Regular Cast Biography
by Pete Stampede
In his entry in Who's Who On Television in the late 70's, Patrick Newell defined himself as "Actor with a weight problem—the more he diets, the less work he seems to get." In contemporary interviews quoted in Dave Rogers' books, he stated that landing the role of Mother was probably the best break of his career. It certainly proved to be his most notable assignment.
Patrick David Newell was born in Hadleigh, Suffolk on 27th March 1932 and educated at Taunton School. He modestly claimed that when at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA), he realised that the talent of fellow students, including Albert Finney and Peter O'Toole, far outstripped his own; and so, in order to patent his own niche as an actor, he deliberately started putting on weight. After doing National Service, where Michael Caine was a fellow conscript, he began to be seen frequently on TV, in dramatic and comedic roles, and in the former category, nearly always as a fat villain. Guest roles in series episodes and one-offs included a serial with the irresistibly dated title Walk A Crooked Mile (1961); Storyboard, "The Long Spoon" (1961), one of the many anthology series then proliferating; Maigret, "The Liars" (BBC, 1961), the hugely successful Georges Simenon adaptation that unfortunately made star Rupert Davies one of the first TV victims of typecasting.
He played a Greek in the now obscure series The Sentimental Agent, "A Little Sweetness and Light" (ATV/ITC, 1962), also guest-starring lantern-jawed Patrick Allen (seen in "Kill the King" and "The Thirteenth Hole"); Danger Man/Secret Agent, "Battle of the Cameras" (ATV/ITC, 1964) as Alex, a likeable aide to Patrick McGoohan; Smugglers Bay (1964), a children's serial, in one episode as a bailiff; Thorndyke, "The Old Lag" (BBC, 1964), a forgotten detective series starring Peter Copley, seen in "All Done With Mirrors" during Newell's stint as Mother; The Idiot (BBC, 1966) as Lebediev in an adaptation of Dostoyevsky starring David Buck, an occasional Hammer lead, in the title role of Prince Myshkin, and Send Foster, "Hole in the Road" (1967), a series so obscure that I've been unable to get any other details about it.
Given his rotund appearance and ability for playing slightly stuffy types, he was a natural stooge in several comedy shows, first for the annoying Arthur Askey ("Hello playmates!") in Arthur's Treasured Volumes (ATV, 1960), then for walrus-moustached Jimmy Edwards in Six More Faces Of Jim, "The Face of Perseverance", "The Face of Loyalty" and "The Face of Tradition" (BBC, 1962), with Ronnie Barker also supporting. A Comedy Playhouse episode, "Fools Rush In" (BBC, 1963), as a cook to a retired major (Deryck Guyler), didn't go to a series. The Illustrated Weekly Hudd (BBC, 1966) had Newell as a regular support to practically the last survivor of music hall, Roy Hudd; he performed a similar function in Room At The Bottom (BBC, 1967), a one-series, factory-set vehicle for Carry On star Kenneth Connor (and nothing to do with an 80's sitcom with the same title).
Newell's first film role was as "First Brewer's Man" in Dial 999 (1955), a second feature not to be confused with a TV series of the same name, at the same time. Unbilled, he could be spotted among the crowd of onlookers at Tony Hancock's exhibition of his (so-called) art in The Rebel (1961). Never Mention Murder (1964), one of the many Edgar Wallace B movies produced at Merton Park studios by Season Six production controller Jack Greenwood, had Dudley Foster in a key role, and Newell last on the cast list as a barman. Oddities include a Children's Film Foundation serial, Danny The Dragon (1966), and playing Mr. Hearty in a short, Bindle (1966), subtitled "One of Them Days", an unsuccessful attempt to repopularise a Cockney character from the very early days of British films, here played by Alfie Bass. The Magnificent Seven Deadly Sins (1971) was a failed attempt at directing by Graham Stark, a likeable supporting actor and friend of the stars (especially Peter Sellers); supposedly a portmanteau of the Seven Deadly Sins, and despite an interesting cast and good selection of writers, it felt more like a load of telly sketches stuck together, and indeeed the segments on "Lust" and "Pride" were re-used TV scripts (both originally episodes of Comedy Playhouse, in fact). Newell was a doctor in the segment on "Gluttony", in which supercad Leslie Phillips uncharacteristically prefers eating to sex; this and the piece on "Wrath" were written by the late Python Graham Chapman and long-serving gag merchant (and host of Jokers Wild) Barry Cryer. Newell had the bad luck, along with several other actors identified with the spy genre including poor late Desmond Llewellyn, to be in The Golden Lady (1979), directed by exploitation man Jose Larraz, and allegedly resembling a hotted-up Charlie's Angels. He suffered hallucinations in Young Sherlock Holmes (1985), written and directed by Chris Columbus; understandably, as only Americans think up "veddy British" (whatever that means) character names like Bentley Bobster. A complete Newell filmography is at the end of this article.
