Brittish Actors

Collection of Classic Brittish Actors

John Shrapnel
John Shrapnel

John Shrapnel. Obituary in “The Guardian” in 2020

Richly variegated and utterly plausible, with a distinctively weak “r”, the voice of the actor John Shrapnel, who has died aged 77 after suffering from cancer, was instantly recognisable on stage or screen over the past 50 years. He was therefore much in demand for voiceover work on documentaries or television adverts. He always sounded warm and urgent.

But his glory was on the stage, often with the Royal Shakespeare Company or the National Theatre, for whom he played leading and prominent supporting roles from 1968 onwards, including a clutch with Laurence Olivier’s NT company at the Old Vic – Banquo in Macbeth, Pentheus in the Bacchae and Orsino in Twelfth Night – between 1972 and 1975.

His NT debut came as Charles Surface in Jonathan Miller’s remarkable, grimily realistic 1972 production of The School for Scandal. He worked well and often with Miller: as a notable, sweating Andrey in Chekhov’s Three Sisters at the Cambridge theatre in 1976; and in Miller’s BBC television Shakespeare series of the 1980s, when he played Alcibiades opposite Jonathan Pryce’s Timon of Athens, Hector in Troilus and Cressida and Kent to Sir Michael Hordern’s gloriously distracted King Lear, saddled with the equally senescent Fool of Frank Middlemass.

Shrapnel was always interesting in these “solid” roles because he played them with such force and intelligence. He oozed gravitas and could make dullness seem virtuous, as he did with Tesman in a 1977 Hedda Gabler with Janet Suzman at the Duke of York’s theatre in 1977, or, late on, as a tremendous Duncan in the Kenneth Branagh Macbeth for the 2013 Manchester international festival.

Unusually, he was marvellous as both Brutus (Riverside Studios, 1980) and Julius Caesar (for Deborah Warner, at the Barbican, 2005) in the same play. And he made a final indelible impression as an archbishop in the 2017 televised version of Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III, starring his friend Tim Pigott-Smith in his last TV appearance, too.

Shrapnel was born in Birmingham, the elder son of the Guardian’s parliamentary correspondent Norman Shrapnel and his wife Myfanwy (nee Edwards). One of his ancestors, Lt Gen Henry Shrapnel, invented the exploding cannonball and gave his name to the

Manchester, and, when the family moved south, the City of London school, where he played Hamlet.

He took a degree at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, and made a professional debut as Claudio in Much Ado Nothing at the new Nottingham Playhouse in 1965.

His major film debut was in Franklin J Schaffner’s Nicholas and Alexandra (1971) starring Suzman and Michael Jayston, and he scored a string of big successes on television as the Earl of Sussex in Elizabeth R (1971) with Glenda Jackson – he would be Lord Howard to Cate Blanchett’s Gloriana in Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth: The Golden Age in 2007 – as Sir Percival Glyde in The Woman in White (1982) with Diana Quick and Ian Richardson, and as Semper in Tony Palmer’s Wagner (1983) alongside Richard Burton in the title role and the great German actor Ekkehard Schall as Franz Liszt.

An intensity of presence on the stage, as well as a forbidding authority, made him a natural Claudius in Hamlet, but he added something else in Miller’s production of that play (with Anton Lesser) at the Donmar in 1982: a moving and almost sympathetic study of a man seriously under-endowed with imagination.

This ability to convey psychological layers in powerful figures served Shrapnel well both in John Barton’s 10-play epic, The Greeks, at the Aldwych in 1980, when he doubled a laconically wry Agamemnon with an imperious Apollo; and, especially, as the monstrously unflinching King Creon in Sophocles’ Oedipal Theban trilogy, a role he played twice – first, in Don Taylor’s BBC television adaptation in 1986 (Juliet Stevenson as Antigone, John Gielgud as Tiresias), and then for the RSC in Timberlake Wertenbaker’s version directed by Adrian Noble in 1992.

In the second of these his purple-suited tyrant, with a face of granite and a voice of liquid gravel, became strangely battered and susceptible to emotional pleading. Creon does not cave in, and nor did Shrapnel, but he always found colour and humanity in his inhumanity.

