Alfie Bass

Alfie Bass

Alfie Bass Remembered by Brian Slade

While the Broadway smash Fiddler on the Roof was transferring theatres during its record-breaking run in 1967, a version was arriving at Her Majesty’s Theatre in the West End. With Topol in the leading role of Tevye, the show was another runaway hit, and its star went on to wider fame with the movie version and a host of other revivals. However, the man who replaced him in the UK stage version was actually in the running as the original choice, a likeable star of stage and screen who achieved great success on television, even making life uncomfortable for Captain Peacock in Are You Being Served? – Alfie Bass.

Abraham Basalinsky was born in the East End of London in 1916, 1920 or 1921 depending on which reports are to be believed! It’s unsurprising that there are differing accounts of his arrival, given that he was one of 10 children to Jewish parents who had fled persecution in Russia.

Alfie Bass

After his schooling, Bass began following in his father’s footsteps making cabinets, but he enjoyed local amateur dramatics before appearing in 1939 as Izzie in Plant in the Sun, his first professional production. When war came, Alfie wasn’t accepted for the RAF, so it was factory work for him during the early war years, continuing at the Unity Theatre in King’s Cross, where he had made his debut. His contribution to the war effort moved on to becoming a despatch rider and utilising his entertainment skills in Army documentary films and performing in concert parties.

In the decade after the war Alfie continued to get a solid living from movie work, but the small screen would grant him lasting fame when The Army Game came calling. Credited as being one of, if not the first sitcom that ITV produced, Alfie played Private Montague ‘Excused Boots’ Bisley. The show was aired when conscription was still in play and told the story of some reluctant privates and their hierarchy. Bass became one of the most popular participants, and when Bernard Bresslaw left after the first series, he and Bill Fraser as Sergeant Major Claude Snudge became the runaway successes, spun off into their own series of Bootsie and Snudge.

Alfie Bass

The Army Game is another show that suffered from the loss of so many episodes, ITV having churned them out at remarkable pace. It made stars of Bresslaw, Charles Hawtrey, Bass and Fraser, as well as creating catchphrases – ‘I only arsked’, Bresslaw’s frequent utterance that created a movie spin-off of the same name, and ‘Never mind, eh’ for Alfie Bass’s Bootsie.

Bootsie and Snudge was equally popular, producing more than 100 episodes across three series in the 1960s and then a one series revival in 1974 in which the hierarchy has reversed after Bootsie wins the pools.

Alfie Bass

Between those two shows, Alfie was auditioning for the role of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, but a clash meant that he was unable to accept it. Auditioning that same day was a young man of limited English flown in from Israel – Topol. And the rest, as they say, is history. Alfie would finally get the starring role, taking over when Topol left the following year and also achieving rave reviews.

Alfie would remain a regular fixture on television. He was one of Alf Garnett’s pals, Bert Reed, in a significant number of episodes of Till Death Us Do Part, and could regularly be seen offering support to comedians of the day, including Dick Emery and The Goodies.

Alfie Bass

In 1979, television producer David Croft, who was an expert at casting, was still trying to find a permanent replacement for the much-loved Arthur Brough in Are You Being Served? after Brough’s death in 1978. Initially he had used James Hayter as Mr Tebbs, but since he was the recognisable voice of Mr Kipling cake adverts, he was requested to be exclusively used in the commercials. For the next series, Croft brought in Mr Goldberg and employed the trusted hands of Alfie. It should have been a success, but such was the schedule of the programme, only his introductory episode, when Goldberg appears to know the truth about Captain Peacock’s limited military background, was written specifically for him. The remainder of the series used stories and lines written with his predecessor in mind, missing the opportunity for some intriguing battles.

Alfie Bass

Alfie Bass died in 1987 from a heart attack. Although not having performed much in later years, he was fondly remembered for his television contributions in particular. His friendly facial features, not unlike the equally amiable Harpo Marx, gave off a warmth that was reflected by his standing in the business. Not afraid to take a stand for causes he believed in, he was nonetheless a well-loved actor and a stalwart among television’s unsung heroes.

Published on May 24th, 2024. Written by Brian Slade for Television Heaven.

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