obituaries: Arthur Mullard

The growling cockney Arthur Mullard took his 6ft 2in bulk and bashed-in nose from the professional boxing ring to television screens and found his greatest fame as he was approaching retirement. Acting success took him 30 years to achieve and, after several decades as an extra in films and a feed to television comics such as Tony Hancock and Arthur Askey, he found it playing a scrounger called Wally Briggs in the situation comedies Romany Jones and Yus My Dear.

Born in 1912 in an area of Islington that he described as the hardest in all of London, Mullard had no fond memories of "the good old days". "I never think of my childhood with nostalgia," he said. "Anyone of my age who says he does is deceiving himself. They weren't good old days at all. Whatever else change has brought, it means people aren't so poor any more." He had four brothers, one of whom died in infancy.

Mullard left school at 14 with a report that said: "This boy is a born actor." However, facing opposition from his father, he started work as a butcher's boy, and later signed up for the Army. By the time he left three years later, he had found a new talent as a boxer and was the champion of his regiment.

Back in civvy street, he turned professional in the ring but threw in the towel, after three years and 20 fights, when he was knocked out and lost his memory. He then worked as a dance-hall bouncer, rag-and-bone man and even an artist's model, until called up for the Second World War. As a sergeant-major in the Royal Artillery, ideas of acting returned to him. "Drilling troops and just being in the Army was like acting to me," he recalled. "It was all an act."

Once peacetime came he looked for an agent and was soon appearing in films as an extra and stuntman, changing his name from Mullord to Mullard because everyone thought he was addressing a peer of the realm when he said it.

He made his debut in the Second World War prison-camp drama The Captive Heart (1946, starring Michael Redgrave) and appeared - mostly uncredited - in several dozen pictures, including Oliver Twist (the classic 1948 version starring Alec Guinness), the Oscar-winning The Lavender Hill Mob (again starring Alec Guinness, 1951), The Pickwick Papers (1952), the Frank Launder-Sidney Gilliat comedy The Belles of St Trinian's (1954), the Boulting Brothers' comedy Brothers in Law (starring Ian Carmichael, 1956), The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (starring Tom Courtenay and directed by Tony Richardson, 1962), the cockney comedy Sparrows Can't Sing (based on the Joan Littlewood stage play Sparrers Can't Sing, 1962), the James Bond spoof Casino Royale (1967) and the television spin-off Holiday on the Buses (1973). In Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968), billed simply as Big Man, Mullard was the victim of the automatic haircutting machine, which left him almost bald; the creation of a cranky inventor played by Dick Van Dyke. His last film appearance was in Adventures of a Plumber's Mate (1978).

By the mid-Fifties, Mullard was in demand both in films and the relatively new medium of television. When Tony Hancock moved from radio to television with Hancock's Half Hour (1956-63), Mullard became a regular member of the supporting cast, playing everything from policemen to dustmen, alongside John Le Mesurier, Hugh Lloyd, Irene Handl, Warren Mitchell and Kenneth Williams. The programme, scripted by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, extended the boundaries of television comedy writing and marked a high-point in the genre.

Mullard worked with another comic great, Arthur Askey, in The Arthur Askey Show (1961), a six-part sitcom set in 1910 and featuring Askey and June Whitfield as Arthur Pilbeam and his snooty wife Emily, with Mullard and Patricia Hayes playing their neighbours, the Rossiters.

By now established in situation comedy, Mullard took the role of Chippy in Vacant Lot (1967), a series written by Jeremy Lloyd and Jimmy Grafton, which featured the actors Bill Fraser and Alfie Bass running the works of Bendlove and Bodium, builders, decorators, cabinetmakers, funeral directors and cab-drivers.

Switching to children's programmes, Mullard played a jack of all trades in On the Rocks (1969), set in a television station, Seaview Television, transmitting from a lighthouse to the residents of Mumbling Bay and Kipper Cove.

But Mullard's most famous television character was the layabout Wally Briggs, first featured in a single play called Romany Jones in 1972, which then returned for four series (1973-74), with Queenie Watts playing his wife Lily. Briggs was an army deserter and a scrounger, who stole from allotments. The programme, with theme music by Roger Whittaker and writers who included the duo of Ronald Wolfe and Ronald Chesney, also starred James Beck and Jo Rowbottom as the Briggs' equally workshy neighbours in a caravan park. After Beck's death, this couple were replaced by Jonathan Cecil and Gay Soper, as a posh husband and wife in the adjacent caravan. Cecil had previously worked with Mullard in one of his rare stage appearances, in The Silent House (1970), at the Thorndike Theatre, Leatherhead, in which he played a cat-burglar-turned-butler.

Mullard and Watts's Romany Jones characters were then transplanted by Wolfe and Chesney to a council house and their own programme, Yus My Dear, which ran for two series in 1976. Wally Briggs was by this time earning good money as a bricklayer on a building site but struggling to hold on to it, with both his wife Lily and his brother Benny - played by another cockney comic, Mike Reid - trying to get their hands on it.

Capitalising on his stardom, Mullard teamed up in 1978 with the comedienne Hylda Baker to record a spoof version of John Travolta and Olivia Newton's hit "You're the One That I Want", from the film Grease. The single made the Top 30 and the pair even appeared on Top of the Pops. The actor was also a regular guest on the Seventies television game show Celebrity Squares.

Mullard's wife, Flo, did not live to see him find fame. She died from an overdose of sleeping tablets in 1961 after suffering from polio and meningitis, as well as mental illness.

Earlier this year, Mullard was still working, on voiceovers for commercials, and continued to live in a council maisonette in his native Islington. He wrote an autobiography, Oh Yus, It's Arthur Mullard, which was published in 1977. Although he lived to the age of 83, Mullard always bemoaned the fact that it took so long for him to find stardom. "The tragedy of my life is, I was born 20 years too early", he said.

Anthony Hayward

Twenty years ago, writes Dick Vosburgh, Barry Cryer, Peter Vincent and I were writing the all-impersonations television series Who Do You Do? The show's director/producer Jon Scoffield suddenly told us he'd booked Arthur Mullard. Our first reaction was negative in the extreme. "But he's not an impressionist!" we wailed. "Who cares?" snapped Scoffield. "He's funny!" And indeed he was - Arthur's "impersonations" were the high-point of the series.

He would announce solemnly, "Now here is my impression of the late laminated Charles Laughton in The Hunchback of Notre Dame!" Whereupon he would turn his back and make a series of elaborate arm movements to suggest that his face was being utterly transformed. He would then turn around again looking exactly the same and declaim, needless to say, in his own voice: "The bells! The bells! They're drivin' me bleedin' mad!"

Also treasured is his uncanny recreation of "That well-known Swedish bint - Greeta Garbo!" After the same preamble he would bellow "I want to be alone. So piss off!"

One of the BBC satire shows cast him equally memorably in the role of Gertrude Stein, his "A rose is a rose is a bleedin' rose" brought down the house.

Arthur Mullord (Arthur Mullard), actor: born London 19 September 1912; married (two sons, one daughter); died London 11 December 1995.

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