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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Peter Bradshaw

Leslie Phillips: master of raffish comedy and immortal catchphrases

‘Well, hell-o’ … Phillips with Shirley Anne Field and James Robertson Justice in Doctor in Clover.
‘Well, hell-o’ … Phillips with Shirley Anne Field and James Robertson Justice in Doctor in Clover. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

Leslie Phillips once said that his memoirs might be called From Bed to Worse, in honour of his raffish characters getting into scrapes because of their philandering ways. Or possibly From Leer to Lear, because of his transition to national treasure and Shakespearean character actor in the 1980s and 90s. (In fact, he played Falstaff for the Royal Shakespeare Company.) But, in the end, there was no dispute about what it should be called: Hello. That was his outrageously lascivious catchphrase pronounced almost as “herl–air–oh”, part of the ladies’ man image in the Doctor movies and two or three of the Carry On films that made his name in the world of British light comedy in the 60s. The image became a bit older and seedier in the TV sitcom Casanova ’73, when he was the womaniser with slightly longer hair and a more dishevelled manner.

Hello” is what he would say on being introduced to a pretty nurse, or any demure young woman who would, by and large, be wryly amused rather than outraged by his flirtiness. Or possibly, “Hello, hello.” The word would sometimes be accessorised by the rather more obviously lecherous, and yet almost innocently ridiculous phrase: “Ding, dong!” And sometimes, as if stupefied by sexual opportunity, he would use the now almost impossibly quaint expression: “Lumme!”

A farcical seducer … Phillips with Joanna Lumley in Don’t Just Lie There, Say Something!
A farcical seducer … Phillips with Joanna Lumley in Don’t Just Lie There, Say Something! Photograph: ITV/Rex Features

Phillips was ften compared to Terry-Thomas, also known for his caddish and predatory roles. And it should also be said that Phillips was probably one of the last actors to sport an old-fashioned roué moustache, like Thomas or Ronald Colman: a thin elegant line that would accentuate the seductive smile. But Phillips’s chaps were by and large not rotters, as with Thomas. In fact, his men sometimes had a kind of benign cluelessness that was closer to an actor like Ian Carmichael.

The poshocracy in the acting profession is a hot-button issue right now, but in Phillips’s heyday it was more entrenched in the rep world of received pronunciation. His career could not have existed without a continuing reverence for well-spoken, theatrically plausible actors who could play stock types from the middle and upper middle classes: ex-army or stockbroker, the blazer-wearing, golf club bar habitué. But though Phillips played posh he was not upper class: elocution lessons had eradicated his London accent and a grounding in rep honed his facility in posh roles.

He got his big break from George Cukor, who cast him in Les Girls (1957) with Gene Kelly, playing the posh Brit fiance of one of the dancers that Kelly seduces. (Notoriously, Cukor said to the fresh-faced young Phillips on his first day on set: “Are you any good? You’re fuckin’ cheap.” Then, as now, Brit actors were well-regarded for their professionalism and the fact that their fees were lower than those demanded by home-grown Americans.) Phillips had a big scene punching Kelly on the nose, but the movie led to a big career back in Blighty, rather than in Hollywood.

Colonial type … on the set of Empire of the Sun with co-star Christian Bale and director Steven Spielberg.
Colonial type … on the set of Empire of the Sun with co-star Christian Bale and director Steven Spielberg. Photograph: Alamy

In the 70s, Phillips continued with the raffish comedy, but shrewdly distanced himself from the Carry Ons, seeing how typecast and marooned their chief players were. He was a farcical seducer in Don’t Just Lie There, Say Something! in 1973, playing opposite Joanna Lumley in her underwear – but Lumley rose above bimbo status in dialogue scenes with Phillips. There was also the groan-worthy sex comedy Not Now, Darling in 1972, and – most grimly of all – the awful Spanish Fly in 1975, in which Phillips could see his co-star Terry-Thomas succumbing to illness.

In the 80s, the industrious and professional Phillips kept working in television and theatre, moving away from the ladykiller roles and into character work, and was in demand as an authentic Brit of the upper-class and expatriate colonial sort: playing Sir Joseph Byrne in Sydney Pollack’s Out of Africa (1985) and Mr Maxton in Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun (1987).

But one of his best roles of that time returned him to the seedy-sexy persona. He was the disreputable Lord Astor in Michael Caton-Jones’s Scandal (1989), about the Profumo affair, playing opposite Ian McKellen as Profumo, John Hurt as Stephen Ward, and Joanne Whalley as Christine Keeler. His Astor is prevailed upon to pay Mandy Rice-Davies’s rent, thus placating her furious landlady, who had caught her trying to run out without paying. Astor clearly expects sex in exchange for paying up. “She’d better be worth it,” he mutters sullenly, and his cynicism and ennui is very well conveyed.

Phillips with Peter O’Toole in Venus.
Bafta-nominated … Phillips with Peter O’Toole in Venus. Photograph: Sportsphoto/Allstar/Miramax

In the 90s, as Phillips entered into his national treasure birthright, the ladmag raunchiness of the age meant that Phillips’s naughty-but-nice seducer roles of 30 years before were always being affectionately celebrated. He announced that he had become irritated with people in the streets always asking him to say “Hello” and “Ding dong”, but accepted his pop-culture status with good grace. In 2006, he received a Bafta nomination as best supporting actor for his role as one of Peter O’Toole’s old actor mates in the drama Venus. He became a much-loved icon, working and staying in the public eye until almost the end.

One tiny footnote: in 1994, I worked with Phillips. It was in the BBC Radio comedy series The Skivers, with Tim De Jongh, Nick Golson, Mel Giedroyc and me. Leslie was the special guest in one episode, in which we asked him – of course – to send up his silly “hello” persona. This he did with a tolerant smile, calling us “daft”.

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