Lionel Jeffries: Scene-stealing character actor who also directed 'The Railway Children'

Anthony Hayward
Saturday 20 February 2010 01:00 GMT

The character actor Lionel Jeffries had the ability to steal a scene from the "star" of a film with the twitch of a muscle, a scowl and his distinctive way of delivering a line.

He always stood out on screen, with his bald head and, usually, a bristling moustache.

Jeffries was at his most effective in comedies such as Blue Murder at St Trinian's (1957), playing a crook trying to get away with gems hidden in a water-polo ball, and alongside Peter Sellers in both Two Way Stretch (1960, as a prison warden) and The Wrong Arm of the Law (1962, as the inept Inspector "Nosey" Parker). The comedy in these last two roles came from Jeffries playing self-righteous upholders of the law who ended up falling flat on their faces. When he played Professor Cavor in First Men in the Moon (1964), based on the H.G. Wells story, the actor was at the height of his skills, bringing a comic twist to the eccentric Victorian scientist.

Eccentricity was also at the heart of one of Jeffries's best-remembered roles, Grandpa Potts – father of Dick Van Dyke's madcap inventor Caractacus – in the much loved children's film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968). Grandpa believed he was still in India, fighting the natives, and was further kept from coming down to earth when lifted into the sky by Baron Bomburst's Zeppelin balloon. Jeffries was actually in his early forties and six months younger than Van Dyke when the film was made, but premature balding – which he attributed to the humidity he experienced while serving with the Army in Burma during the Second World War – meant that he often played older roles.

However, it was another classic children's film that cemented Jeffries's place in cinema history. He switched to directing to make The Railway Children (1970), a screen version of Edith Nesbit's Victorian novel, for which he also wrote the screenplay.

Jeffries read the book for the first time when he was returning to Britain by ship from the United States to film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, found that his own books had been lost on the journey and borrowed The Railway Children from his daughters, Martha and Elizabeth. "As soon as I got home, I bought a six-month option on it for £300, sat down and began to write the screenplay," he recalled.

However, finding a film studio to take on Jeffries's faithful adaptation proved difficult until he approached the director Bryan Forbes, who was then chief of production at EMI's Elstree Studios. Forbes was not only willing to finance the picture, but persuaded Jeffries to direct it himself.

Dinah Sheridan acted the mother, with Jenny Agutter reprising the role of the eldest daughter, Roberta, from a 1968 television adaptation and Sally Thomsett and Gary Warren cast as the younger children. Jeffries himself handed over the part of the station porter Perks, which he had intended to play, to Bernard Cribbins so that he could concentrate on directing. The result was a lovingly made film of great charm that celebrated childhood innocence and family warmth.

Born in Forest Hill, London, in 1926, to parents who were both members of the Salvation Army based in India for many years, Jeffries attended Queen Elizabeth's Grammar School, Wimborne, Dorset. In 1945, towards the end of the Second World War, he joined the Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, served in Burma and was awarded the Burma Star. He was also a captain in the Royal West African Frontier Force.

While working for the Rangoon radio station Jeffries decided to become an actor. He trained at RADA, where he won the Kendal Medal in 1947, then acted with the repertory company at the David Garrick Theatre, Lichfield. His first London stage appearances were in Carrington V.C. (Westminster Theatre, 1949), Blood Wedding (Arts Theatre, 1952) and Brouhaha (Aldwych Theatre, 1952). His performance in The Enchanted (Arts Theatre, 1952) won him a 1953 Fleet Street Award as Best Actor.

Jeffries made his film début as an uncredited RADA student in Alfred Hitchcock's thriller Stage Fright (1949). He then began to impress in pictures such as The Colditz Story (1955), The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) and Windfall (1955), in which, aged 29, he played an old man whose discovery of £2,000 on a bus leads to terrible consequences for his son and daughter.

Of his baldness, Jeffries once said: 'I was the only bald student at RADA. Of course I was upset. Tried a toupee once, too, but it looked like a dead moth on a boiled egg."

As a character actor, he made up to half a dozen films a year. From the time he played one of the seamen in The Baby and the Battleship (1956), comedies increasingly came Jeffries's way and brought out the best in his acting skills. By the late '60s there were fewer roles, although he was on form once more in the thriller Eyewitness (1970) as the grandfather helping his grandson to escape from assassins whom he saw commit a murder.

Jeffries's diversification into directing proved satisfying for a while. After The Railway Children, he adapted and directed Antonia Barber's ghost story The Amazing Mr Blunden (1972), again demonstrating his ability to coax authentic performances from young actors. His other films as a director, Baxter! (1972), Wombling Free (1977) and The Water Babies (1978), were less well received.

Nevertheless, Jeffries found a new home in television, having previously dismissed it as a medium. In the sitcom Father Charlie (1982), he starred as the eccentric, late-in-life convert to Catholicism who is sent to the Sisters of St Winifred Convent as a chaplain and tries to bring improvements such as the introduction of a television set. Then, Jeffries acted the father living under the same roof as his son and daughter-in-law in the generation-gap comedy Tom, Dick and Harriet (1982-83). He also played Major Langton in Shillingbury Tales (1981) and Grandad in the children's series Woof! (1993).

In a straight role, Jeffries teamed up with Peggy Ashcroft to play the elderly couple returning to the hotel where they had become close to reflect on the intervening years in the Dennis Potter play Cream in My Coffee (1980).

The actor's later West End stage roles included Horace Vandergelder in Hello, Dolly! (Prince of Wales Theatre, 1984), Putz in Rookery Nook (Shaftesbury Theatre, 1986) and Lieutenant Ekdal in The Wild Duck (Phoenix Theatre, 1990, directed by Peter Hall).

Lionel Charles Jeffries, actor, director and writer: born London 10 June 1926; married 1951 Eileen Mary Walsh (one son, two daughters); died Poole, Dorset 19 February 2010.

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