An actor who responded to the call

Peter Edwards reflects on the life of Philip Madoc, a consummate professional who knew ‘his own people’

Man and boy I must have worked with Philip on something like 80 hours of television. My first contact was on The Life and Times of David Lloyd George This was written by Elaine Morgan and produced and directed by John Hefin who was then Head of Drama at BBC Wales. I was brought in as Production Manager, completely new to television drama to work on probably the biggest, most costly production that BBC Wales had made up until that time. A lot was riding on this production as BBC Wales had not succeeded in getting much network drama since the days of live TV. So the casting of Lloyd George was a highly political and controversial decision.

Philip Madoc

Philip Madoc was born in Twynrodyn, Merthyr Tydfil in 1934. He attended Twyn School and then Cyfarthfa Castle Grammar School where he displayed talent as a linguist. He studied languages at the University of Wales and the University of Vienna, eventually speaking seven languages including Russian and Swedish. He first worked as translator before switching to drama and winning a place at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.

He acted on stage with the Royal Shakespeare Company, playing the roles of Iago, Othello, and Dr Faust. He first gained recognition in two serials, first as SS Officer Lutzig in the Second World War serial Manhunt, then as a Huron warrior in a serialisation of The Last of the Mohicans. In 1973 he drew on the character of SS Officer Lutzig for one of his most memorable roles, that of a captured U-Boat captain in Dad’s Army, the sitcom about the Home Guard set during World War II. In 1974 he played a corrupt, lecherous priest in the BBC Wales serial Twm Sion Cati. He also appeared in episodes of BBC sitcoms The Good Life and Porridge. Other television roles include a number of appearances in Doctor Who, beginning with the second Doctor Who film, and later in the series itself. His film roles include Operation Crossbow (1965), The Quiller Memorandum (1966) and Operation Daybreak (1975).

However, although widely respected as a versatile actor adept at accents, Madoc never really became a star until 1981, when he portrayed LG in an acclaimed BBC Wales television series, The Life and Times of David Lloyd George

Philip Madoc continued to work until his death. In 2007 Madoc appeared as ‘Y Llwyd’ in the S4C gangster series, Y Pris, in which he acted and spoke in his native Welsh. He was also narrator for the Discovery Channel’s documentary series Egypt Uncovered. In 2011 he played Gawain in the short film, Hawk.

He died on Monday 5 March 2012 in hospital in Hertfordshire surrounded by his family.

There were many names floating around, particularly actors with flashier CVs. The discussions revolved around LG’s naughty blue eyes, his north Walian twang. But the question was whether Phil was a big enough name. We all have John Hefin to thank for following his instinct, sticking to his guns, and casting the brown-eyed south Walian Philip Madoc in this ground breaking role.

Phil inhabited the character LG from his early twenties to his eighties. As someone who was there for the whole journey, organising the shoot and ‘running the floor’ for a full nine months I never saw him stumble as a character nor put a foot wrong. It was a remarkable feat, to portray this remarkable and complex man in both his political and personal life. Phil brought an unparalleled intelligence, energy, humour and charm, and a consistency of understanding to the whole length of LG’s long life. He understood the history and social context. Most of all he regarded it as a privilege to play the part of a Welshman who affected the history of nations and was such an influence on the social attitudes of the men and women of his time.

Of course, we were all helped by the Elaine Morgan’s great script. All too often actors want to fiddle with scripts, but apart from the odd touch here and there I don’t recall the need to change anything. And if we did Elaine was on the end of a phone in Mountain Ash.

As far as the blue eyes were concerned an attempt was made to fit Phil with blue coloured contact lenses. However, it was impossibly painful for him and so the idea was dumped. Did anyone ever mention the colour of his eyes again? I don’t think so. Phil’s performance was so complete that the last thing on anyone’s mind was the colour of his eyes.

Phil was an actor with a wider range than he was normally allowed to show. Consequently, the Dad’s Army which we have all seen over and over is such a pleasurable way to remember Phil and the magic of his comic timing – “don’t tell him Pike – (Phil) Pike makes me laugh every time I see it. Invariably, it gives me pleasure to see Phil’s giveaway half smile as he almost loses it. What a great way for us all, and especially his children Lowri and Rhys, to remember Phil.

Often Phil was cast as the acceptable face of the ‘British foreigner’. Like Hugh Griffith before him, or John Rhys Davies now – his brown eyes set him up for the fantastic Magua in The Last of the Mohicans. My first TV memory of Phil was as the dour Chief Inspector in the police series Target. But I never thought he looked very happy in that role in which he played such an awkward and negative character. His contribution to Dr Who, which appealed to his sense of humour, must have given him a lot more pleasure. At home we called the character “the Brain of Morbius” though I forget what the character’s actual name was.

I worked with Phil in the late 1980s, throughout the 1990s and into the new century on the series Yr Heliwr/A Mind to Kill. In all we made 22 x 96 minute episodes – two versions of each episode, in Welsh and English. This is a detective series with Phil as the detective. For any traditional detective story you need a wise everyman to play the lead –the detective knows nothing when he finds the body and nor do we as the audience. So we are dependent on him to find out information on our behalf.

As director the quality that I needed in my lead was wisdom and understanding and a clear point of view. This is what I got from Phil which no doubt is one of the reasons why the series has sold to over 90 countries across the world. As Noel Bain the detective, Phil was the fulcrum of the series. We may have wandered into action sequences and mystery but we would always return to see what he thought and we would trust his perception and his values.

Phil and I talked at length about the purpose of the stories. We agreed that his character represented timeless values, not so much of ‘justice’ but looking after ‘his own people’. As Lenny Bruce said, “In the end if someone breaks into your house who do you call? Whoever you are, whatever your politics you always call the police”. Placed in that situation the audience would always call Phil.

When we started the series Phil said to me that he needed to know these things so that when he entered a scene he would know what to think and how Noel would react. I believe that this appealed to his Welsh sensitivities. For ‘his own people’ were the Welsh people, good and bad. He felt they were his responsibility as a character and as a person. We never had many discussions about politics but I always presumed that he was on the nationalist side although a little to the right of my own views which is why we kept clear of the subject.

In all these episodes, in all the thousands of scenes, switching from language to language he never slipped. A performance that was half as good as it might be was not good enough. Only the best would do. He was the consummate professional, generous of spirit, and a tower of strength. I have been lucky to work with him and will miss the memory of his voice, intelligence, power and character.

Peter Edwards is a television producer and director

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