He played a jovial Samuel Pepys in Palmer’s television film England, My England (1995), written by Charles Wood and John Osborne, and starring an unlikely duo of Michael Ball as Henry Purcell and Simon Callow as King Charles II; a non-speaking, dog-hunting taxidermist in the 101 Dalmatians film (1996) starring Glenn Close as Cruella De Vil; Julia Roberts’s British press agent in Roger Michell’s Notting Hill (1999); and another Greek worthy, old Nestor, in Wolfgang Petersen’s all-action, highly enjoyable Troy (2004) starring Brad Pitt as Achilles.

He was a Russian admiral in K-19: The Widowmaker (2001), Kathryn Bigelow’s gripping movie, with Harrison Ford, about the Russian nuclear submarine malfunction.

One of Shrapnel’s sons, Lex, also appeared in that film, but their blood relationship was more fruitfully and indeed movingly mined in a 2015 Young Vic revival of Caryl Churchill’s A Number, a poignant, poetic piece about cloning and parenting in which John played Salter, the crazy scientist meddling with genetic material, and Lex his son Bernard.

Later in the same year Shrapnel rejoined Branagh in his season at the Garrick, playing a powerful Camillo in The Winter’s Tale and a mutinous old actor laddie in Terence Rattigan’s Harlequinade. He was the sort of actor any manager or producer wanted in his company; first name on the team sheet.

Outside his work, Shrapnel loved mountaineering, skiing and music. 

He is survived by his wife, Francesca Bartley, a landscape designer (and a daughter of Deborah Kerr), whom he married in 1975, by their three sons, Joe, Lex and Thomas – and by his younger brother, Hugh.

Phoebe Nichols
Phoebe Nichols

Phoebe Nichols (Wikipedia)

Phoebe Nichols was born in 1957) & is an English film, television, and stage actress. She is known for her roles as Cordelia Flyte in Brideshead Revisited and as the mother of John Merrick in The Elephant Man.

Nicholls is the daughter of actors Anthony Nicholls and Faith Kent. She trained at the Central School of Speech and Drama. Nicholls married director Charles Sturridge on 6 July 1985;  they have two sons, including actor Tom Sturridge, and a daughter. Her grandfather is photojournalist Horace Nicholls.

As a child actress in several films she was billed as Sarah Nicholls.  In her early 20s, she appeared in David Lynch‘s The Elephant ManMichael Palin‘s The Missionary and as Cordelia Flyte in Brideshead Revisited. Since then, she has worked almost exclusively in television and theatre. Debuting in Michael Lindsay-Hogg‘s original staging of Whose Life Is It Anyway? in 1978, she went on to perform in Robert Strura’s revival of Three Sisters with Vanessa RedgraveStephen Daldry‘s acclaimed National Theatre version of J.B. Priestley‘s An Inspector Calls and in the Olivier Award-winning productions of Pravda, with The Elephant Man co-star Sir Anthony Hopkins and Terry Johnson‘s Hysteria. Her supporting performances in the 2008 West End revivals of Noël Coward‘s The Vortex and Harley Granville Barker‘s Waste earned her the 2009 Clarence Derwent Award from Equity. She also played the conniving art critic Rivera in the Royal National Theatre production of the Howard Barker drama, Scenes from an Execution.

She appeared in the 1995 BBC film Persuasion, an adaptation of Jane Austen‘s novel. She has made guest appearances on several television mystery series, including Kavanagh QCPrime SuspectMidsomer MurdersLewisThe Ruth Rendell Mysteries (“May and June”, 1997), Foyle’s WarSecond Sight starring Clive Owen, and the 2012 Christmas episode of Downton Abbey, a role she reprised for the 2014 season. She has also appeared in several works directed by her husband, Charles Sturridge, including his 1995 television adaptation of Gulliver’s Travels, where she portrayed the Liliputian Empress, the 1997 film Fairy Tale: A True Story and Shackleton in 2002.

Aisling O’Sullivan
Aisling O’Sullivan

Aisling O’Sullivan (Wikipedia)

Aisling O’Sullivan was born in 1968 in Tralee, Co Kerry.

