, in 1920, Magill was brought up in a Birmingham orphanage from the age of nine following the death of his teacher father but made occasional visits to Ireland.

On leaving school, he worked as a tyre salesman and served with the Royal Corps of Signals during the Second World War, when he toured with the Stars in Battledress concert party, acting alongside other then "unknowns" such as Terry-Thomas, Michael Denison and Charlie Chester.

On demob, he joined the Arena travelling theatre company, which performed around the country in a circus tent. Then, as a great lover of the classics, he was one of the first actors to perform at the new Nottingham Playhouse in 1963, staying for nine years as actor and artistic director, combining productions of Shakespeare with those of modern playwrights who were making their names with "socially aware" theatre in the early 1960s. He worked there with the legendary director Tyrone Guthrie on Coriolanus and with up-and-coming actors who included Ian McKellen and Michael Crawford.

During a spell at the Bristol Old Vic Magill starred in Death of a Salesman and The Browning Version, wrote the book of a musical version of A Christmas Carol and adapted Treasure Island, Molière's The Miser and Goldoni's The Servant of Two Masters and Mine Hostess for the stage. His occasional screen work included television roles in Special Branch (1969), Parkin's Patch (1970), and Codename (1970), as well as a small part in the film Julius Caesar (1970).

The actor joined ITV's new Yorkshire soap when it was titled Emmerdale Farm, before it was shortened to Emmerdale in 1989, as the emphasis shifted and the goings-on became racier.

"It's a totally different programme now to the one I joined all those years ago," Magill bemoaned shortly after leaving the serial.

"It has lost its innocence and there's too much raunchiness for my liking. I don't like the sex side of it. I preferred the earlier days. OK, we used to be criticised because nothing very much happened, but I think things have changed a little bit too much. It might not have reflected life as it really was when we started – but it was certainly life as many people would have liked it."

Anthony Hayward

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