Sam Kelly: Fondly Remembering a Prescot Lad
In the summer of 2013, a grey-haired chap in his sixties stepped off the number 10 bus from Liverpool and knocked on the door of a house in Derwent Avenue, Prescot.
“I’m Roger Kelly, and I grew up in this house,” he told the lady who answered.
“Oh, yes,” she said, “I recognise you from the telly.” Stepping back inside, the two enjoyed tea and a chat together.
Few know him as Roger Kelly now. He is better known as actor Sam Kelly, and if you don’t recognise his name, you’re likely to recognise his face from such classic sitcoms as Porridge, Allo Allo and On the Up.
“We lived in Eccles,” Sam tells me, “then moved to Prescot in 1948.”
From there he went to drama school in London. “From 1948 to 1964, so quite a long time in Prescot, isn’t it?” he says.
But his acting days began long before that, as he trod the boards with the Rainhill Garrick Society.
“I did my first play there when I was seventeen, and I even remember what it was,” he recalls.
“So I started off at seventeen and a whole succession throughout my career of playing people a lot older than myself. I’m now the right age for most of these.”
His choice of career path had been inspired by a visit to the Liverpool Playhouse to see Toad of Toad Hall as a boy.
“I thought, That’s what I’m going to do!” he says. “I was only eight, but I’ve stuck with it ever since.”
He did four or five plays at the Garrick while working in the civil service in Garston, and it was after he played the lead in Playboy of the Western World that he decided to audition for LAMDA, the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts. He was successful.
Throughout the seventies he became a familiar face nationwide, with cameos in films such as Carry on Behind and Carry on Dick (pictured – image Avelyman), and TV series such as The Liver Birds and Rentaghost.
His biggest break so far came in 1977, however, when he played jailbird ‘Bunny’ Warren opposite Ronnie Barker in the sitcom Porridge.
Sam speaks fondly of Barker, who became a good friend until his death in 2005. He later toured Australia with The Two Ronnies, and says he “had a ball” doing a barbershop quartet sketch with them on their regular BBC show.
“They loved this sketch, and they repeated it hundreds of times,” says Sam, “and it’s been very nice for my bank manager.”
He later played Captain Hans Geering in two dozen episodes of Allo Allo, another series he says he had great fun making.
But his personal favourite TV role was as Mr Snagsby in the 1985 adaptation of Dickens’s Bleak House. “Not a big part,” he says, “but the production was so fantastic.”
He names Ronnie Barker, Richard Beckinsale and Fulton Mackay – all from Porridge – as the actors he’s most enjoyed working with over the years, but he has a special regard for the comic actress Joan Sims.
“I’m not a huge Carry On fan,” he admits. “It was two days’ work, you know. One day on each.
“People want to know, What did you think of Kenneth Williams? I didn’t meet half these people, unfortunately.”
(I have to remind him that he physically tussled with Williams in Carry on Behind, and he is genuinely surprised.)
“But I’ve got an enormous fondness for the late Joan Sims, who I did On the Up with [pictured, with Dennis Waterman]. She was a fabulous actress and a terrific woman. She made me laugh something rotten.”
He later made four series of Barbara, bringing his full tally of recurring sitcom roles to four.
“I’ve been lucky enough to do four fantastic sitcoms with great scripts, just great scripts. You can hardly go wrong, really. Fabulous. I loved them all.”
Theatre remained Sam’s biggest passion, however, and from October 2013 to February this year, he returned to the London stage to play the role of the Wizard of Oz in the hit West End musical Wicked (pictured).
“What I love about the show is that it’s about something,” he says. “It’s about prejudice and it’s about love; a girl who is rejected by everybody because she’s literally green – she has a green face.
“There are teenage girls all over the place, and they all identify with this girl, and they all turn up time after time. They have to have crash barriers outside the stage door.
“And it’s fantastic, really, and it’s not just frivolous nonsense. It really means something to these kids, and I think it’s great. That’s why I like it.”
Sam’s an affable fellow, and we natter away like old friends catching up.
He’s so unassuming that even as I’m quizzing him about his collaborations with the acclaimed film and theatre director Mike Leigh, he interrupts to ask me about what I do for a living.
Given his down-to-earth manner, it’s unsurprising that his humble roots – his Prescotian childhood – still loom very large in his affections.
He reminisces: “I remember Prescot terribly well, and I remember Kemble Street and Aspinall Street and Eccleston Street, and of course the BI [pictured] and Tinling’s.
“When I was a kid, everybody in Prescot seemed to work for either Tinling’s or the BI.
“When I look back and think of the area round the parish church and all that, it’s actually quite picturesque and pleasant down there. Known in the very old days for watchmaking, wasn’t it?”
Although raised in Prescot, Sam attended Liverpool Collegiate, as from the age of ten he was a chorister at Liverpool Cathedral.
“The cathedral wangled it so I went to that school rather than Prescot Grammar, which I’d probably have done otherwise,” he says. “I spent more time at the cathedral than I did at school.”
“It’s funny, because I’ve never been particularly regarded as a Northern England actor or even a Liverpool actor.
“I picked up the Liverpool accent, but I’ve never really had to use it. Most of the Liverpool actors talk like that all the time, know what I mean?” he says, adopting a Scouse accent. “And I never did.”
Among his fondest memories are taking the bus from Prescot to Liverpool and back.
“I sound like a mad person,” he confesses as he starts reminiscing about buses, “like a real anorak.”
“I even remember who made these things,” he says. “The Lancashire United bus was Foden. The Ribble bus was Leyland, and the Liverpool green buses, they were Leyland as well.”
He recalls with affection alighting the bus near Tinling’s on Warrington Road.
“There were two buses that I used to get which used to go another way, where I’d get off and walk to my house and instead of going down Oliver Lyme Road, I would get this red and cream Lancashire United bus, the 39 I think it was.
“Or a Ribble bus – the 317 I think it was – and they took me very near Eccleston Lane Ends School on St Helens Road, because they were going straight through.
“So I got off there and walked home, down St James’s Road.”
“Crosville used to have a bus – the 116 that would leave the Pier Head and end up at the Hope and Anchor.
“It used to go all round the back and end up near Whiston Hospital, and then come back to Prescot from there.
“I sat on the front seat at the upstairs of the bus if I could. I was very excited, because I used to get the number 10 all the way from Central Station in Liverpool, from choir practice, to Prescot.”
His father, Fred Kelly, worked at Whiston Hospital (pictured). During his drama training, Sam got a job as a porter there during the summer holidays.
“Doing the laundry, making the tea, putting bodies in the fridge,” Sam recalls, in a deadpan manner typical of his comic acting persona. “All sorts of stuff, you know.”
His father passed away in his sixties 1974, and his mother, Mary, later moved nearer London to be near to her only child. She passed away at the age of 99 in 2012.
Sam Kelly was forced to step down from playing the Wizard in Wicked in February this year. Bravely philosophical to the last, he had said little publicly about his long illness.
He died on 14 June 2014, aged 70.