Intriguingly and uncharacteristically, Newell very nearly got the chance to be one of the Carry On team, right at the series' inception; but walked out on this early chance for stardom, or rather drove away. He was originally cast as one of the daft recruits in the first of the films, Carry On Sergeant (1958) — but according to producer Peter Rogers, Newell turned up on the first day of filming, only to recognise the real-life sergeant hired to drill the cast as one who'd made his life hell in the Army. He then, so Rogers claims, got into his Rolls-Royce, drove off and was never seen again (not in the Carry On's at any rate; Rogers also described Newell as having been "quite a posh chap", it's unlikely this was meant as a compliment.) At a guess, Newell's role may have been the one eventually played by the equally rotund Gerald Campion, who had been Billy Bunter on television.
James Hill, who helmed so many of the best Avengers episodes, had used him in small parts in The Dock Brief (1962), virtually a two-hander for Peter Sellers and Richard Attenborough, and the lively Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper semi-horror A Study In Terror (1965), in a walk-on as a beat-pounding bobby. It was Hill who cast him as Mother in "The Forget-Me-Knot," indirectly making him a regular.
Although Newell made Mother (for the most part) funny and likeable, the character did get in the way of the established Avengers episode structure a bit; and "Homicide and Old Lace" wasn't much of a showcase for him, needless to say. Physically, and in the type of roles he was given, Newell was not unlike character actor Bernard Fox, then a regular in Bewitched and Hogan's Heroes, who tended to play (and still does) the kind of Englishman that doesn't really exist any more, all "by Jove"s and waistcoats with pocket watches. Perhaps if Newell had gone to Hollywood, post-Avengers, he might have had more luck in his later career. It may be relevant that Brian Clemens and Albert Fennell never used him in their next series, the violent, realistic The Professionals (and he was never in its companion/rival series The Sweeney, either). In an interview for Dave Rogers' On Target magazine in the mid-80's, he mentioned his recent work as having included "a couple of comedy shows that I'm not too proud of"; frankly, this could describe a lot of his later TV roles.
He did okay at first, with a turn as another fat villain in Randall And Hopkirk (Deceased), "The Man From Nowhere" (ATV/ITC, 1969), and an American TV movie made in Britain, Destiny Of A Spy (1969), directed by Boris Sagal, later to make the cult item The Omega Man; in his On Target interview, Newell remembered that after his later weight loss, Sagal called him in for an interview, was startled at how trim he looked and congratulated him, but added that as a result, he was fired from the job in mind. (Plans at the time to release Destiny to cinemas in Britain, retitled The Gaunt Woman, didn't work out.)
Returning to now-forgotten, never-repeated sitcoms, he was a regular, as a staff member called Mr. Oliphant, in Never Say Die (YTV, 1970). Set in a hospital, it was only of note to comedy fans in that Wilfrid Brambell, old man Steptoe in Steptoe And Son (and Paul McCartney's grandad in A Hard Day's Night) was another regular, though with guest-billing in the TV Times; and as in Steptoe, his character was called Albert (let's hope he managed to keep his teeth in for this one). Newell then did the second series of The Misfit (ATV, 1970-71) starring Ronald Fraser, playing his brother in a nice bit of casting. His only starring role was another Comedy Playhouse, "And Whose Side Are You On?" (BBC, 1972), set, as the terrible 'Allo 'Allo would be, in France during WW2; according to Mark Lewisohn in the Radio Times Guide To TV Comedy, he played "Major Sperling, a loveable German—in the style of Sgt Schultz in Hogan's Heroes—whose cheerful relationship with the villagers is put in jeopardy... Although perhaps ahead of its time, no series followed." Leon Thau produced. Another non-starter in the same series was "Howerd's History of England" (BBC, 1974), clearly an attempt by Frankie Howerd at another series in the Up Pompeii! vein, with Newell in the supporting cast.