O’Sullivan attended the Gaiety School of Acting in Dublin and joined the Abbey Theatre in 1991.

She garnered major acclaim for her performance as Widow Quin in Druid Theatre Company‘s 2004 production of The Playboy of the Western World, which toured throughout Ireland including her native Kerry, and also starred Cillian Murphy and Anne-Marie Duff

In 2011 and 2012, she toured Ireland again with Druid, playing the titular character in Big Maggie by John B. Keane and was consequently nominated for Best Actress in the Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards.

At the National Theatre she played in LiolàMutabilitie, and The Cripple of Inishmaan.

She played the role of Aileen Beck in the “Best Boys” episode of the 1995 TV series Cracker.

O’Sullivan had a small part in Michael Collins (1996).

She appeared in another Neil Jordan film, The Butcher Boy (1997) as Francie’s mentally unstable mother.

In a 1998 PBS adaptation of Henry James novel The American, she played the part of Claire De Cintré, opposite Matthew Modine and Diana Rigg.

She played the grieving mother who commits suicide in Six Shooter, playwright Martin McDonagh‘s Oscar-winning short film.[3]

She is familiar to Irish television audiences as Dr. Cathy Costello from Series 1 to Series 5 in the drama series The Clinic, a role for which she has won an Irish Film and Television Awards best actress award in 2008.

She had a leading role in the Channel 4 thriller Shockers (1999). She starred in Seasons 2 through 5 in Raw, an RTÉ drama portraying the lives of a restaurant staff, playing manager Fiona Kelly.

Eric Porter
Eric Porter

Eric Porter obituary in “The Independent” in 1995.

When television producers were casting demons and po-faced characters in the Sixties and Seventies, Eric Porter seemed to be on all their shortlists, becoming a star as Soames Forsyte in The Forsyte Saga in 1967, after more than 20 years in acting.

The role of the brutal lawyer in John Galsworthy’s story of a family of London merchants at the turn of the century catapulted Porter to world- wide fame – and infamy. “They buttonholed me in Detroit, in Malta and on a Spanish beach”, Porter once said. “There was no hiding place. Even in Budapest this large lady with dyed hair came beaming over, placed a plump hand on my chest and said, “Aaaach, Soooames Forsyte”.

Porter was born in London in 1928, the son of a bus conductor. His parents wanted him to qualify as an electrical engineer, so he went to Wimbledon Technical College at the age of 15 and, a year later, started work for the Marconi Telegraph and Wireless Company, solderingjoints. But he had acted in school plays, and was soon trying to get into the theatre.    

Although Porter failed to get a scholarship to RADA, a district schools drama organiser obtained an interview for him with Robert Atkins, director of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre company at Stratford-upon-Avon, which later became the Royal Shakespeare Company. He was signed up, in 1945, aged 17, and made his stage debut carrying a spear, at £3 a week. He then joined Lewis Casson’s theatre company in a revival of Saint Joan, making his London debut in 1946 at the King’s Theatre, Hammersmith (now the Lyric), as Dunois’s page.

After nine months’ National Service as an engine mechanic in the RAF, Porter toured with Sir Donald Wolfit, acted in repertory theatre in Birmingham, Bristol and at the London Old Vic, and appeared in Sir John Gielgud’s Hammersmith season and in the West End.

He made his first Broadway appearance as the Burgomaster in The Visit at the opening of the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre and, back in Britain, played Rosmer in Rosmersholm at the Royal Court Theatre, which won him the London Evening Standard Drama Award as Best Actor in 1959.

Porter’s television career began with The Physicist and he later appeared in The Wars of the Roses (1965), before fame came with the part of the brutal Soames Forsyte, in 1967. The Forsyte Saga, adapted from John Galsworthy’s novel, was an instant hit, featuring Porter as a monster who is incredibly cruel to his first wife, Irene (played by Nyree Dawn Porter), but who became loved by female viewers throughout the world. However, the scene where Soames rapes Irene shocked everyone – including the cast and crew. ”I tugged and pulled at her bodice,” Porter recalled, ”and to everyone’s horror, there was blood all over the place. I had gashed my hand on a brooch she was wearing.”

