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Davis, Philip (1953-)

Main image of Davis, Philip (1953-)

Of the same generation as Robert Carlyle, Ray Winstone, Gary Oldman and Phil Daniels, and cut from the same rough, tough working-class cloth, Phil Davis has graduated from teenage tearaways to middle-aged hoods and, more recently, detectives. Aside from breaking or making the law, he has, while rarely hogging the limelight, built an admired career as one of Britain's busiest and most versatile character actors.

Born 30 July 1953, the middle of three sons, Davis grew up on a council estate in Essex. He joined the National Youth Theatre for three seasons in his mid-teens, then worked in a theatre coffee bar after leaving school.

In 1972, he caught the eye of Joan Littlewood, who cast him in one of her Theatre Workshop productions. But he first came to attention for his highly praised performance as a young delinquent in Barrie Keeffe's 'Gotcha', initially on stage, then on television as a BBC Play For Today (tx. 12/4/1977). 

In 1979, Davis played one of the Mods in Quadrophenia (d. Franc Roddam, 1979). He had supporting roles in The Bounty (d. Roger Donaldson, 1984) and The Doctor and the Devils (d. Freddie Francis, 1985) and was one of Bill Douglas's Tolpuddle Martyrs in Comrades (1986).

A long collaboration with Mike Leigh began when Davis auditioned for the director in 1975. They worked together on stage, radio and television plays, including Who's Who (BBC, tx. 5/2/1979), about a small firm of stockbrokers, and Grown-Ups (BBC, tx. 28/11/1980), about two couples from different class backgrounds. In High Hopes (1988), Leigh's first feature film since Bleak Moments (1971), Davis played the male lead, a gentle, pot-smoking slacker.

In parallel with a very lengthy career in theatre, Davis became a regular face on television, notably as Prince (subsequently King) John in Robin of Sherwood (ITV, 1984-1986) and as the leader of a gang of football hooligans in Alan Clarke's The Firm (BBC, tx. 26/2/1989).

He also made brief, unremarkable excursions into directing, including television's Prime Suspect: Errors of Judgement (ITV, 1996) and Real Women (BBC, 1998) and the feature films I.D. (1995) and Hold Back The Night (1999).

In middle age, his profile increased very sharply with eye-catching performances in Births, Marriages and Deaths (BBC, 1999), the legal thriller North Square (Channel 4, 2000), Fields of Gold, the BBC's controversial series about genetically modified crops (2002), Zadie Smith's White Teeth (Channel 4, 2002), the crime dramas Wall of Silence (ITV, 2004) and Rose and Maloney (ITV, 2002-2005), Patrick Hamilton's Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky (BBC, 2005) and Charles Dickens' Bleak House (BBC, 2005).

Meanwhile his long association with Leigh continued. Davis' appearances were brief in Secrets and Lies (1996) and Another Year (2010), but the director's acclaimed Vera Drake (2004) gave him an award-winning major role as a devoted husband who discovers his wife is a backstreet abortionist.

Since then he has had supporting turns in Notes on a Scandal (d. Richard Eyre, 2006) and Cassandra's Dream (d. Woody Allen, 2007). He was commended for his performances in The Curse of Steptoe (BBC, tx. 19/3/2008), as Wilfred Brambell, the troubled actor who played Steptoe senior, and in the ensemble drama series Collision (ITV, 2009), as one of a group of people involved in a traffic accident.

Meanwhile there have been more roles as policemen, in Cold Blood (ITV, 2007-08), Bike Squad (ITV, 2008), Whitechapel (ITV 2009-10) and The Hot Potato (d. Tim Lewiston, 2011), as well as a sharply etched appearance as an ageing, failing gangster in Rowan Joffe's remake of Graham Greene's Brighton Rock (2010).

Davis is married to the actress Eve Matheson.

Sheila Johnston

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Bleak Moments (1971)Bleak Moments (1971)

Mike Leigh's debut, about a lonely girl caring for her learning-disabled sister

Thumbnail image of Comrades (1986)Comrades (1986)

Bill Douglas' epic portrayal of the lives of the Tolpuddle Martyrs

Thumbnail image of High Hopes (1988)High Hopes (1988)

Mike Leigh comedy about three very different couples

Thumbnail image of Secrets and Lies (1996)Secrets and Lies (1996)

A woman's life is turned upside down when she meets her long-lost daughter

Thumbnail image of Firm, The (1989)Firm, The (1989)

Gary Oldman in Alan Clarke's searing indictment of football hooliganism

Thumbnail image of Grown-Ups (1980)Grown-Ups (1980)

Mike Leigh comedy about a couple at war with their middle-class neighbours

Thumbnail image of North Square (2000)North Square (2000)

Compellingly cynical drama about the sharp end of the legal profession

Thumbnail image of Robin of Sherwood (1984-86)Robin of Sherwood (1984-86)

A new incarnation - or two - of the hooded outlaw for the acquisitive 80s

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