British cinema of the 1950s and 1960s was suffused with managerial types, each with their unique set of reactions to the trials caused by their lower orders. Ice would regularly form on the upper slopes of Raymond Huntley while Richard Wattis frequently greeted underlings with pained sarcasm. Brian Outlon would respond to each fresh outrage with a sense of wounded dignity just as Eric Barker reacted to calamity with insecure bluster.
As for Colin Gordon, so many of his school masters and civil servants were barely suppressing their rage at inadequate subordinates, Teddy Boys, recalcitrant students and, of course, Tony Hancock in The Lift. It comes as no surprise to learn that he played Billings, the ever-sardonic maths teacher in the original stage production of The Happiest Days of Your Life. By 1969 he was the lecturer presenting London Weekend Television’s The Complete and Utter History of Britain in a masterclass in the art of the straight-man.
Gordon was also highly adept at portraying benign experts and authority figures, sometimes fizzing with good ideas and other occasions quietly self-assured. His GP in The Holiday episode of Steptoe and Son (1962) recognises but cannot alleviate Harold’s sense of entrapment, while the Monthly Film Bulletin praised his underplaying in The House of Mystery (1961). In Night of the Eagle (1962), there is the faintest inference that his senior lecturer is secretly terrified of the powers commanded by his wife Flora (Margaret Johnson). The actor also had a very nice line in shabby-genteel villainy – ‘Well, unfortunately, I’m in a state of complete financial maladjustment’ his blackmailing “Colonel” muses in the Play to Kill (1959) edition of The Invisible Man.
Some directors employed Gordon’s talent for depicting Machiavellian authority figures, such as the managing director in the critically acclaimed B-film The Big Day (1960), but more often than not, his characters appeared frazzled by circumstance and the illogical behaviours of others. One of Gordon’s most famous roles was as Number Two in The Prisoner but, for this scribe at least, his bellowing of ‘Ha Ha Ha!’ in the opening credits is reminiscent of a housemaster confronted with some inadequate geometry homework. ‘C minus, Number Six – must try harder’. The minor crime drama Seven Keys (1961) made far better use of Gordon, whose “Mr. Barber” positively bristles with umbrage at the very idea of a neighbour daring to make a complaint about his immaculate Hillman Minx.
Colin Gordon was born in 1911 and made his theatrical debut in 1934, shortly after he left Christ Church College; he famously played the hind legs of a horse in Toad of Toad Hall. By 1947 he was alternating stage and screen work, and until his death, on 4th October 1972 Gordon seemed to be rarely off the big or the small screen and in the 1950s he appeared in the radio and television versions of George Cole’s sitcom A Life of Bliss. There was also a certain inevitability that such an assured and versatile performer would eventually grace an ITC epic, and by 1965 Gordon could be seen as “John Alexander Templeton-Green”, the chap from the Ministry in The Baron. It was a series much treasured for its sublime predictability, and many of the thrilling adventures seemed to adopt the following pattern:
Templeton-Green calls on our hero, played by a bemused-looking Steve Forrest.
Our hero wanders off, looking faintly distracted.
Some diverting footage of a Jensen CV8.
Cordelia (Sue Lloyd) is kidnapped.
The villains’ white Jaguar 2.4 Mk.1 meets its doom.
But Gordon was seen to better advantage in three diverse cinema features. In The One That Got Away (1957) his unnamed Army Interrogator is courteously relentless and with The Green Man (1956) the BBC announcer Reginald Willoughby-Cruft issues possibly the ultimate threat to George Cole’s vacuum cleaner salesman – ‘I’d thrash the life out of you if I didn’t have to read the nine ‘o’clock news’.
And the actor’s finest screen work was almost certainly in the 1962 B-feature Strongroom, directed by Vernon Sewell and Gordon’s trapped bank manager is an example of the gems that once awaited viewers of late night television in the 1980s. The sublime Ann Lynn portrays his secretary, and their performances create indelible memories – as well as reminding the audience of that sense of liberation when a great character actor is allowed the opportunity to escape typecasting.
Film Historian Andrew Roberts MA PhD FRSA