His role in the 26-part series, screened initially on BBC2 but repeated on BBC1 the following year, and enjoying another two repeat runs, won him Best Actor awards from Bafta and the Guild of Television Producers and Directors. The programme would have become a long-term best-seller for the BBC, but suffered from being the last important television drama series to be made in black and white.

Having made his name, Porter took the title roles in television productions of Cyrano de Bergerac (1968) and Macbeth, appeared in The Winslow Boy, Man and Superman – opposite Maggie Smith – Julius Caesar and Separate Tables. He and Nyree Dawn Porter played man and wife one more time in an episode of Love Story called “Spilt Champagne”. Ten years after The Forsyte Saga made waves, Porter teamed up again with its producer, Donald Wilson, and reprised his viciousness in a BBC adaptation of Anna Karenina, in which he played the dull government official Karenin, who throws his pregnant wife Anna (Nicola Pagett) across the bedroom into a chair.

His subsequent television roles included Neville Chamberlain in Winston Churchill: The Wilderness Years (1981), a po-faced deputy governor in The Crucible, an ageing playwright in A Shilling Life, Moriarty in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Fagin in Oliver Twist. He also played the elderly, silver-haired Russian aristocrat Count Bronowsky in the 1984 blockbuster series The Jewel in the Crown as well as appearing more lightheartedly in The Morecambe and Wise Show. Porter’s last small-screen appearance was as Player in a new production of Dennis Potter’s Message for Posterity. It was completed earlier this year.

Anthony Hayward

Eric Porter was one of those actors often thought to be on the brink of greatness, rather than actually great at any time, writes Peter Cotes.

He was always compelling in whatever he tackled, and could claim at one time to be one of the most versatile players in Britain who seriously made each role he enacted true. Few tricksy tactics were resorted to; the actor was there to serve the play.

In the 1950s, he emerged as an actor to be watched and capable when young of playing middle-aged and even old men without resorting to the heavy make-up, that look and smell of glue, and the obligatory facial greasepaint lining that can look artificial and at times absurd.

Porter enjoyed playing classical roles in the theatre best of all and was unusually happy, in a way that few other actors were, when touring with Sir Donald Wolfit. He found both the Birmingham Rep and Bristol Old Vic much to his liking and the regular audiences attending those playhouses admired this highly dependable actor who was capable of making small roles big without ever stepping out of line and “hogging the limelight”. His Bolingbroke to Paul Scofield’s Richard II in 1952 at the Lyric, Hammersmith, was a case in point – he repeated the character in Henry IV at the Old Vic three years later. Before that time he had done more than his fair share of touring since making his debut in 1945. Seasons with the Travelling Repertory Theatre Company took him to the King’s Theatre, Hammersmith, before he did National Service with the RAF (1946-47).

After stints with the extrovert Wolfit, travelling the “sticks” in the Forties, and the shy introvert Barry Jackson at Birmingham, learning about “attack” from the former and “taste” from the latter, Porter found himself in Hammersmith again playing Jones at a moment’s notice in Galsworthy’s The Silver Box at the Lyric Theatre there. He caught the critical eye and there was no looking back.

Chekhov followed at the Aldwych, in the West End, when he made an arresting Solyoni in The Three Sisters in the early Fifties. He joined Gielgud’s Company in a “season” and I saw him at the Lyric Hammersmith as Bolingbroke,in February 1953, followed by such costume pieces as The Way of the World and Venice Preserv’d, both in the same season, before he returned to play leading roles. He was accorded leading-man status at the Bristol Old Vic, where he made an impressive Becket in Murder in the Cathedral and Father Browne in The Living Room, before returning to the Old Vic, in London, playing featured roles.

Since the 1960s he had been one of the leading players at the RSC, for whom his characters had included an outstanding Antonio in The Duchess of Malfi, a striking Barabas in The Jew of Malta, and such “friendly villains” as Shylock and Macbeth as well as a majestic Lear (on Wolfit lines caught from watching that grand Lear play the role). And a Captain Hook in Peter Pan in the 1970s not only of “Eton and Balliol” but as Barrie’s play demands “of green-light melodrama” also.