By contrast, he was in Dennis Potter's controversial, four-part life of Casanova (BBC, 1971), as a cellmate of the great lover (Frank Finlay), listening to his tale in flashback. He did a cameo in The Persuaders, "That's Me Over There" (ATV/ITC, 1971, written by Brian Clemens), unflatteringly, if understandably, as 'Fat Man'. Over twenty years before the ITV version featuring Diana Rigg, he supported Julia Foster as Moll Flanders (BBC, 1975), a Play Of The Month.
Doctor Who, "The Android Invasion" (BBC, 1975), the last story proper to feature the military outfit U.N.I.T., central to most of Jon Pertwee's stories, saw him as what looked like a replacement for Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney). A nice moment was Newell's reaction when the Doctor (by now Tom Baker) informs him that android replicas have been made of everyone; "Of me? Confounded cheek, how dare they!" Other "straight" episodic appearances included the excellent When The Boat Comes In, "Angel On Horseback" (BBC, 1976); Murder Most English, "The Flaxborough Crab, Part Two" (BBC, 1977) starring Anton Rodgers, another of those actors who never did an Avengers, but really should have; and Wilde Alliance, "Game For Two Players" (YTV, 78) a would-be Thin Man-ish effort about a married detective pair. Sitcom guest spots continued, including Shirley Maclaine's doomed series for Lew Grade, Shirley's World, "Figuratively Speaking" (ITC, 1972); Alcock And Gander (Thames, 1972) wasting Beryl Reid, Wodehouse Playhouse, "The Truth About George" (BBC, 1975), the first of a series of P.G. Wodehouse adaptations, starring John Alderton and Pauline Collins, with posthumously-shown intros by Wodehouse himself, and Rule Britannia!, "All My Sins Remembered" (Thames, 1975), an awful sitcom about a stolid Englishman, mean Scotsman, drunken Irishman and downright irritating Welshman... really imaginative stuff. Spring And Autumn (Thames, 1976) starring Jimmy Jewel, Get Some In! (Thames, 1977) another of the then-constant run of military-based British sitcoms, Robin's Nest, "Day Trippers" (Thames, 1978), as a maitre d' in an episode of this weak but long-running spin off from Man About The House (which Newell had been in the film version of) all followed, and all for Thames.
Bad luck for everyone was the order of the day with Newell's next series as a regular, Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson (1980). Produced by Sheldon Reynolds, who had made the amiably tatty 50's Holmes series with Ronald Howard, this was shot in Poland for some reason; when Ronald Reagan imposed sanctions there, this series, classified as domestic product, was not seen in the US, or Britain for that matter, as a result (how ungrateful of Reagan to do that to his fellow thespians). Geoffrey Whitehead and Donald Pickering, both Avengers guest actors, took the title roles, with Pickering apparently making a very straight, non-bumbling Watson; Newell's performance as Inspector Lestrade, complete with grotty office, seems to have been mainly for comic relief.
Newell was a regular on three series in 1981 alone; none was really successful though. Doctors' Daughters (ATV, 1981), a dreary footnote to Richard Gordon's Doctor series, wasted him, as an archdeacon, and Norman Chappell. The Whizzkid's Guide (Southern, 1981) was a children's sitcom set in a school, with Kenneth Williams heading the cast of adults pretending to be kids (they actually wore school uniforms), and Newell as an exasperated teacher, called Mr. Newell with stunning imagination. At least it demonstrated the diversity of performers Newell worked with; it's quite a jump from Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg to the Cockney duo of giant-sized, gruff-voiced oaf Arthur Mullard, and screeching, rotund crone Rita Webb. Even as a kid, I remember feeling embarrassed for the cast (I was already a mega Williams fan) watching this. Williams' diaries note that, after a characteristic display of bad manners towards other cast members, they were all avoiding him by the end, "apart from Patrick Newell who was sweet". Kinvig (LWT, 1981) was the only sitcom by Quatermass creator Nigel Kneale; it's often been claimed that Kneale has a pretty low opinion of sci-fi fans, and it's possible that this seven-parter about a loon who believes he's stumbled on a takeover plot by aliens, with Colin Jeavons as an equally daft UFO-spotter chum, was a joke at the expense of those who take the genre all too seriously. Whatever his reasons, it was judged a commercial flop (I've never actually seen it, as it's never been repeated; more to the point, it was on after my bedtime), producer Humphrey Barclay later commenting that "the fantasies of a boring character can themselves become boring". Newell was in the last four episodes, playing an authority figure the central characters believe to be under alien control. Again for director James Hill, he was in one of Jon Pertwee's escapades as Worzel Gummidge, "The Golden Hind" (Southern, 1981).
