Tom Bell

Actor with an air of menace
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The Independent Online

Thomas George Bell, actor: born Liverpool 2 August 1933; married Lois Dane (one son; marriage dissolved), (one daughter with Frances Tempest); died Brighton, East Sussex 4 October 2006.

Playing sinister characters with an air of understated menace became Tom Bell's stock-in-trade after he made his name in the 1962 "kitchen sink" film drama The L-Shaped Room as the brooding, bitter, young writer Toby, who falls for the pregnant, unmarried Frenchwoman played by Leslie Caron.

There were predictions of a great future for the lean, gaunt-faced actor - once described by the television critic Clive James as "reeking of bad diet" - following his performance in the ground-breaking film based on Lynne Reid Banks's best-selling novel.

But such forecasts were reined in when the actor's single-mindedness and anti-establishment nature led him to heckle the Duke of Edinburgh at the following year's British Film Academy Awards dinner: "Make us laugh, tell us a joke!" So, with a lack of leading roles coming his way in the cinema, he found most of his best parts on television.

Out (1978) saw Bell carrying his own series, starring as Frank Ross in the writer Trevor Preston's hard-hitting gangland drama about a bank robber who leaves jail and is obsessed with finding the informer who put him away. "I knew I was Frank Ross," said Bell, of his first reaction to reading the script. "I'm not an actor anyway. I just play myself."

He was on the other side of the law in the first Prime Suspect mini-series (1991), as Sergeant Bill Otley, the sexist policeman who leads the moans when Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison (Helen Mirren) takes over a murder inquiry."I know how you must all feel," says their boss, Detective Superintendent Kernan (John Benfield), after giving in to pressure to award her the job, "but give her the best you've got." "I'll give the tart the best I've got, all right," says Otley in an aside.

As with Out, Bell refused to reprise the role - but relented when Prime Suspect 3 (1993) had Tennison moving from Southampton Row to Soho Vice Squad and found Otley on her team. "You don't like it, put in for a transfer," she tells him, but her former adversary admits he was previously "out of line" and knuckles under. Later this month [15 October], Otley and Tennison are reunited at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in the first part of Prime Suspect: the final act.

One of seven children born to a merchant seaman in Depression-hit Liverpool, in 1933, Tom Bell was evacuated during the Second World War to the Morecambe area, where he lived with three different families. Although his father wanted him to learn a trade, he left school at 15 to act with a local repertory theatre company, before training at Bradford Civic Theatre School. Then came more rep.

Bell made his television début as a boxer in a 1959 episode of the crime series Dial 999, but really caught the attention of casting directors after his roles in two of ITV's "Armchair Theatre" productions, as one of three sailors on shore leave in Liverpool in the writer Alun Owen's No Trams To Lime Street (1959) and the young clerk Albert Stokes, whose controlling mother worries about his leading an "unclean life" with girls, in Harold Pinter's first play for the small screen, A Night Out (1960).

It was a natural next step for Bell to act in the British "new wave" feature films that gave a platform to working-class voices. His first film was the gritty drama The Criminal (retitled The Concrete Jungle in the US, 1960), but one more symbolic of the period was The Kitchen (1961), the screen version of Arnold Wesker's Royal Court play.

The L-Shaped Room (1962) made greater waves in the cinema but, after the fall-out of his outburst awards lunch, good roles on the big screen were few and far between for Bell. Ballad in Blue (1964) was little more than a vehicle for Ray Charles, although in He Who Rides a Tiger (directed by Charles Crichton, 1965) he pulled out a more three-dimensional character as a cat-burglar.

Although work in films remained steady, it was in television from the late 1970s that Bell began to find more satisfying roles. He played the 19th-century seaman coming home from his travels in The Sailor's Return (1978), Adolf Eichmann in the epic American series Holocaust (1978), the head of the Soviet secret police Felix Dzerzhinsky in Reilly: ace of spies (1983), the principled Commander Kenneth Crocker in The Detective (1983) and Old Tom in the television film Polyanna (2003).

Bell's dark side also fitted perfectly in two small-screen D.H. Lawrence dramatisations - he was the coalminer Walter Morel in Sons and Lovers (1983) and Old Tom, Ursula's grandfather, in The Rainbow (1988) - so it was a surprise to some when he made a rare switch to comedy to star as the cantankerous wax museum owner Harry Nash in Hope It Rains (1991-92).

The dark side was there for Bell's most memorable later film roles, though, as the controlling toymaker Uncle Philip in The Magic Toyshop (1987), Emily Lloyd's sleazy lover in Wish You Were Here (1987) and the petty thief Jack "The Hat" McVitie, whose murder brings down the East End gangster brothers in The Krays (1990).

Bell's stage appearances were rare, but he was rightly acclaimed for his performance as Horst, opposite Ian McKellen as the promiscuous Max, in the world premiere of Martin Sherman's Bent (Royal Court Theatre, 1979), an examination of Hitler's persecution of homosexuals, set in Dachau.

Anthony Hayward