Geoffrey Hutchings: Veteran character actor who portrayed Sid James on stage and screen and played 'minted' Mel in 'Benidorm'

Anthony Hayward
Tuesday 06 July 2010 00:00

Although he was much admired for taking many character roles on screen and stage over almost half a century, Geoffrey Hutchings did not become a "star" until he appeared in the television sitcom Benidorm. He played Mel Harvey, the working-class businessman who frequently boasted of becoming a millionaire after setting up, then selling, his "five sunbed shops in the Greater Manchester area". Even then, the actor was a household "face" rather than name.

The accident-prone Mel married the chain-smoking, over-tanned, acid-tongued grandmother Madge (Sheila Reid). Her mobility scooter, used through laziness rather than need, inspired him to open Mel's Mobility Shop in Benidorm – offering his products to a wide public with the sales line: "You don't have to be a cripple to enjoy your holiday."

From his first appearance in the programme, at the beginning of the second series, in 2008, Hutchings stole the show. There were several near-death experiences for "minted" Mel, alongside the sight of his wearing a revealing thong around the pool and the excruciating sound of his karaoke version of "(Hey There) Lonely Girl" in strangulated tones, leading the tycoon pensioner to be described as "Didsbury's answer to Julio Iglesias". The actor played this all completely straight, which added to the comedy.

He joined an ensemble cast for the programme – set in the fictional Solana holiday resort in Benidorm – that included Siobhan Finneran as Madge's daughter Janice, Steve Pemberton as her husband Mick, Kenny Ireland and Janine Duvitski as the swingers Donald and Jacqueline, Hugh Sachs and Paul Bazely as the gay couple Gavin and Troy and Johnny Vegas as the pub-quiz champion Geoff, known as "The Oracle". Hutchings described the experience of playing Mel as one of his most enjoyable but added: "The problem was getting sprayed with sun tan every morning – standing in the sun with a paper thong on and getting sprayed – then washing it off in the evening, every evening. I have bad memories of being in the pool for over 16 hours on retakes."

At the end of the third series, screened last autumn, Madge and Mel bought the Benidorm Palace, setting up the story for a one-off special, which is about to be filmed, and another series next year. Hutchings's sudden death, believed to be caused by a viral infection, means that changes will be made.

The actor had a very different role, as a corrupt building contractor based on the real-life architect John Poulson in Our Friends in the North (1996), the writer Peter Flannery's acclaimed, sweeping epic following a group of four friends over more than 30 years, starting in Newcastle in 1964 and set against the backdrop of British politics. Two years later, Hutchings played the late, real-life comedy actor Sid James in Terry Johnson's play Cleo, Camping, Emmanuelle and Dick, a National Theatre production telling the story of the Carry On film actor's affair with his co-star Barbara Windsor. In 2000, Johnson turned it into the ITV drama Cor, Blimey!, with Hutchings and Samantha Spiro reprising their roles.

James had been married to his wife Val and Windsor to the notorious underworld criminal Ronnie Knight at the time of the relationship. Alongside James's obsession with Windsor, the drama portrayed his rivalry with another co-star, Kenneth Williams, played by Adam Godley. Hutchings, Spiro and Godley's performances were all chillingly real, and the real-life Windsor had a small cameo role in the television production.

"Once I got the laugh, I had a way in," explained Hutchings. "When I was talking to Barbara off set once, she said I was behaving like Sid – just the way I was talking to her, apparently."

Born in Dorchester in 1939, Hutchings studied French and PE at Birmingham University and was presented with the Actor of the Year prize at a National Union of Students Festival before training at Rada, where he won the Ronson Prize. He made his professional debut in London's West End as Luc Delbert in the Richard Rogers musical No Strings (Her Majesty's Theatre, 1963-64). After joining the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1968, he was made an associate artist and, over the next 16 years, took roles such as Geronimo in Indians, Vasques in 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, Feste in Twelfth Night and Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream.

In 1982, Hutchings won the Society of West End Theatres' Best Comic Performance Award for his role as Lady Dodo in the RSC's pantomime-style musical comedy Poppy (Barbican Centre, 1982-83 and Adelphi Theatre, 1983-84), written by Peter Nichols and Monty Norman. A highlight of the show – set during Britain's 19th-century Opium Wars with China – was Hutchings' character, a pantomime dame, singing a naughty French chanson to her lover while being followed by a large, white elephant.

The actor also performed with the National Theatre Company. After joining in 1986, his roles included Jacobowsky in Jacobowsky and the Colonel (1986), Irwin in Three Men on a Horse (1987) and The Cook in Mother Courage and Her Children (1995-96, starring Diana Rigg).

Hutchings made his screen debut as DH Lawrence in Death of My Mother, adapted and directed by David Storey for an episode of the BBC television arts programme Monitor (1963). His small-screen roles remained occasional over the next 20 years, but he did appear in the feature films Clockwise (1986), as the father of a pupil who is hijacked, along with her car, by John Cleese's usually punctilious headteacher after missing his train to a conference, On the Black Hill (1987), as a solicitor in an adaptation of Bruce Chatwin's novel and Wish You Were Here (1987) as Emily Lloyd's embittered, widowed father in a post-Second World War seaside town.

In 1990, Hutchings took over the role of George Fairchild, whose wife was the mistress of the mill owner for whom he worked, in the third series of the television sitcom Brass. After playing the hapless Sgt Lucas in Maigret (1992-93), alongside Michael Gambon as the French detective, Hutchings was hardly off the small screen, usually taking one-off character roles in established series or single plays. In the women's prison drama Bad Girls he was seen occasionally as Bobby Hollamby (2000-03), husband of the warder nicknamed "Bodybag". Last year, he played Jane and Christian Clarke's father, Roger, in EastEnders. The actor's final role was in a new sitcom, Grandma's House, due to be screened shortly.

His later films included The Affair of the Necklace (2001), alongside Hilary Swank. He was also on stage as Cap'*Andy Hawks in an Opera North-RSC production of Showboat (London Palladium, 1990), Herr Schultz in a West End revival of Cabaret (Lyric Theatre, 2006-07) and the prison librarian Brooksie in The Shawshank Redemption (Wyndham's Theatre, 2009). For a while, Hutchings was in the radio serial The Archers as Bill Robertson, who went into his father Ian's veterinary practice and annoyed Joe Grundy by telling him that he had to ear-tag his cattle.

The actor is survived by his second wife, Andi Godfrey, and the three children of his first marriage.

Geoffrey Hutchings, actor: born Dorchester, Dorset 8 June 1939; twice married (one son, two daughters); died London 1 July 2010.

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