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Norman Chappell

Porter, Dance with Death
Ted, Dead of Winter
Fleming, The Gilded Cage
Macombie, Dial a Deadly Number
Forbes, Murdersville
Fowler, Fog

by Pete Stampede

One of the veritable army of dependable British supporting actors who never got the faintest sniff at stardom, Norman Chappell's roles in The Avengers were probably among the most eye-catching in his career. Inside and outside the series, his faintly lugubrious looks guaranteed his casting as officious but slightly pompous types; "The Gilded Cage" was a particularly good example. Born in 1929, he was probably most familiar to the general audience from appearances in the Carry On films and related offshoots. The role he played in Carry On Cabby (1963), as an employee in Sid James' taxi firm, had actually, just for once, been turned down by Kenneth Williams; Chappell only got the part after a rewrite assigned the character's best moments to the equally camp Charles Hawtrey. Chappell conspired against Sid's Henry VIII in Carry On Henry (1970), but ended up having his scene deleted from Carry On Loving the same year. Later, he was a regular support in Carry On Laughing (ATV, 1975), a series of made-for-TV escapades, with a different setting each week and most of the team present (but again, not Williams, who described it as "diabolical" in his diaries); this shouldn't be confused with a series of the same name, in the 80's, which merely consisted of re-edited moments from the films themselves. Chappell's other minor film roles were generally in the Carry On vein, e.g. Crooks in Cloisters (1964), a rare starring role for Ronald Fraser, and the soft-core embarrassment Au Pair Girls (1972, along with Gabrielle Drake, Ferdy Mayne and John Le Mesurier).

Researching his TV credits is like delving into a netherworld of British comedy, of never-repeated shows (that's if they exist at all, in the case of the earlier ones) and temporary stardom. He was a regular support in several forgotten sitcoms, the first of which was Tell It to the Marines (Rediffusion, 1959-60); a bit of a rip-off of The Army Game, which had been one of ITV's first successful sitcoms, it failed dismally and was only notable for the number of future Avengers writers who worked on it (Malcolm Hulke, Eric Paice, Terry Nation, Dennis Spooner). He was then in the 1963 run of The Larkins (ATV, 1958-64), notable at the time as perhaps the first British working-class sitcom, but never revived in the post-monochrome period. He then played Leading Fireman Piggott in both series of Fire Crackers (ATV, 1964-65), one of a team of zany madcap firemen, led by Alfred Marks (later a creditable straight actor); Joe Baker, a short and hugely fat Cockney comic, played a character called Jumbo, Cardew "The Cad" Robinson was in it too, and you didn't really need to see it to know what it was like. In the same year as "Murdersville", Chappell again played a valet-cum-chauffeur in Mr. Aitch (Rediffusion, 1967), a solo vehicle for Harry H. Corbett, enshrined in comedy Valhalla as the younger half of Steptoe and Son; but despite having been expressly devised for Corbett (his character was even called Harry Aitch), it was not a success, in common with all his solo efforts, and it remained impossible for audiences to see him as anything other than Harold Steptoe. (Although like all typecasting, the other side is that the public identification of him with that role is a sign of how well he played it.)

Again supporting a much-loved comedy star in a show below their punching weight, Chappell was in Frankie Howerd's Whoops Baghdad (BBC, 1973); Howerd's earlier Up Pompeii! (BBC, 1969-70) had been pleasantly terrible, but this, again with a historical setting, was just terrible, and not very pleasant. Another loser was Doctor's Daughters (ATV, 1981), which Patrick "Mother" Newell also had the bad luck to be embroiled in; Richard Gordon, author of Doctor In the House and the subsequent novels, wrote this directly for TV, but it managed the difficult task of being even more sexist and predictable than the endless 70's series adapted by others from his books. (If memory serves correct, it was actually dropped from its prime-time slot during its run, in the London region anyway.) The only time Chappell ever had top billing was in a sitcom pilot, Three In a Bed (Thames, 1972); unfortunately for him, it was really intended to launch Little and Large, a truly pathetic, childish double act (yes, one is little and the other large), which explains why this didn't go to a series. In the sketch-show format, Chappell was in The Jimmy Tarbuck Show (ATV, 1974-75), stooging for the Liverpudlian comedian who's never as funny as he thinks he is. He was next in the 1976 run of Les Dawson's Sez Les (YTV), in which John Cleese had been a regular guest two years earlier, and again supported the rotund, verbose Northern droll in Dawson and Friends (YTV, 1977). Rushton's Illustrated (ATV, 1980) was a rare solo series by the lovable satirist/cartoonist Willie Rushton, with his That Was the Week that Was cohort Roy Kinnear supporting along with Chappell; but it didn't take off, and although Rushton was one of the most recognised faces of the early 60's satire boom, the rest of his TV career was as a guest on other people's shows. Chappell's final series was For 4 Tonight (C4, 1983), a spoof talk show on Channel 4 in which he was one of several actors playing guests; it was written by the annoying, professionally brash Ruby Wax, who makes a living out of being what a worrying number of British people still think all Americans are like, and who'd obviously seen the 70's series Fernwood 2Night before leaving the States. I'm afraid the last time I saw Chappell was on an edition of the naff variety/game show 3-2-1, on which Caroline Munro was filling in time as a hostess; the theme that week was the Scarlet Pimpernel, who was played by the twee John "Mr. Humphries" Inman, and Chappell was Chauvelin. Not long after that, early in 1985, he was found dead at his mother's house.

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This bio Copyright 1999-2008 Gavin Gaughan.

Page last modified 31 May 2003.