Biography by Brian Slade
The world of sitcom can make or break an actor’s career. Some strive their entire lives craving the notoriety that a hit show brings, while others achieve such a success but then struggle to escape type casting and see their career head into decline. For Trevor Bannister, the perfect balance was achieved. For more than 50 years, he shared the stage with theatre’s finest, became one of the most accomplished pantomime dames and starred with Hollywood legends, all the while being in constant demand across hundreds of television shows and radio series. While many will remember him for his seven series of quick-fire battles with Mrs Slocombe as Mr Lucas in hit comedy Are You Being Served?, it’s safe to say that there was a lot more to the immense career of Trevor Bannister.
Born in Durrington, Wiltshire, Trevor was keen to act from a very early age. At just 15 years old he was ready to leave his education at Modern School in Salisbury and pursue his acting dreams. He learned his craft at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts, but of equal opportunity was his first repertory role prior to his formal training, appearing in Arthur Brough’s company in Folkestone. Bannister and Brough maintained a friendship over the years, culminating in them reuniting in the Menswear department of Are You Being Served?, where Brough would delight in mischievous behaviour amongst his fellow actors.
After two years on national service, repertory theatre became the bread and butter for Trevor after leaving LAMDA, with the highlight of his time being in York, the first time he was able establish significant roots in his career. Here he appeared in Anna Christie and developed friendships with a number of faces that would become regulars on British television over the years, most notably Jean Alexander. A small cinematic role in Reach for the Sky in 1956 didn’t lead to a film career, but theatre was Trevor’s first love and so his big break was worth waiting for.
In 1960, Trevor took on the role of Arthur Crabtree in a West End production of Billy Liar. In the lead role of Billy Fisher was Albert Finney, and after a spell in which Tom Courtenay took the role after Finney’s departure, Trevor himself moved up to the role of Fisher. It was the start of a succession of roles throughout the decade as Bannister began to amass a vast CV of roles including parts in The World of Suzie Wong, Ann Veronica and Move Over Mrs Markham.
The 1960s also brought the breakthrough television roles that would run alongside Trevor’s career. Starting small with a minor part in 1960’s The Secret Kingdom, he collected regular work, with his most notable role in the early years being that of Peter Barry in Object Z, a science fiction drama about an object seemingly on a collision course with Earth. It was successful enough for a sequel, Object Z Returns in 1966. His first real starring role however was as Darkie Pilbeam in 1968’s The War of Darkie Pilbeam, a trilogy focussing on a black marketer at various stages of the Second World War.
In 1969, Trevor gained his first comedy success on television. Jack Rosenthal’s creation about a collection of disgruntled refuse collectors, The Dustbinmen, saw Trevor appear as Heavy Breathing, a character with a plentiful desire for the female form. Of the rather lecherous character, whose name was based on his approach to the ladies, Bannister later recalled, ‘I used to be known as a bit of a playboy. It was one of those labels you get when playing a character like Heavy Breathing. But it was nothing like me then and it’s certainly nothing like me now.’ But that style of character stood Trevor in good stead when David Croft started casting for a new sitcom on the BBC.
Jeremy Lloyd had mentioned to Croft that he had written a show based on his experiences at the menswear counter of Simpson’s in Piccadilly. Here he had been a junior assistant and his scripts were entirely focussed on the menswear counter. Trevor Bannister would play the part that Lloyd had based on himself, but as Croft began to realise the comic potential in expanding the scope of the comedy to include the womenswear department and the comedic battles between the two within a large department store, the premise developed into the show we know today. So it was that Are You Being Served? hit the screens in 1972. The majority of the cast had worked together before, and as with most Croft sitcoms, the casting was immaculate. The banter between Trevor and John Inman in their respective roles of Mr Lucas and Mr Humphries, was a huge part of the show’s success, with old friend Arthur Brough giving them a fine foil as grouchy department head, Mr Grainger.
