Men of Character: Robert GillespieSeptember 16, 2022
By Film Historian Andrew Roberts MA PhD FRSA
During the 1970s, the discerning television viewer would relish guest appearances from Robert Gillespie. In the Long Shot episode of The Professionals, he was “Sammy”, the professional cat burglar greeting his arrest with the resigned delivery of Arthur English’s catchphrase ‘Open the cage’. With The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, his Mr. Dent finds refuge from the mundane existence of enforcing air ventilation regulations in Reggie’s commune.
The 70-year career of Robert Gillespie has included directing, writing, and starring in the Thames situation comedy, Keep It In The Family. In addition, he co-scripted the monologue A Consumer’s Guide To Religion for the BBC TV satirical revue, That Was The Week That Was, which aired on the 12th of January 1963. Nearly six decades on, it still is not difficult to appreciate why this proved so controversial that it received over 1,000 complaints and even demands for marches on the Television Centre.
As an actor, one of Mr. Gillespie’s many specialities was portraying long-suffering figures of authority, often in uniform. In the very agreeable 1969 ‘Swinging London’ comedy Otley, his PC stands by the black Wolseley as he regards ‘Kings Road Swingers’ Robin Askwith and Kenneth Cranham with the air of one coming to the end of a long shift. The template for these roles was in Hugh and I Spy, a 1968 vehicle for Terry Scott and Hugh Lloyd in which the duo become involved in espionage when travelling aboard.
To quote Mr. Gillespie’s autobiography (more of which anon), ‘The episode I was called in for happened in “Morocco” and I was there because I could do a French accent. I was asked to read for the part of a police sergeant: he was dry, downbeat, behind a desk, long-suffering, and patient with idiots’. Five years later, his deadpan British police sergeant is obliged to listen to Bob and Terry’s latest tale of woe in Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads – Storm in a Tea Chest. The Gillespie delivery of the line ‘What function might that usefully perform sir?’ regarding a lost “glow in the dark” toy rabbit, is one of the highlights of the entire series.
Mr. Gillespie told me, ‘That was my main job in those situation comedy roles. The hero would launch into this long-winded exploitation, and my character would regard them with a sense of resignation’. A peaked cap often emphasised his lugubrious expression, as seen when playing a Gas Board Meter Reader confronting Rigsby in Rising Damp (regarding his bill). Such figures could also work in hospitality, in 1977’s Galton and Simpson Comedy Playhouse: Naught for Thy Comfort, his barman greets Roy Kinnear with a weary lack of hospitality.
Robert Gillespie was born in Lille on the 9th of November 1933, the son of a Canadian father and a Hungarian mother. In 1940, the family escaped to the UK, and Gillespie attended Sale Grammar School, where he decided to embark on an acting career. In 1951, he enrolled in the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, returning to teach in later years. Mr. Gillespie is not entirely laudatory about the standard of training, ‘during my time there, RADA had far too many students. I remember that during my final year, there were 90 actors and only 45 parts in the Public Show’.
It was also so often the case that in the early 1950s, theatrical and cinema managements considered that all male stars had to resemble Anthony Steel. ‘At that time, there appeared to be a belief that anyone under a certain height was unlikely to play romantic leads, so during my first year, they tried to persuade me to move into stage management. When I played sitcom policemen in the 1970s, my height did not matter, and, often, I was sat behind a desk!’
But one of Mr. Gillespie’s abiding memories of that period is him seeing Donald Wolfit at the Old Vic. ‘The sheer power of his performances is something I have never forgotten, and of course, his acting style was directly linked to the Victorian School of Performance. As a young actor, I experienced the beginnings of new forms of drama and the traditions of the previous century with that declamatory form of delivery’.
Post-RADA, Mr Gillespie spent two years at the Old Vic, and in 1956 he appeared at the famed The Theatre Workshop. A review of Joan Littlewood’s revival of An Italian Straw Hat notes, ‘The wedding party is led by Robert Gillespie, a delightful provincial father-in-law’. As was virtually inevitable for a young actor of that era, his early career also encompassed provincial repertory theatre, in which the cast would learn a play in two, and, more often, one week. The Worthing Herald of the 16th of May 1958, announced that Gillespie was to depict the murder suspect of Hand in Glove at the Connaught Theatre, the producer remarked ‘that remarkable character actor Robert Gillespie, brilliant product of the Old Vic and Theatre Workshop’.
Some actors retrospectively saw “rep” as a vital training ground for young thespians, while others have more jaundiced views. Mr. Gillespie’s memories of his time at the Ipswich Theatre tend towards the latter school, regarding the productions as an endurance test for audiences: ‘You would have actors aged in the 20s attempting to play 70-year-old retired Colonels in Agatha Christie dramas. So, there are some very good reasons for rep. theatre’s eventual collapse, frequently it was not very good”.
Mr. Gillespie’s television career began with a small part in a comedy starring the American husband & wife comedy duo Ben Lyons and Bebe Daniels. His first significant role was Matthew in the BBC’s Jesus of Nazareth. The Corporation did tele-record the series, so there is hope that a copy may survive. His film debut came in 1958, playing a German soldier in the Norman Wisdom vehicle Square Peg, although Mr. Gillespie’s career focused more on television and theatre. His Mortuary Attendant, viewing Thorley Walters’s inspector with barely veiled contempt, is a highlight of Hammer’s Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed. In his words, ‘they were brilliantly set up to make money. You would go to the studio, don a costume that several other actors had probably worn in many of their earlier works, say your lines, and they would bid you goodbye. Not a minute would be wasted’.
And it is essential to read Mr. Gillespie’s utterly brilliant memoirs to learn more about his career and his work with Richard Burton, Claire Bloom, Sir Michael Hordern, Lord Miles, Diana Dors, and a young Robbie Coltrane. Indeed, anyone interested in the art of acting should own Are You Going To Do That Little Jump? and Are You Going To Do That Little Jump: The Adventure Continues. There are still few books covering the lives of British character actors, and Little Jump is an indispensable part of this canon, with their insights into the performer’s realm. Let one quotation regarding an ill-judged dramatic performance stand for many: ‘To hear someone whine in self pity half the night isn’t enjoyable’.
With Thanks To Robert Gillespie
Order The Professionals: The Complete Series
Order Keep It in the Family: The Complete Series