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Beckinsale, Richard (1947-1979)


Main image of Beckinsale, Richard (1947-1979)

Despite a career cut tragically short by his early death, Richard Beckinsale remains one of British TV's best-loved and most familiar comic actors, youthfully preserved in the aspic of cable and satellite in ceaseless re-runs of his two greatest triumphs, Porridge (BBC, 1974-77) and Rising Damp (ITV, 1974-78). We'll never know how he might have developed, but throughout the 1970s Beckinsale was the emblem of a newly youthful and less class-bound Britain, still coming to terms with the social upheavals of the previous decade - fresh-faced and optimistic, yet confused and vulnerable.

Born in Carlton, Nottinghamshire on 6 July 1947, he missed out on grammar school and left his secondary modern school at 15 without qualifications, but did some catching up at night school while he worked his way through a series of mostly manual jobs, before he fulfilled a childhood ambition to train as an actor, winning a place at RADA. He made his TV debut in an episode of Coronation Street (ITV, 1960-) in 1969.

He won his first major role the following year, in Jack Rosenthal's sitcom The Lovers (ITV, 1970-71). Beckinsale's Geoffrey was doomed to peer forlornly through the shop window of the new 'permissive society', while girlfriend Beryl (Paula Wilcox) clung doggedly to the morality of a previous generation in her refusal to countenance sex before marriage. As a young working-class man for whom life's rich promise seems just out of reach, Geoffrey served as a dry run for Beckinsale's more celebrated roles.

He had a poignant straight part as a student insurrectionist facing execution in the dystopian thriller The Donati Conspiracy (BBC, 1973), but he was destined to be remembered for comedy. The same week in September 1974 saw the pilot episode of Rising Damp on ITV and the first episode of Porridge on BBC1. Both series were dominated by their respective stars, Leonard Rossiter and Ronnie Barker, but both are unthinkable today without Beckinsale. In the claustrophobic prison sitcom Porridge, Barker's seasoned con Norman Stanley Fletcher may have delivered the wittiest barbs, but it was Beckinsale, as his naïve young cellmate Lennie Godber, who gave the series its tenderest moments, just as in the lodging house of Rising Damp, his gauche medical student tenant, Alan, was a youthful, good-natured, idealist counterpoint to Rossiter's selfish, misanthropic landlord Rigsby.

While Alan and Godber, like The Lovers' Geoffrey, were awkward, uncomfortable and unlucky in their relationships with women, the gentler, post-hippie model of masculinity they presented - quite a radical departure from the TV norms of their time, and certainly from the 'angry young men' of the late 1950s and '60s - as well as Beckinsale's wide-eyed, cherubic appearance, helped win the actor legions of female admirers.

Both The Lovers and Porridge followed the 1970s trend for big-screen adaptations of sitcom hits, and Porridge also spawned a sequel, Going Straight (BBC, 1978), which followed Fletcher and Godber after their release from Slade Prison. Only one series was made, for on 19 March 1979 Beckinsale died unexpectedly in his sleep of a heart attack. He was four months shy of his 32nd birthday. Going Straight won a BAFTA award a few days later. His role in Stephen Poliakoff's delinquency feature film, Bloody Kids (d. Stephen Frears, 1980), was unfinished at the time of his death, and had to be recast. Also incomplete was a new BBC2 sitcom, Bloomers, the first five episodes of which were screened late in 1979, reinforcing the shock at the loss of one of British television's most endearing talents.

His second wife was actress Judy Loe, and their daughter is the successful film actress Kate Beckinsale. Samantha Beckinsale, his daughter by his first wife, is also an actress.

Mark Duguid

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Detective Waiting (1971)Detective Waiting (1971)

Modest but inventive police drama from the creator of The Sweeney

Thumbnail image of Lovers, The (1970-71)Lovers, The (1970-71)

Engaging sitcom with Paula Wilcox and Richard Beckinsale

Thumbnail image of Porridge (1974-77)Porridge (1974-77)

Ronnie Barker goes behind bars in the definitive prison sitcom

Thumbnail image of Rising Damp (1974-78)Rising Damp (1974-78)

Leonard Rossiter's first great sitcom role as seedy landlord Rigsby

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