After such a succession of hits, Porter was hardly ever away from plum parts in England, and made appearances on Broadwaybefore returning to London for his award-winning Rosmer in 1959. Although now recognised as a star by his fellow actors, he found that the world-wide stardom associated so often with the playing the great parts eluded him, despite a Malvolio of wit and pathos and a Leontes in The Winter’s Tale of depth and poignancy at Stratford.

Porter injected more into the theatre than he ever took out of it considering the parts he so finely portrayed and the dignity he gave to the roles he embellished with his out-of-the- ordinary talent – mostly in the theatre classics which he loved best but also in such “moderns” on television as Separate Tables.

Porter used to say he was “lucky” in his parts and accepted philosophically the fact that many a lesser actor than himself caught the stardom which is often accorded to the ordinary rather than the great.

But who can doubt that Eric Porter had more than a modicum of greatness in his talent?

Eric Porter will always be part of television history for his performance in The Forsyte Saga, in 1967. But his work in films was also more than appreciable, writes Tom Vallance.

Though his cinema work included classic roles familiar from his stage career, he is best remembered for two Hammer films, The Lost Continent (1968) – adapted from Dennis Wheatley’s Uncharted Seas, in which he was top billed as the captain whose tramp steamer wanders into an unknown civilisation – and Peter Sasdy’s Hands of the Ripper (1971), in which he co-starred with Angharad Rees as a doctor using Freudian theories to try to cure the murderous daughter of Jack the Ripper.

His authoritarian demeanour led to his frequent casting as military men or aristocracy in such films as Charlton Heston’s ponderous Antony and Cleopatra (1973 – he was Enobarbus), Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), The Heroes of Telemark (1965) and Nicholas and Alexandra (1971). In Fred Zinnemann’s gripping thriller The Day of the Jackal (1973), Porter is the fanatical head of a secret military organisation who believes General de Gaulle has betrayed France by giving Algeria independence, and hires a professional killer to assassinate him. It was not a large role but a pivotal one to which Porter brought typically chilling conviction.

Eric Porter, actor: born London 8 April 1928; died London 15 May 1995.

Gary Whelan
Gary Whelan

Gary Whelan (born 1953 in Dublin) is an Irish actor who sporadically appeared as detective Terry Rich in EastEnders from the shows interception in February 1985 to May 1987

Gary Whelan

Dublin-born, he moved with his family to London at the age of ten. He is a graduate of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and was also a successful property developer during the 1980s. He is the owner of the public house, the Lion and the Lobster, in Brighton and known for roles in television programmes Michael Collins, Dracula Untold and Beyond the Sea.

Valene Kane
Valence Kane

Valene Kane (Wikipedia)

Valene Kane is best known for playing Rose Stagg, the ex-girlfriend of serial killer Paul Spector, in The Fall on BBC Two and for her role as Lyra Erso in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.  She is also known for her role in the BBC drama Thirteen. She starred as DS Lisa Merchant, described as “superb” by The Radio Times: “The former star of The Fall‘s scenes […] are among the show’s most intriguing, simmering with sexual tension and professional frustration.”

Kane won the BBC Audio Drama Award for Best Supporting Performer for her role in The Stroma Sessions and her film Profile (in which she played a struggling undercover journalist who connects with a Jihadi through Facebook) won the Panorama Audience Award at the 68th Berlin International Film Festival.

She is the daughter of Val Kane “successful Down county Gaelic footballer and coach”and was raised in Newry, County Down. From the age of 15, she was part of the National Youth Theatre, most notably starring in their production of 20 Cigarettes. She left Northern Ireland for London at 18 and trained at the Central School of Speech and Drama.

Kane was cast in The Fading Light by the director Ivan Kavanagh after he spotted her in a short film, July, that was posted on YouTube.  She was chosen partly for her successful experience with improvisation in the short film. 2013 saw her play Rose Stagg in the BBC‘s TV series The Fall, and Dara in the comic Irish thriller Jump. Also in 2013, Kane played the title role in Strindberg‘s Miss Julie at the newly founded Reading Rep.

