A top-drawer comic actor, Sam Kelly was a bespectacled rib-tickler whose earthy charm and quiet intelligence enriched sitcom, fringe theatre, musicals and the work of Mike Leigh. He was a commendably unselfish performer, and this is borne out by the number of happy double acts and partnerships he participated in throughout his career.
In his repertory days he could often be seen alongside Nicky Henson (for instance as Mercutio and Benvolio in Romeo and Juliet at the Young Vic in 1971), or Richard Ireson (with whom he also founded the Guildford Warehouse Theatre), and on television he appeared with the Two Ronnies and Paul Merton. He was a much-lauded Rosencrantz to Peter Eyre's Guildenstern in the Liverpool Playhouse's production of Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead in 1972, and Felix to Derek Griffiths' Oscar in The Odd Couple at Manchester Royal Exchange in 1988.
He had three spiffing sitcom roles: as simpleton tea-leaf Bunny Warren in Porridge (1974-77), masterful servant Sam in On the Up (1990-92) and Captain Hans Geering in 'Allo 'Allo (1982-91), famously delivering in the 1986 rhyming Christmas special the line "do you not see that if you kill him with the pill from the till by making with it the drug in the jug, you need not light the candle with the handle on the gateaux in the chateau?"
Born in Manchester, Roger Michael Kelly was a foundling, adopted by a couple who took him to Liverpool, where, at Liverpool Collegiate School, he showed an aptitude for performing and sung in the Cathedral choir. He worked briefly for the Civil Service before moving to London to study drama at Lamda.
After graduating in 1967 he joined the Lincoln Theatre Company and made his professional debut in A Shouting in the Streets, a powerful piece about a medieval pogrom in the city. He earned the more substantial role of Senex in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum the following year (a part he returned to at the National Theatre in 2004), and then moved to the Everyman in Liverpool, kicking off a blistering two years there by coupling up with Bill Stewart as bickering Siamese twins in The Two Backed Beast (1968).
After playing Dr Prentice in What the Butler Saw, a palpable hit for the Everyman, he made his low-key London debut on the lunchtime fringe, in Henry Livings' play about a marriage rocked by a pools win, You're Free (1970), at the Green Banana Restaurant on Frith Street. Before getting settled he nipped up to the Sheffield Playhouse to give "a gripping caricature of the Prime Minister" in Edward Bond's Black Mass, an anti-apartheid play for which director Nigel Hawthorne divided an audience by colouring the tickets black and white and seating them separately, also defining which exits, bars and toilets they could use. Kelly joined the Young Vic company the following year, in Measure for Measure depicting, as one critic put it, "the pimp Pompey with a richly amusing dash of cringing rascality".
The Croydon Warehouse was being used as a disco when Kelly, Ireson and Adrian Shergold hit on the idea of using the first floor for lunchtime theatre in 1977. They charged 30p for membership, 50p for tickets and 5p for programmes, offering home-made pâté to the audiences.
Kelly was a fierce defender of actors' rights: once in a letter to The Stage, citing one of the first considerations of a director as being to "create a constructive working atmosphere and a building-up of mutual trust and respect", he asked, "can any director reading this cast his mind back to the last occasion when he took an interest in an actor as a person, or encouraged him to overcome his artistic limitations?" On another occasion he took umbrage with a job advert for a BBC Radio Light Entertainment producer. The advert insisted that "experience in the media is highly important", yet "people with University revue experience will also be considered". Kelly asked in response: "what has a few years at Oxbridge got that 10 years in the business hasn't? Ex-university directors are doing quite enough damage as it is, thank you very much."
By the 1980s he was a familiar face on television. Although only a small role among his vast credits, special mention should be made of his turn in the final episode of Boys from the Blackstuff (1982), as the besieged landlord of the last-chance saloon for what seems an entire populace wielding redundancy cheques. His first notable work for the small screen was Mike Leigh's long–lost Knock for Knock (1976) as an eccentric insurance salesman, Time Out praising him for "the performance of the decade". He remained a firm favourite of Leigh's, appearing in a further eight pieces, including Grief at the National in 2011 (a beautiful study in disappointment), and in the 2002 feature film All or Nothing (heartbreaking as a lonely orderly in an old people's home).
He made a glorious splash as a salty old sea dog in Richard Bean's Under the Whaleback at the Royal Court in 2003, but in his last stage role, as the Wizard in the musical Wicked at the Apollo Victoria, he was forced to leave before Christmas due to ill-health.
When he played Dan Leno in Dan Farson's The Funniest Man in the World at Stratford East in 1977, one critic wrote that "he beautifully captures the poignant and enduring characteristics of the comedian both on and off stage". Kelly was at his best as the sad clown, and those words are a fitting epitaph to him.
Roger Michael (Sam) Kelly, actor and director: born 19 December 1943; died 14 June 2014.Reuse content