In the mid-80's, The Young Ones (BBC, 1982-84) was my favourite series along with The Avengers, so it was a real pleasure to see Newell turn up in two of the "cutaways" as the writers termed the sketch-like deviations from the main action; "Oil" (1982), as one of two men on a raft, stranded not in the sea but in the student gits' house, and "Boring" (1982), as the king of a world where nothing boring ever happens, who desperately wants "to meet someone who is completely and utterly, mind-numbingly boring. But I don't suppose I ever will..." (Why this series, huge among my fellow teenagers of the 80's, never caught on with young people in the States is beyond me.)
Newell was on familiar form as a Major in The Agatha Christie Hour, "The Manhood of Edward Robinson" (Thames, 1982), one of an anthology series taken, surprisingly, from non-crime based short stories by Christie; Wuffer (BBC, 1983), in one episode of another silly kidcom; Grandad (BBC, 1984), ditto, as a pompous Mayor, with Clive Dunn; and Cold Warrior, "Dead Wrong" (BBC, 1984), with Michael Denison as an elderly agent called Captain Percival.
Next, Newell again had bad sitcom luck with a regular role in Bottle Boys (LWT, 1984-85), a deeply lowbrow sitcom about cheeky milkmen. Lead Robin Askwith had starred in the notorious softcore comedy Confessions films in the 70's; this was supposedly good clean early evening fun, but as the very funny nostalgia website TV Cream points out, it was really Confessions Of A Milkman in all but name. In his guide, Mark Lewisohn nominates it as the worst ever British sitcom; a slight saving grace for Newell was that he was only in its first series. Right at the other end of the scale, he was the anxious Mr. Blessington in The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes, "The Resident Patient" (Granada, 1985), one of an excellent series, with [the late] Jeremy Brett not so much playing as incarnating Holmes. Other guest roles included C.A.T.S. Eyes, "Frightmare" (TVS, 85), a series about a trio of female agents which Dave Rogers (judging by the entry in his Itv Encyclopaedia Of Adventure) seemed to like a lot, but was hardly an Avengers for the 80's (could anything have been in that rotten decade?), Lytton's Diary, "National Hero" (Thames, 86) starring Peter Bowles, and Ladies In Charge, "Dangerous Prelude" (Thames, 86), a period drama.
He did an episode of Call Me Mister (BBC, 1986), a series in which an Australian inherits an English title, but instead becomes a detective. However, I haven't been able to trace the episode title, and the series was another one from the "forgotten, never repeated" category. So here's all I can remember: Newell was in one scene as an American tycoon called Jacob Samuels, hiring the hero, who later tracks him down and finds him at a fairground, inside a giant chicken costume. Newell then explains he's an actor hired for the job, that his real name is Samuel Jacobs, and that American accents are hard to do, but he thinks he pulled it off.
Newell was Uncle William Dudgeon in a Theatre Night production of George Bernard Shaw's "The Devil's Disciple" (BBC, 1987), the kind of studio-based play that just isn't done on TV any more. And unfortunately, one of his next outings was an early episode of the still-running medical drama Casualty, "Cry For Help" (BBC, 1987), the kind of formulaic drama that today's screens are full of. It was a regrettably prophetic credit, as on the 22nd of July 1988, he died, in Essex; it's sadly probable that his size had destined him for a relatively short life. The Channel Four re-run in the 1980's that caused a wide scale rediscovery of The Avengers began in 1982 with Season Five and continued through Season Six; allegedly, the new channel was then reluctant to show monochrome TV material. As a result, Season Four wasn't shown until 1984, beginning of course with "The Town of No Return"; having already accepted Newell as Mother, seeing him playing a totally different character who gets killed off before the first ad break to boot, left me very confused.
Avengers episodes in which Patrick Newell appeared as Mother:
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