Other film work Still Early, a short film which premiered at the Galway Film Festival. Kane’s work for the BBC in 2016 includes taking the lead in BBC3 drama Thirteen, the third series of The Fall, and an episode of Murder. Also that year, she played Lyra Erso, the protagonist’s mother, in the film Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

Kane has been seen on stage as Nance, in the Finborough Theatre‘s production of Autumn Fire, The Love in Punchdrunk‘s production The Black Diamond, which sold out “in mere minutes” and Lady Lydia Languish in The Rivals. She also played Girleen in Martin McDonagh‘s The Lonesome West in which one reviewer said “Kane gives Girleen a schoolgirl reality, her confident swagger and challenge covering the only genuine feelings for anyone else that the play possesses”.

Kane’s radio drama work for the BBC includes The Demon Brother and Stroma Sessions for which she won Best Supporting Performer.

In 2018 Valene Kane played journalist Amy Whittaker who investigates the recruitment of young European women by the ISIS in the 2018 thriller film Profile by Timur Bekmambetov. The film takes place entirely on computer screens. It premiered at the 68th Berlin International Film Festival where it won the Panorama Audience Award.

2019 saw Kane in Anne Sewitsky‘s Sonja: The White Swan which premiered at Sundance Film Festival and in BBC TV Movie Counselin which she played the “an alpha female barrister [who] complicates her professional and personal life when she takes on a young client” 

Kane could also be heard on the Monobox Speech Share podcast reading from Marina Carr‘s “Portia Coughlan” 

Lorraine Pilkington
Lorraine Pilkington

Lorraine Pilkington (Wikipedia)

Lorraine Pilkington was born 18 April 1974 & is an Irish actress from Dublin, who is best known for her role as Katrina Finlay from Monarch of the Glen

Born in Dublin, Pilkington grew up in the affluent suburban village of Malahide, and attended Manor House SchoolRaheny.

Trained at the Gaiety School of Acting, Pilkington began her career at the age of 15 when she appeared in The Miracle directed by Neil Jordan. She appeared onstage in the plays The Plough and the Stars and The Iceman Cometh

At age 18 she moved to London where she was given a part in a Miramax film which eventually fell through. After returning to Dublin, Pilkington appeared in films including Human Traffic and My Kingdom, a retelling of King Lear

In 2000, she was cast as Katrina Finlay, a schoolteacher in a Scottish village in the BBC television series Monarch of the Glen. After leaving the show at the beginning of the third season, she appeared in various other television productions such as Rough Diamond and Outnumbered

She married Simon Massey, the director of Monarch of the Glen, in 2001. They have three sons, Milo, Luca and Inigo.

In 2008, she appeared in a short film by Luke Massey Within the Woods, with James Chalmers.

In 2016 she voiced the lead role in a Paramount animation, Capture the Flag.

Jane Griffiths
Jane Griffith

Jane Griffiths (Wikipedia)

Jane Griffiths was born in 1929 and was an English actress who appeared in film and television between 1950 and 1966. She died in 1975.

She played the female lead opposite Gregory Peck in The Million Pound Note (1954), but never appeared in another major film, and spent the rest of her career in B movies. However, the film historians Steve Chibnall and Brian McFarlane praise her “unexpectedly poignant” performance in The Durant Affair, in which she evokes “a convincing air of struggling to contain past sadness”.

Peter Gilmore

Peter Gilmore

Peter Gilmore obituary in “The Guardian” in 2013.

James Onedin, the protagonist of the long-running BBC television series The Onedin Line, gained his splendid name from a sea nymph. After the programme’s creator, Cyril Abraham, had read about mythological figure Ondine, he transposed the “e”, thus making her a man. And what a man: Peter Gilmore, who played Onedin in 91 episodes from 1971 to 1980, had tousled hair, flinty eyes, hollow cheeks, mutton-chop sideburns racing across his cheek, lips pulled severely down, chin thrust indomitably forward to face down the brewing gale. He has died aged 81.

