Tenniel Evans: Taffy Goldstein in 'The Navy Lark'

Wednesday 17 June 2009 00:00

On screen, Tenniel Evans was one of those character actors with a face recognisable in dozens of television programmes but whose name was less familiar. He played doctors, police officers, judges and vicars, and even went on to be become a priest himself.

But it was out of vision, acting a look-out in the long-running BBC radio comedy The Navy Lark (1959-77), that Evans could claim to be "recognised". As Taffy Goldstein, alongside Ronnie Barker as Johnson, he was one of the two Able Seamen among an inept crew aboard HMS Troutbridge, a frigate refitted to house undesirable elements of the Royal Navy.

The programme, following the motley bunch's misadventures, was devised as a vehicle for Jon Pertwee, who played the on-the-fiddle Chief Petty Officer Pertwee, in charge of stores, and also featured Richard Caldicot as Commander (later Captain) Povey and Leslie Phillips as Sub-Lieutenant Phillips. Evans was instantly identified with the line: "Starboard look-out here!" His character was constantly in search of promotion but achieved only a brief stint as Commodore. When called on, Evans also took other roles, including those of the crusty, old, gin-soaked Admiral, Lord Quirk the Sea Lord, Shamus O'Ginsburg and the Governor, Sir Willoughby Todhunter Brown.

Later, he reportedly recommended his friend Pertwee to audition as television's third Doctor Who, with both unaware that the actor was already being considered. During Pertwee's run in the role, Evans appeared in the Doctor Who story "Carnival of Monsters" (1973) as Major Daly.

Walter Tenniel Evans was born in 1926 in Nairobi, Kenya, where his expatriate father eked out a living by running a farm. He was the youngest of three brothers and three sisters, including one brother who had died before Evans's birth. His parents were both English, but there was Welsh blood several generations back on his father's side. Evans's paternal great-great-aunt was Mary Ann Evans, the novelist George Eliot, and his maternal great-uncle was the Alice's Adventures in Wonderland illustrator John Tenniel.

In 1936, at the age of 10, Evans left Africa and his family after winning a scholarship to Christ's Hospital boarding school in Horsham, West Sussex. During holidays, he lived with his father's cousin and her husband, the Reverend Rupert Winser, at Allesley Rectory, Warwickshire. Evans contrasted his African years of running around barefoot and living in a bungalow of mud and wattle walls, and a corrugated iron roof, with a more middle-class and serious life in England in his memoirs of childhood, Don't Walk in the Long Grass (1999). He was never again to see his father, who died before he visited his family in Africa 20 years after his own departure.

On leaving school at the end of the Second World War, Evans went to Sandhurst (1945-46) to train as an Army officer but was discharged after collapsing during an exercise on Mount Snowdon. While studying German and economics at St Andrews University (1946-9), he found his true vocation, acting, and subsequently trained at Rada (1949-51). After graduation, he acted the Archangel Michael in a revival of the York Mystery Plays, performed in the ruins of St Mary's Abbey, York, as part of the Festival of Britain (1951).

Evans then joined the repertory company at the Castle Theatre, Farnham, Surrey, where he met his future wife, the actress Evangeline Banks, daughter of the film star Leslie Banks.

When work became scarce, Evans found a new job as a teacher at Spratton Hall, then a boys-only private school, near Northampton, but he eventually returned to acting in Huddersfield, before joining his wife at Northampton Repertory Theatre. He made his television début as a policeman in an episode of No Hiding Place (1960), before acting Jonathan Kail, alongside Geraldine McEwan and Jeremy Brett, in an ITV adaptation of Tess (1960, based on Thomas Hardy's novel Tess of the D'Urbervilles).

For 45 years, Evans worked solidly in character parts on television, flitting from one popular programme to another – and even playing Hitler in The Roads to Freedom (1970). Occasionally, the actor found regular roles, such as John, one of the solicitor siblings, in the legal drama The Sullavan Brothers (1964-65), Sergeant Bluett in the sitcom My Brother's Keeper (1975-76), Geoff Barratt in the final series of the post-war comedy-drama Shine on Harvey Moon (1985), Teddy Haslam in the zoo vet drama One by One (1987) and Sir Edward Parkinson-Lewis in September Song (1994). He also took over from the late Patrick Troughton the role of Perce, grandfather of Ashley (Nicholas Lyndhurst), in the sitcom The Two of Us (1987-90).

Evans was in few films, but he did play a detective in 10 Rillington Place (1971), a biopic of the murderer John Christie. He also acted the director of a company of theatre actors in Knots (1975), the director David Munro's screen version of a play devised by Edward Petherbridge from the "new wave" psychiatrist R.D. Laing's book of the same name, in which thespians examine their own inner emotions as they prepare for a stage performance.

On the "real" stage, Evans acted with the Royal Court Theatre company in Arnold Wesker's The Kitchen (1959), Gwyn Thomas's The Keep (1961, also Piccadilly Theatre), David Storey's The Restoration of Arnold Middleton (1967, also Criterion Theatre) and Beside Herself (1990). His other West End appearances were in the Agatha Christie play The Unexpected Guest (as Sergeant Cadwallader, Duchess Theatre, 1958), Portrait of Murder (Savoy Theatre, 1963), Hamlet (as Polonius, Cambridge Theatre, 1971) and Ten Times Table (Globe Theatre, 1978).

He also enjoyed his stage roles in the Actors' Company, a collective formed in 1971 by Ian McKellen and Edward Petherbridge, and with the National Theatre as Henderson in David Hare's Racing Demon (1990) and Banks in John O'Keeffe's Restoration comedy Wild Oats (1995).

In 1985, the actor – a lifelong Christian – was ordained as a non-stipendiary Anglican priest and licensed to St Mary's Church, Beaconsfield, but continued to act on screen. His last role was in an episode of the romantic comedy-drama William and Mary in 2004, when he retired from both acting and the priesthood, suffering from emphysema. The actor's two children are the director Matthew and the actress Serena.

Anthony Hayward

Walter Tenniel Evans, actor: born Nairobi, Kenya 17 May 1926; married 1953 Evangeline Banks (one son, one daughter); died High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire 10 June 2009.

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