Alfred Burke

Alfred Burke
Alfred Burke

Alfred Burke was a terrific British character actor, best known for his portrayal of ‘Frank Marker’ in the UK TV series “Public Eye” which ran for ten years from 1965 until 1975.   He was very effective as the trade unionist in “The Angry Silence” in 1960 and featured in ” Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets”.    A prolific stage actor, he acted well into his eighties.   He died in 2011 at the age of 92.

Dennis Barker’s “Guardian” obituary:

For 10 years, the actor Alfred Burke, who has died aged 92, starred as the downbeat private detective Frank Marker in the popular television series Public Eye (1965-75). The character was intended as a British rival to Raymond Chandler’s American gumshoe Philip Marlowe. Tough, unattached and self-sufficient, Marker could take a beating in the service of his often wealthy clients without quitting. “Marker wasn’t exciting, he wasn’t rich,” Burke said. “He could be defined in negatives.”

An ABC TV press release introduced the character as a “thin, shabby, middle-aged man with a slightly grim sense of humour and an aura of cynical incorruptibility. His office is a dingy south London attic within sound of Clapham Junction. He can’t afford a secretary, much less an assistant, and when he needs a car, he hires a runabout from the local garage.”

Tall, sharp-featured, saturnine and with an incisive voice, Burke was perfectly cast as Marker. He thought up the character’s name himself – originally the detective was to be called Frank Marvin. In 1972 the role brought him a Bafta nomination for best actor. The following year, Marker was voted the most compulsive male character in a TV Times poll.

Burke – who was always known as Alfie – was born in Peckham, south-east London, to Irish parents. His father, William, worked in a fur warehouse. He left school in 1933 to take a job as an office boy with a firm that specialised in repairing railway wagons. Soon afterwards he became a steward in a City club for businessmen, but left after an uncharacteristic dispute with a barmaid which ended with her squirting a soda siphon in his face.

He dared not tell his parents that he was out of work, so he ran away to Brighton, returning to London to take a job in a silk warehouse in Cheapside. He began to perform with a local amateur dramatic group run by a headteacher who persuaded him to apply for a London county council scholarship to Rada. Before the principal, Sir Kenneth Barnes, and his colleagues, Burke declaimed, “Is this a dagger I see before me?”, read a Tennyson poem and played two parts from The Last of Mrs Cheyney. He took up his place at Rada in 1937.

Two years later he appeared on stage professionally for the first time, in The Universal Legacy at the Barn theatre in Shere, Surrey. The second world war then intervened. Burke registered as a conscientious objector, and was directed to work on the land. After the war, he went back to theatre work at Farnham, Surrey, where he met Barbara Bonelle, a stage manager, who became his wife.

Burke then did a series of tours with the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (which became the Arts Council). The tours were aimed at bringing culture to “the people” – in his case, in the Welsh valleys and the Lake District.

In the late 1940s, he joined the Young Vic company and went on to spend time in Manchester at the Library theatre, at the Nottingham Playhouse and in London, appearing in Pablo Picasso’s play Desire Caught By the Tail at the Watergate theatre. He was at Birmingham Rep for the three parts of Henry VI, which transferred to the Old Vic in London in 1953.

By the late 1950s, Burke had established himself as a serious stage actor and a useful character actor in films including the war movies Bitter Victory (1957) and No Time to Die (1958). He played the industrial agitator Travers in The Angry Silence (1960), in which a worker (Richard Attenborough) is shunned by his colleagues for refusing to take part in a strike. In 1964 he appeared in the science-fiction movie Children of the Damned, a sequel to Village of the Damned.

On TV, he took roles in episodes of The Saint, The Avengers and Z Cars, as well as several editions of ITV’s Play of the Week. In 1964 his own script, Where Are They Now?, written under the pen name of Frank Hanna, was produced as a Play of the Week. The following year, he slid into the arms of a welcoming public as Marker. In between starring in seven series of Public Eye, he had leading roles at the Leeds Playhouse in Luigi Pirandello’s Henry IV, in 1970, and in Pictures in a Bath of Acid, as the writer August Strindberg, in 1971.

Burke enhanced his TV popularity with parts including the father in The Brontës of Haworth (1973), Long John Silver in Treasure Island (1977) and Major Richter, a German commandant in occupied Guernsey, in the series Enemy at the Door (1978). He portrayed Richter as essentially decent, despite the dire obligations of war.

After a recurring role in the series Sophia and Constance (1988), based on Arnold Bennett’s novel The Old Wives’ Tale, he continued to take small TV parts throughout his 70s and 80s. He had his highest-profile role for years when he appeared – albeit briefly – as Armando Dippet, the former Hogwarts headteacher, in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002).

He and Barbara had two sets of twins – Jacob and Harriet, and Kelly and Louisa – and they remained on good terms. He spent the last 25 years with Hedi Argent. They all survive him, along with 11 grandchildren.



Michael Coveney writes: As he grew older, Burke’s stage voice became even huskier and more distinctive. Along with his natural authority and imposing presence, this served him well over many seasons with the Royal Shakespeare Company from the 1980s into the new century, both at Stratford-upon-Avon and in their new London home in the Barbican Centre.

As Duncan in the RSC’s Macbeth (1986) and Egeus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1994), he summoned a powerful sense of another age and morality. He played the best ever Gonzalo in Nicholas Hytner’s The Tempest (1988); a fine Lepidus in John Caird’s Antony and Cleopatra (1992); a wonderfully frail but deserving old Adam in As You Like It, directed by David Thacker (1992); and a not-to-be-messed-with Escalus in Michael Boyd’s Romeo and Juliet (2000). In Steven Pimlott’s 2000 production of Richard II, he delivered John of Gaunt’s “sceptred isle” speech with more retrospective anger than sing-song melancholy.

Burke continued to return to the stage in the new century, appearing in his 90th year at the National theatre as the Shepherd in Frank McGuinness’s version of Oedipus.

The most interesting of his later stage performances, however, were perhaps his two roles in John Barton’ s 1994 Peer Gynt, translated by Christopher Fry. He played both Solveig’s father and the Button Moulder. Barton had unearthed a previously unperformed scene in which the stern and implacable father promised his daughter’s hand in marriage, as long as Peer atoned for all his sins. This gave Burke’s appearance in the fifth act as the Button Moulder, who comes to collect Peer’s soul, an unusual and surprising resonance.


• Alfred Burke, actor, born 28 February 1918; died 16 February 2011


His Guardian obituary can be found here:


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