The sea captain did not so much talk as emit salty barks that brooked no demur. In 1972, while filming, Gilmore was buzzed by speedboats from the Royal Naval College. Still in character as Onedin, he yelled irascibly at the tyro sailors: “Taxpayers’ money! Where are your guns? What use would you be if the Russians came?”

Like Horatio Nelson, Francis Drake and to a lesser extent the early 70s prime minister Edward Heath, the very cut of Gilmore’s jib suggested that the British – if only in prime-time costume dramas – still ruled the waves. For many, Gilmore’s name conjures up the stirring Adagio from Khachaturian’s ballet Spartacus that was used on the opening credits. Madly and marvellously, Onedin set up a shipping line with sailing vessels in late-19th century Liverpool at a time when steamships were taking over the seaways.Advertisement

By series two, his business model had seen off the sceptics but his wife, Anne, had died in childbirth. That plot twist was partly explained by the fact that the actor who played her, Anne Stallybrass, had decided to return to the theatre.

To honour his dead wife’s memory, Onedin added a steamship to his fleet called the Anne Onedin and then allowed Kate Nelligan (as a coal-merchant’s eligible daughter) and Caroline Harris (as a 20-something worldly wise widow) to vie for his affections. He spurned both, marrying his daughter’s governess, Letty Gaunt, who died of diphtheria. By the eighth and last series, Onedin was married to a third wife, Margarita Juarez, and had become a grandfather.

Before Howards’ Way, The Onedin Line was the BBC’s nautical franchise: Abraham wrote five novels loosely based on his television scripts, while Gilmore was frequently asked to launch ships and was also bombarded with fan mail and advice from veteran sailors. He parlayed fame into reviving a former career as a singer, releasing in 1974 an album of sailor shanties called Songs of the Sea and in 1977 another called Peter Gilmore Sings Gently.

He regretted that he became too typecast as Onedin to get other lead roles. In 1978 he starred opposite Doug McLure in the film Warlords of Atlantis as an archaeologist searching for the fabled underwater city who ends up battling a giant octopus and other sea monsters.

Gilmore was born in the German city of Leipzig. At the age of six, he moved to Nunthorpe, near Middlesbrough, where he was raised by relatives, later attending the Friends’ school in Great Ayton, north Yorkshire. From the age of 14 he worked in a factory, but later studied at Rada. While undertaking national service in 1950 he discovered a talent for singing and after his discharge joined singing groups who performed all over the country.

During the 1950s and 60s he became a stalwart of British stage musicals, appearing in several largely unsuccessful shows, including one called Hooray for Daisy! in which he was the chief human in a drama about a pantomime cow. He even released a single in 1960 as a spin-off from his performance in the musical Follow That Girl, opposite Susan Hampshire. In 1958 he appeared on the pop programme Cool for Cats, where he met the actor Una Stubbs, then one of the Dougie Squires Dancers, who were weekly tasked with interpreting hit songs in movement. The couple were married from 1958 until 1969.

His success at this time in British and US TV commercials led him to be cast in comedies, with 11 appearances in Carry On films, two of which – Carry On Jack (1963) and Carry On Cleo (1964) – gave him early nautical roles. In 1970 he married Jan Waters, with whom he starred in both stage and television productions of The Beggar’s Opera, he playing the highwayman Captain Macheath.

The Onedin Line brought Gilmore the fame that had eluded him. In 1976, he and Jan divorced and he started living with Stallybrass, whom he married in 1987. In 1984 a new generation of viewers saw Gilmore as Brazen, the security chief of a distant human colony called Frontios in Doctor Who’s 21st series. Brazen died heroically while helping the Doctor escape. Gilmore made his last stage appearance in 1987 in Michael Frayn’s Noises Off and his last screen one in the 1996 television movie On Dangerous Ground.

He is survived by Anne and a son, Jason, from his first marriage.

• Peter Gilmore, actor, born 25 August 1931; died 3 February 2013

• This article was amended on 7 February 2013. The original stated that Follow That Girl was Susan Hampshire’s only foray into musicals. This has been corrected.