On the other side of the floor, Miss Brahms offered a romantic interest never successfully attained by Mr Lucas, but the show-making role of Mollie Sugden as Mrs Slocombe secured the programme’s place in sitcom history. Between Bannister and Sugden there emerged a rapport that worked to perfection and without which it probably wouldn’t have achieved the cult status that it did - and the pair loved it. As Mrs Slocombe, Mollie was willing to take any number of put-downs or physical situations that the writers threw her way, normally with Mr Lucas as chief protagonist. Often Bannister would return home and remark, ‘she is such a trooper – you’d never guess what they’ve got her to do this week.’
Theatre worked perfectly around filming for Are You Being Served? The cast worked so well together that the filming went like clockwork and rarely over-ran its Sunday evening studio booking. Unfortunately, when plans were made for the eighth series, Trevor was unable to take part. He had been offered a part in a play, Middle Aged Spread, which he desperately wanted to do. With no conflict against his filming commitments, he signed to tour with the play. However, Croft was unable to get the desired studio for the next series on the regular Sunday night, so with a switch to Fridays, Bannister had a choice to make. Surrender the play he wanted to appear in, or wave goodbye to Mr Lucas. Theatre was Trevor’s love and given that Are You Being Served? was only seven weeks of work, he honoured his commitment to the play. Despite the best efforts of Mike Berry, the most ardent Are You Being Served? fans will concede, as indeed did Croft and Lloyd, that the show rather lost its way in those final few series.
While Trevor’s theatrical career went from strength to strength, it wasn’t until 1988 that television audiences would see him back in sitcom world. He played Peter Pitt, a dodgy alarm salesman and another ladies man, in a comedy called Wyatt’s Watchdogs about a somewhat incompetent Neighbourhood Watch coordinator. The show starred Brian Wilde, with whom Bannister had worked on The Dustbinmen, and who had starred in Last of the Summer Wine as Foggy.
Wyatt’s Watchdogs was directed by Alan J.W. Bell, and while it ended after just one series, it did see Trevor strike up a friendship with Bell who would live just a few hundred yards from the Bannister home. So when Bell came calling with a part in Last of the Summer Wine, Trevor was more than happy to accept. Initially an unnamed minor character, he became a regular member of the cast in the show’s final few years, Tony Mulbery-Smith.
In amongst his best-known performances, other television roles were plentiful for Trevor, appearing in countless roles from The Tomorrow People through to Keeping Up Appearances. In addition, the stage work never dried up and he had a relentless work load touring as well as returning to the West End in The Odd Couple, alongside original American stars Jack Klugman and Tony Randall, who would send a video message for Trevor when honoured on This is Your Life.
The final time British audiences saw Trevor Bannister was in an episode of New Tricks in 2011. When a heart attack claimed him at the age of 76, it was a huge loss to television and theatre.
Despite being best known as the highly-charged Mr Lucas, Trevor Bannister’s body of work is extraordinary. He never got held back by Mr Lucas, nor resented the success – indeed he often visited the USA for PBS fundraising events, where Are You Being Served? was an astonishing success and remained popular long after its eventual demise. Once referred to as ‘the epitome of British humbleness when discussing his career accomplishments,’ Trevor off screen was a quick witted, friendly man, described by writer Miles Tredinnick as ‘great company to have a drink with at the end of the day.’ Despite the body of fine acting work, with comedy characters achieved with impeccable comedy timing, there can surely be no better epitaph than that.
Born and raised in Dorset, Brian turned his back on a twenty-five-year career in IT in order to satisfy his writing passions. After success with magazine articles and smaller biographical pieces, he published his first full-length work, `Simon Cadell: The Authorised Biography'.
Brian is a devoted fan of the comedy stars of yesteryear, citing Eric Morecambe, Ken Dodd, Harpo Marx and Dudley Moore amongst his personal favourites. He was drawn to the story of Simon Cadell through not only `Hi-de-hi!' but also `Life Without George', a programme he identified with having grown up in the Thatcher era.
Published on May 3rd, 2020. Written by Brian Slade for Television Heaven.