Peter Coke: Voice of radio sleuth Paul Temple

Saturday 22 October 2011 23:08

To the 1940s baby boomers – those born in the six years from 1944 to 1950 and brought up on a strict diet of the Home Service and the Light Programme on the wireless during the 1950s and the 1960s – certain radio voices will never be surpassed, or even matched. Holmes and Watson will forever be Carleton Hobbs and Norman Shelley; the Mayor of Toytown will be Felix Felton; Jeeves and Wooster are Richard Briers and Michael Hordern; and Paul Temple, Francis Durbridge's radio sleuth, will always be, incontestably, Peter Coke.

Coke – pronounced "Cook" – was already an established stage, screen and radio actor when he took on the role for Paul Temple and the Gilbert Case in March 1954. Just as the series itself was already one of the most popular and listened-to on the radio, during the war years coming a strong second to Appointment With Fear and easily beating Ernest Dudley's Dr Morelle.

Coke possessed a fine light baritone voice perfectly suited to delivering insouciant banter to his wife, the bafflingly named Steve, as well as snapping out imperatives such as "Look out, Inspector! He's got a gun!" or "Throw the package out the window, Steve! There's a bomb in it!"

In this he was startlingly different from his immediate predecessor, the actor Kim Peacock, whose own Paul Temple persona was more the bumbling, slightly irate (at times to the point of querulousness) amateur whose final-instalment revelations seemed more the result of sheer luck than beady-eyed ratiocination.

But Coke was the perfect post-war Paul Temple for Durbridge's "New Elizabethan" world of open-top tourers, speedboats, soigné divorcees in raffish night-clubs, gleaming cocktail cabinets, spivs and chancers in camel-hair overcoats, and travel to exotic places.

All a very far cry from the first Paul Temple adventure back in 1938, Send For Paul Temple, that was so parochial that the HQ of "the most sensational criminal organisation in Europe" was finally located in a pub just outside Evesham, in deepest Worcestershire.

Peter Coke was born in Southsea in 1913, the son of a Royal Navy commander who later went to Kenya and developed a successful coffee plantation. Coke was educated at Stowe and afterwards went to stay with his maternal grandmother in Menton, in the south of France, where for a short while he acted as an unpaid assistant vice-consul.

Back in England he won a scholarship to Rada, graduating in 1937 and almost immediately landing a role in Dodie Smith's Bonnet Over the Windmill in the West End. He appeared in weekly rep and his classic "juvenile lead" looks enabled him to gain a foothold in the movies, mainly films for the "quota" – under the rules imposed to boost home-grown cinema – such as Missing, Believed Married (1937), Keep Smiling (1938) and I Met a Policeman and The Nursemaid Who Disappeared (both 1939).

He won praise in 1940 when he appeared in Dr Faustus, but by then war had put a stop to most theatrical activity. Coke joined the Royal Artillery and fought in North Africa and Italy, before a short spell with Ensa. After demob (with the rank of major), he found theatrical parts thin on the ground and opened an antiques stall in Portobello Road market in London. This secondary career later became all-important, especially when he retired from acting in the mid-1970s, by which time he had owned a flourishing antiques shop for many years.

In the late 1940s he began to land more acting roles, including that of Lord Pym in William Douglas Home's successful political comedy The Chiltern Hundreds (1947). Later he joined Sir Donald Wolfit on tour in Tamburlane and The Clandestine Marriage (both 1951), and then joined the Old Vic company.

By then he had begun to appear regularly on the radio: in Denis Constanduros's Daughters of the Parsonage (April 1950), with George Holloway and Isabel Dean, and a couple of months later as Essex to Mary O'Farrell's Elizabeth in the novelist Edward Thompson's Essex and Elizabeth (June 1950).

There were many plays in the popular Saturday Night Theatre series: Pinero's Iris (October 1952) with Sonia Dresdel and Norman Shelley; Elizabeth Jenkins's King Monmouth (January 1953) with the suave Dennis Arundell; as Chief Inspector Grant in Josephine Tey's celebrated The Man in the Queue (March 1955); a Lester Powell thriller Visibility Nil (May 1956) with Ursula Howells and Brewster Mason; Edward Grierson's The Second Man (December 1956) with Rosalie Crutchley.

A stand-out performance was in George Bancroft Pleydell's famous drama The Ware Case (April 1959, with Isabel Dean), in which he played a man accused of murder who, after a tense trial, is finally found innocent – only to reveal, in a burst of gloating frenzy, that he did it after all. Originally the actor Richard Hurndall had been booked for the part, and his name even appeared in Radio Times, but a last-minute indisposition gave the role to Coke, who took it with relish. His scream of thwarted rage as he accidentally fell from a balcony in the final moments of the play (thus letting the BBC off the moral hook) was magnificently memorable.

Ironically it was his performance as a sneering villain in the penultimate Kim Peacock Temple vehicle The Vandyke Affair nine years before which probably swung him his later leading role.

Throughout the 1950s and well into the 1960s Coke was a regular at Broadcasting House, especially when he took over the Paul Temple role, in the end recording seven original serials as well as three new productions of earlier stories. The final serial The Alex Affair was broadcast in 1968 – by which time Coke was spending far more time at his antiques shop, located towards the Parsons Green end of the New King's Road.

He took roles in television drama and one or two more film parts. But he was also writing plays now and had a success with the frothy Breath of Spring (1958), which ran in the West End for a year before transferring to Broadway. He later adapted it for a Saturday Night Theatre (1964) playing the lead role himself and featuring the excellent radio actress Grizelda Hervey (noted by critics as the best screamer in the business).

He retired from acting as well as London in the mid-1970s, setting up house and shop in north Norfolk (where the Coke family, going right back to the Lord Chief Justice Sir Edward Coke in the 17th century, was rooted). Here he developed an entirely new occupation: repairing as well as creating extraordinary miniature shell sculptures, and mounting a series of exhibitions of his work at Sharrington Hall, near Holt, and in various galleries in London.

Peter Coke was always approachable. In the early 1970s I happened to be bargain-hunting in Kensington's antiques market when someone brushed past me and murmured "Do excuse me". The voice was unmistakable. "You're Peter Coke," I said. "I'm afraid I am," he replied. This led to a fascinating chat about Durbridge, Martyn C. Webster (the series producer from 1938 to 1968), and the craft of radio acting, over tea and a bun. It was from Coke that I learned the shattering fact that Marjorie Westbury, who played Steve, and whom I'd always imagined as a husky-voiced and lissome femme fatale, was in fact plump, motherly and barely five foot in height.

Coke's partner for many years was Fred Webb, who died in 2003.

Jack Adrian

Peter John Coke, actor, playwright, antiques dealer and shell-artist: born Southsea, Hampshire 3 April 1913; died Holt, Norfolk 30 July 2008.

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