A Tribute to Leslie Phillips 20th April 1924 – 7th November 2022November 9, 2022
By Film Historian Andrew Roberts MA PhD FRSA
Leslie Phillips occupied a unique position in post-war Britain’s cinematic array of cads, bounders and gadabouts. Dennis Price’s characters often had the air of one disowned by his family. Terry-Thomas’s Captains and Majors looked as though they dreaded an imminent investigation into a black market gin racket in Aden. But a Phillips character was probably the subaltern who regarded himself as the life and soul of the officer’s mess. It was a belief that persisted into civilian life, despite large, bearded gentlemen referring to him as a ‘nincompoop!’ on a regular basis.
Phillips played such roles with an ease, charm and grace that David Niven or Cary Grant might well have admired, for he was certainly their equal as a purveyor of light comedy. Jack Bell’s arrival into the hospital ward in Carry On Nurse remains one of the greatest character entrances of any British film. Similarly, Doctor in Love marks the unforgettable first meeting between Phillips and James Robertson Justice’s Sir Lancelot Spratt.
An equally indelible moment occurs in Doctor in Clover, when Dr. Gaston Grimsdyke visits Carnaby Street in a vain attempt to become “with it”. Phillips’s look of wounded pride on being treated as an OAP in Nicky Henson’s boutique is yet another reminder of how his apparently effortless skills resulted from years of training and experience.
The famous Phillips cut-glass accent resulted from the Italia Conti Academy and a wartime army commission. The actor once reflected ‘the biggest elocution lessons came from mixing with people who sounded right, people in theatrical circles and in the officers’ mess during the war’. He was born Leslie Samuel Phillips in Tottenham on the 20th of April 1924, and as a child actor, appeared in Peter Pan at the London Palladium in 1937. The Stage went on to praise his work as a Lost Boy.
Post-war, Phillips made the difficult transition to adult actor and gained a reputation as a promising West End juvenile lead. In 1953 he achieved great success with For Better, For Worse opposite Geraldine McEwan; his understudy was Nigel Hawthorne. In 1954 he was cast as Lupin Pooter in The Diary of a Nobody; Kenneth Tynan noted in The Observer how Phillips captured the character’s ‘artless brio’.
Phillips made his cinema debut in 1938 with Lassie from Lancashire, while some of his 1940s and early 1950 roles were at odds with his future image. The 1949 Ealing portmanteau drama Train of Events is a rare occurrence of the original Phillips London accent on screen. Ten years later, he was an established film officer and gentleman, with an eye-catching supporting role as a “silly ass” in the Gene Kelly musical Les Girls. Two decades earlier, Phillips might have been an established member of the “Hollywood Raj”, but a US career did not appeal to him. ‘I didn’t want to become the poor man’s David Niven’.
Instead, two low-budget British comedies released in 1959 established Phillips’s abiding screen persona. This was the year of the likeably droll B-film The Man Who Liked Funerals and Carry On Nurse. He would go on to star in Teacher and Constable, as well as three other Peter Rogers/Gerald Thomas productions – No Kidding, Raising the Wind and Please Turn Over – before departing in search of different challenges and more money. ‘I had no intention of being locked into an interminable series with the risk of getting totally typecast around the world’.
The trio of films directed by Ken Annakin and co-starring Justice and Stanley Baxter, offered Phillips a greater showcase for his talents in some of the most enjoyable British comedies of the early 1960s. Very Important Person is an excellent WWII light thriller, while the Phillips/Julie Christie double-act is a highlight of Crooks Anonymous. As for The Fast Lady, it is an utterly perfect ultra-1962 motoring farce.
The 1960s also saw Phillips appear in three Doctor films, berated in each by Sir Lancelot. The temporary return of Dirk Bogarde to the series in 1963’s Distress highlighted the two actor’s vastly different approaches. The former now played comedy with a sense of a waspish contempt, while the latter, unforgettably, was the failed Lothario as an overgrown boy scout.
In 1966 Phillips co-produced the thriller Maroc 7 and played a villain. The film was not a success, but it did serve as a reminder of his gift for portraying snidely unpleasant characters. In the meantime, comedy dominated his career, but by the 1970s, British cinema offered progressively fewer opportunities. Nor was he content to be forever cast as an ageing lounge lizard and, in 1981, decided to spurn ‘lecherous twits with suave chat-up lines and dysfunctional trouser braces’.
The last four decades of Phillip’s life encompassed Chekov, Congreve, Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams on stage, and film work with Steven Spielberg and Anthony Hopkins. In 1999 he told The Guardian of hearing comments such as ‘Oh gosh, Leslie, I saw you in this really serious drama the other night and I was very surprised. And I think to myself, why? I’m an actor’.
Indeed, the performance of Phillips opposite Peter O’Toole in Venus, should have been no surprise, as he was an actor who could save a poor film and enhance a good one. In the midst of a seemingly innocuous black-and-white comedy, that malleable face and eager moustache could express genuine pain. If In the Doghouse is surprisingly moving at times, this is largely due to Phillips investing what might have been a stock part with understated emotion.
Today, many younger film viewers immediately associate the honeyed Phillips tones with Harry Potter. Others may recall hearing the phrase ‘Left hand down a bit!’ on the BBC Light Programme or a 1927 Bentley leading a chase across a golf course. The performances of a great comedy actor can conjure some of the happiest memories of your life. That is why the passing of Leslie Phillips CBE is to be mourned. And it should have been “Sir Leslie”, for his services to the art of comedy.