"His sheepish good looks and natural charm made him a hit with female audiences, while the male viewers could identify with his cheeky chappie approach to life"
Richard Beckinsale biography by Brian Slade
In the late 1970s, Ronnie Barker and Leonard Rossiter were slugging it out at the BAFTAs, with Barker winning the best light entertainment performance category three years in a row at the expense of Rossiter. Between the pair they created some of the most successful comedy characters of the decade, but their rivalry shared a common bond – a co-star they both adored as much as the public, in the form of the late Richard Beckinsale.
Richard Arthur Beckinsale was not born into an acting dynasty. He dabbled in school plays in which he was quite successful, in stark contrast to his academic studies. He left school at 15, but any attempt to enter the profession would be restricted by finances and his age, especially given that he had a distinct lack of being able to hold down a job. His apprenticeship as an upholsterer for the local bus company in Nottingham came to an end when he fell asleep on one of the buses and was discovered a number of miles away. He also failed to hold down a job with the gas board, and then finally working for a steelworks.
Eventually Beckinsale enrolled into drama at Nottingham College before moving onto RADA and like so many other actors, once his training was successfully completed, he threw himself into repertory theatre where he learned his craft and the value of money. It’s something that stayed with him as in an early interview in 1971, he admitted that, ‘When you’re a student you get these fantastic visions and dreams of what you’d like to do and then you realise it’s a job and you have to make a living.’ After a particularly unpleasant experience of playing Hamlet on stage, Beckinsale actually quit acting, but his job at a bottle factory was described by him as, ‘almost as bad as playing Hamlet,’ so thankfully he returned to performing.
By the time of that interview, something he was always uncomfortable with, Richard had made his way onto the small screen. He appeared in Coronation Street in 1969 as Officer Wilcox, taking on the unenviable task of dealing with Ena Sharples, the acid-tongued head of a protest against the demolition of the local pensioners’ social club, eventually being forced to carry her away from her sit-down protestations.
Although no longer on the soap’s writing staff, Jack Rosenthal had been heavily involved in Coronation Street’s early days and it was he who would give the young Beckinsale his first major breakthrough – a role in the 1970 Granada sitcom The Lovers, playing the part of Geoffrey opposite Paula Wilcox. Such was the relaxed nature of Beckinsale, he turned up for his audition in the same oil-covered clothes that he had worn while working on a car earlier that day. It obviously did the trick and the show about a mismatched pair of young lovers lasted two series and a movie, and set young Richard on a path to stardom.
Stage and radio success would follow in countless guises, but he would be elevated to sitcom royalty by his arrival in Slade prison in Ronnie Barker’s Porridge, playing naïve Godber opposite Barker’s Fletcher. The success of the programme and the on-screen chemistry between Barker and Beckinsale sent the programme’s ratings soaring, despite Beckinsale having once claimed that, ‘I won the prize for comedy at RADA, but it’s not been one of my great loves.’
Success in Porridge made Beckinsale one of acting’s hottest properties. His sheepish good looks and natural charm made him a hit with female audiences, while the male viewers could identify with his cheeky chappie approach to life. Still very young to be dealing with such success, he admitted that, ‘I seemed to be forever walking into restaurants and ordering bottles of champagne. I was a real bum. I was only 22, of course. I suppose that phase lasted about six months.’ His popularity wasn’t just down to his performance in Porridge however.
Unusually for that time, Richard was also to be found starring in one of commercial television’s most successful shows of the time as well, Rising Damp. As with Porridge, Beckinsale’s performance as Alan Moore was the perfect antidote to the verbal onslaught and morally questionable lead character, in Rising Damp’s case Leonard Rossiter’s Rigsby. Beckinsale’s calming nature endeared him to the rest of the crew as he brought a more serene side of Rossiter to the fore. Rossiter was known to be somewhat demanding of professionalism, but any stress would ease away when Rossiter and Beckinsale were together. Co-star Don Warrington admitted years later, ‘Len loved him, he thought he was wonderful. Whatever mood Len was in, his mood would improve when Richard came in.’ It was a thought echoed by Fulton Mackay, Mr Mackay in Porridge, who considered Beckinsale to be the most relaxed performer he’d ever known.
The world was opening up for Richard Beckinsale. While appearing with Pat Coombs on radio in Albert and Me, he was rehearsing for his most significant venture into musical theatre, I Love My Wife. Although a man with a passion for music and guitars, being a particular fan of James Taylor and The Beatles, he admitted, ‘I can sing, but could I sing eight times a week?’ Of course, he could…he even found time to write a volume of poetry, and his career looked destined for unstoppable success as he appeared in the Porridge follow-up, Going Straight, followed by a movie version of Porridge and a sitcom for the BBC called Bloomers, in which Richard played a florist employee who moonlights with private gardening jobs for locals.
As a result of a writers strike at the BBC, only five episodes of Bloomers were completed on schedule, with the sixth and final episode not being recorded until March of 1979. When Richard failed to show for rehearsal, alarm bells began to ring. Although Richard had seemed to be in good form at a recent read through, he had privately complained of chest pains. Wife Judy was in hospital for an operation, so when he left from visiting her he went to a neighbour’s home for a party before leaving early. It was the last time he was seen. Despite being a regular squash player and not being a heavy drinker due to having an inflamed stomach lining, Richard Beckinsale suffered a massive heart attack and passed away in March of 1979 at the age of just 31.
Ronnie Barker received a BAFTA in 1979 for his performances in Going Straight and The Two Ronnies – he took no joy due to the loss of his friend. Rossiter, who was on stage when news broke of Beckinsale’s passing, was reported as being too upset to pass comment.
Richard Beckinsale was once said to have looked 18 for 10 years. His fresh face and beaming smile endeared him to audiences and his loss was front page news. Shy at giving interviews and taking centre stage in his personal life, he had a simple ambition to get to a point in life where he no longer had to rely on a car as there were too many on the road. It was typical of the man who Rossiter claimed was ‘one of the most generous people in spirit I have ever met.’ For all his acting success, there can surely be no better epitaph.
Published on March 21st, 2022. Written by Brian Slade for Television Heaven.