Sydney Tafler could create an instantly recognisable figure, within a few minutes of screen time. There is a sublime moment in The Lavender Hill Mob when a look of horror crosses the face of Clayton the junk stall proprietor after learning how he has inadvertently marked down object d’art. The actor’s son Jonathan recalls ‘When I was walking with my father as a child, people often called out “Hello Syd!” – they took him as one of their own’. Countless filmgoers knew or thought they knew, just such a card in their local saloon bar or dance hall. In 1955 the film critic of The Tatler referred to Tafler’s gown-shop proprietor in A Kid for Two Farthings as a ‘gem’ – a description that applies to so many of his performances.
Tafler’s cinematic breakthrough came in 1947 when Robert Hamer cast him as Morry Hyams, in the Ealing film noir It Always Rains on Sunday. The record shop owner and part-time bandleader, (“The Man with Sax Appeal”) with his line of patented patter and wonderfully tasteless double-breasted suit, was an early example of how Tafler could breathe life into a character that would have been a stereotype in the hands of a lesser talent. His various cinematic spivs, wide-boys and gangsters were just one facet of a classically trained actor of immense versatility.
Sydney Tafler was born in London in 1916, and after studying at RADA, he joined the York Repertory theatre. Jonathan says ‘my father was there for quite a long time, and he became a local star, playing the major roles’. He subsequently joined the BBC Radio Drama Company – ‘which represented a major triumph as he was told at RADA that his diction was not suited to broadcasting’. Indeed, a critic from The Guardian wrote that Tafler ‘always strikes one as among the most skilful of radio actors’.
In 1944 Tafler married the actress Joy Shelton and was soon asked to join the Old Vic Company led by Laurence Oliver through recently liberated Europe. However, he had just filmed the MOI short Information Please, and wasn’t sure about the offer; he wrote to his wife on the 12th July 1944 – ‘I just can’t work up any enthusiasm about it. I think it’s this picture business. It fascinates me. I’d like to do a lot more and learn about it. Still perhaps in time’.
Jonathan reflects that ‘my father was not going to be seduced by cinema, and he continued to work in theatre, but he was ready to branch out into films’. The impact of It Always Rains on Sunday was such that, as Tafler reflected in 1971, ‘when I was offered work, it was all second feature films. I became a second rate, poor man’s film star, a cut-down Cagney’. Just as it was unwise for the square-jawed hero to approach any bank manager played by Raymond Huntley for a loan or to enter any nightclub run by Martin Benson, it was never a good idea to purchase a used Ford V8 Pilot from Sydney Tafler.
During this period, the names of his characters ranged from “Sid Bigg” to (my favourite) “Mr. Rockbottom”. Their domain was an urban landscape of Blitzed terraces, sharp-suited gangsters, and hoodlums engaging in a final shoot out in a railway goods yard. Sometimes they happened to be at the right place at the right time when several boxes of kippers fell from the back of a lorry, or on occasion, run a semi-legitimate snooker parlour or night club but all the while they were anticipating the sound of a police Wolseley’s bell.
Tafler noted in later life ‘I sometimes took the same mac and prop gun’ for his many low budget pictures in which he was usually ‘extremely dead by the fade-out of each film’, but such figures were never homogenous and always believable. Antonio Riccardi, the eponymous Assassin for Hire, was a very human and conflicted anti-hero and in The Counterfeit Plan, Tafler is one of several low-lifes, including Lee Patterson and his amazing hair, associated with Zachary Scott’s master criminal. The actor’s voice was also unmistakable, be it loud and brash, or confidently mellifluous – and it was a far cry from the “Anthony Newley meets Dick Van Dyke” impersonators who currently populate EastEnders. Jonathan remarks on how filmgoers responded to his father’s ‘authenticity’, and from a modern perspective, his tones are redolent of a now impossibly remote London.
Comedy was another facet of Tafler’s career; when Terry-Thomas’s solicitor in Too Many Crooks was revealed to be none other than Sydney, the audience instantly knew that the case for the defence would not go awfully well. In the 1965 Children Film Foundation production Runaway Railway, his double act with Ronnie Barker is especially treasurable, and the scene of a strip club manager confronted by Charles Hawtrey to their mutual bemusement even managed to salvage part of Carry On Regardless. ‘My Dad wanted to be taken seriously as an actor, and he never trumpeted his solitary appearance in a Carry On’. The actor also appeared in the strange but not unlikeable Peter Rogers-Gerald Thomas comedy-drama No Kidding. Jonathan remembers as one of the few times his parents portrayed a couple on screen.
