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Bell, Tom (1932-2006)


Main image of Bell, Tom (1932-2006)

Despite a promising start in several kitchen sink dramas of the early 1960s, Tom Bell never quite achieved the star status of contemporaries like Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay. An intense, brooding performer, his was a commanding presence on film, television or stage. In later years his flinty, unsmiling looks saw him cast in a series of menacing or seedy roles, perhaps most memorably playing sexist Detective Sergeant Bill Otley, antagonist to Helen Mirren's DCI Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect (ITV, 1991).

Born into a poor Liverpool family, he trained alongside Billie Whitelaw and Robert Stephens at Bradford Civic Theatre, making his television debut in 1959. The following year he was acclaimed for his performance as the inarticulate mother's boy in Harold Pinter's first television play, 'A Night Out' (Armchair Theatre, ITV, tx. 24/4/1960), while on the big screen he quickly established himself in films such as The Criminal (d. Joseph Losey, 1960) and The Kitchen (d. James Hill, 1961). He was also impressive as the embittered Toby in The L-Shaped Room (d. Bryan Forbes, 1962), sharing lodgings with a pregnant Leslie Caron.

It was Caron who apologised on his behalf after an inebriated Bell heckled Prince Philip at a subsequent awards ceremony, much to the embarrassment of tablemates Bryan Forbes and Richard Attenborough. Although the Duke of Edinburgh was reportedly amused by the incident, it did little to further Bell's career, instead confirming his reputation as a hell-raiser. Although he continued to work regularly, completing 15 films by the end of the decade, a Hollywood career never emerged - about which he expressed little regret in later years, dismissing the US film industry as "a madhouse".

Work remained plentiful in Britain, however. As vengeful armed robber Frank Ross in Out (ITV, 1978) he grimly hunted down the informer who had helped put him behind bars, while his performance as Adolf Eichmann in the Emmy Award-winning The Holocaust (US, 1978) won him international acclaim. In the 1980s he played Walter Morel in Sons and Lovers (BBC, 1981) and Victorian tycoon Fergus King in King's Royal (BBC, 1982), but despite never being out of work he was declared bankrupt in 1982 when unable to pay tax debts of over £20,000.

Later in the decade he enjoyed something of a career renaissance, with villainous roles as Emily Lloyd's older lover in Wish You Were Here (d. David Leland, 1987) and ill-fated gangster Jack 'The Hat' McVitie in The Krays (d. Peter Medak, 1990), culminating in his appearance in Prime Suspect. Such was the character's popularity that Otley returned for two of the sequels. Bell's versatility was further demonstrated as Antonio in Prospero's Books (d. Peter Greenaway, 1991), and as misanthropic waxworks owner Harry Nash in the downbeat sitcom Hope It Rains (ITV, 1991-1992).

By the last decade of his life he had put his heavy drinking days behind him, living quietly in Brighton with his partner, Frances Tempest. He died shortly after completing his final feature, Love Me Still (d. Danny Hiller, 2007), a few days before the poignantly-timed broadcast of Prime Suspect - The Final Act (ITV, tx.15/10/2006), in which a visibly frail Otley died on screen.

Richard Hewett

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Thumbnail image of Criminal, The (1960)Criminal, The (1960)

Joseph Losey's fascinating portrait of a changing criminal underworld

Thumbnail image of L-Shaped Room, The (1962)L-Shaped Room, The (1962)

Leslie Caron plays a pregnant Frenchwoman who starts an affair

Thumbnail image of Sailor's Return, The (1978)Sailor's Return, The (1978)

An interracial marriage provokes disaster in Victorian England

Thumbnail image of Angels Are So Few (1970)Angels Are So Few (1970)

An angel visits a suburban housewife in this provocative Dennis Potter play

Thumbnail image of Night Out, A (1960)Night Out, A (1960)

Harold Pinter's first television play, about an oppressed 'mother's boy'

Thumbnail image of Out (1978)Out (1978)

Gritty crime drama about a man seeking revenge on a police informer

Thumbnail image of Prime Suspect (1991-2006)Prime Suspect (1991-2006)

A female detective confronts tough cases and prejudiced colleagues

Thumbnail image of Reilly, Ace of Spies (1983)Reilly, Ace of Spies (1983)

Highly-rated Great War espionage drama

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