The Richard Beckinsale Story by David Clayton

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The Richard Beckinsale Story by David Clayton

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Category: Biography
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A biography of the actor, one of the stars of 1970s sitcoms Rising Damp and Porridge, whose career was cut tragically short by his early death.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 192 Date: October 2009
Publisher: The History Press
ISBN: 978-0752454405

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A generation probably knows Richard Beckinsale only from repeats on the UK Gold TV channels, and from occasional mentions in the context of 'how great he would have been if only…' In 1978 The Sunday Times Magazine tipped the 30-year-old sitcom favourite as a rising major star of the 80s who would blossom into one of the great all-round stage actors. One year later, he was dead.

Born in 1947 in Nottingham, he was quick to demonstrate a remarkable talent at school for acting at an early age, though there was one point in his teenage years when his love of the folk scene suggested he might try and become a professional musician. However this soon became little more than a hobby. At the start of the 1970s he became a familiar name on the small screen, firstly playing opposite Paula Wilcox in 'The Lovers', then with supporting roles as the young prisoner Lennie Godber in Porridge, and the likeable student layabout Alan Moore in 'Rising Damp'. At the same time he was regularly appearing onstage in the West End.

With hindsight, it seems like he tried to fit too much into his life at one time, but perhaps he had a sixth sense that his time was not long. A little over halfway through this biography, both theories become equally plausible, as it becomes apparent that for his last two years or so he was subconsciously aware of some kind of internal clock ticking. Some friends suspected the onset of a nervous breakdown due to his workload, and only with hindsight did they realize it was more serious than that. Maybe the production team who had him as one of the youngest-ever recipients of the big red book on 'This Is Your Life' knew something.

When telling the story of his last twelve months or so, it becomes ominous – panic attacks, blackouts, over-tiredness, occasional inability to concentrate, bizarre incidents when he smashed one friend's watch for no apparent reason, and struck another in the side of the face - then had no memory of having done so. Another new sitcom, 'Bloomers', was partly completed, when one day he failed to turn up for rehearsals. A shocked nation, to say nothing of a distressed wife in hospital, learned that he had had a massive heart attack in his sleep the night before. Only at the post-mortem did it emerge that he suffered from a congenital heart problem.

Much of the book consists of recollections of Beckinsale at various times of his life and career from family, teachers, writer Eric Chappell, and the likes of fellow actors and actresses Cheryl Hall, George Layton, Richard Briers, and Christopher Timothy (who believed Beckinsale was also on the shortlist for the role of James Herriot in 'All Creatures Great And Small', the part which made him a household name). This is not a criticism, more an observation. It would be unrealistic to expect a blockbuster biography of someone whose life was cut short so abruptly. Perhaps those containing the most insight are those of Ronnie Barker, who played Norman Fletcher in 'Porridge' and who comes across as something of a father figure to the younger man. It seems that Beckinsale's sudden death was the main reason why Barker decided to retire early from showbiz and spend more time with his family.

Clayton's admiration of his subject shines through on every page, though his verdict that 'Porridge' was perhaps the BBC's most successful comedy series ever must be that of a fan rather than an objective TV historian. It is a very good biography of an actor who had enormous potential, and our loss that it was never fully realized.

For more biographies of comedy actors, why not also try Dear John by Joan Le Mesurier, or Bounder!: The Biography of Terry-Thomas by Graham McCann.

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