The most compelling evidence of how Sydney Tafler could save films that could be fairly described as “Worst of British”, look no further than the 1956 masterpiece that is Fire Maidens from Outer Space. The story so far – various depressed looking actors blast off in a rocket (with an engine note reminiscent of a Morris Minor) on a mission to the 13th moon of Jupiter, which has a quite remarkable resemblance to Chobham. The population mainly consisted of Roedean accented maidens who spend most of their time wearing nightdresses and engaging in really bad dancing.
Such pictures were unworthy of a talent who flourished in Chekov – ‘he was so proud of his Shamrayef in The Seagull’ – and who was too often placed in a casting “box” by British and television. Mystery Junction is a reminder of Tafler’s ability to portray witty, deadpan heroes and Jonathan cites many of the productions his father made with Lewis Gilbert, as heights of his film career – ‘I love Carve Her Name with Pride and Reach for the Sky’. Tafler’s physiotherapist teaching the airman how to walk on his artificial legs with gentle determination is a highlight of the biopic. Jonathan also cites another Gilbert picture – ‘I think one of his best roles was the old serviceman in Light Up the Sky; the sense when Ted Green receives a letter telling him his son has been killed is very moving’.
The actor’s sister Hylda was married to Gilbert, and she said to Jonathan more than once that ‘He had chances to go to America, but he loved his family too much and always wanted to get home. If he had been willing to go, there he could have been much more successful’. Tafler could well have played the sort of roles associated with Walter Matthau – just think of him in Charade or The Odd Couple – but, as Jonathan says, ‘he loved his family and family life was important’. He was aware of his father’s career from a very young age – ‘. If he was playing a part, we knew about it. If the phone went and it was his agent, one knew that was the most important call from the age of four. I would often hear him through his lines. I remember going through The Birthday Party with him a lot if we were in the car together’. One off-duty pastime was attending the races in the company of his great friend Wilfred Hyde-White.
Sydney Tafler died in 1979, not long after filming a cameo as the captain of the Liparus in The Spy Who Loved Me. Much of his TV work is now, alas “Missing, Believed Wiped” but one hopes a tape of performance as an 80-year violist in the 1971 BBC play Farewell Performance will one day surface. And there are so many film performances to appreciate including Wide Boy from 1952 and William Friedkin’s 1968 adaptation of The Birthday Party.
Ken Hughes directed the former, and he created, on a budget of just £7,000, a vivid evocation of a penny pinched and cheap existence. With such a title, it was a racing certainty that Tafler would play the title role, but Benny Mercer is a very real figure who dreams of a life beyond 20/- per week lodging houses. One witness may describe the ambitious spiv as ‘a real Charing Cross Road boy. Talks rather smooth’ – but Mercer dreams escaping into a world of camel hair overcoats and “American Cocktail Bars”, even if it is via blackmail and extortion. But Benny has overlooked the fact that he is just a minor player in the underworld, one to be tolerated, and once he descends into using firearms, he is hopelessly out of his depth.
And the latter film is a priceless opportunity to see the figure described by Harold Pinter in a signed Methuen edition of the play as ‘the Goldberg of Goldbergs’. His unctuous charm initially resembles a Hatton Garden gem dealer but in the words of Roger Ebert ‘He’s evil, slippery, cruel beneath a balmy charm, he switches on like a light’. Tafler described the character’s manner as ‘stage-Jewish”, and in the final moments, he may dispense with the pseudo-Petticoat Lane mannerisms. ’Why don’t you come with us’ he softly intones, focusing his basilisk gaze on the terrified Petey (Moultrie Kelsall). It is a role far removed from the bomb-site trader selling “American nylons” – but then, almost all of Sydney Tafler’s performances embodied Robert Duvall’s definition of real character acting; ‘to show different sides of human experience.’
With thanks to – Jonathan Tafler
Film Historian Andrew Roberts MA PhD FRSA