Leslie Phillips obituary: British star who bridged the worlds of Carry On and Harry Potter

Phillips’ long-running career on stage, radio and screen spanned the 1930s to the present, including repeated appearances in the Carry On films and the 1950s Doctor series.

9 November 2022

By David Parkinson

Leslie Phillips in Agatha Christie’s Marple (2004 to 2013)

It always dismayed Leslie Phillips, who has died at the age of 98, that he was renowned for the louchely mischievous lines he had uttered in a clutch of comedies he considered crass. After all, he racked up dozens of stage credits and more than 170 film and television appearances during an 85-year career. But he could never shake those silkily seductive and raffishly lecherous catchphrases, “Ding dong”’ and “Hell-ooow”.

They were delivered in a Terry-Thomasish toff-speak that was a far cry from the accent Leslie Samuel Phillips had developed as a boy in Tottenham and Chingford. Born on 20 April 1924, he was raised by his impoverished mother after losing his father at the age of 10. She encouraged Phillips to audition for the Italia Conti Academy, where he was taught received pronunciation and landed the role of a wolf opposite Anna Neagle’s Peter Pan in the 1937 Palladium pantomime.

He made his feature bow in Lassie from Lancashire and was rewarded by Hollywood director King Vidor with a bit part in The Citadel (both 1938) after spotting a fire on the set. In addition to learning from stars like Rex Harrison, whom he saw as a teenager at Denham and Pinewood, Phillips also retained fond memories of working with Vivien Leigh in a wartime production at the Haymarket. Yet he needed persuading to return to acting after being invalided out of the Durham Light Infantry with a potentially paralysing nerve condition shortly before D-Day.

Leslie Phillips

Having poked around in postwar theatre, Phillips gravitated back towards cinema. His clipped tones, pencil moustache, and second lieutenant status suited him for military roles in High Flight (1957), I Was Monty’s Double (1958), Very Important Person (1961) and The Longest Day (1962). Yet, while he took character parts in realist dramas like Basil Dearden’s Pool of London (1951) and David Lean’s The Sound Barrier (1952), his impeccable comic timing eased him into lighter fare, especially after he headlined the BBC sitcom My Wife Jacqueline (1952).

However, it was his radio stint alongside Jon Pertwee and Stephen Murray aboard HMS Troutbridge in The Navy Lark (1959 to 1977) that made Phillips a household name. The shows can still be heard on Radio 4 Extra, while Talking Pictures TV regularly screens the 1959 film version, which stars Phillips as Lieutenant Poulter. He would remain afloat in Watch Your Stern (1960).

By this time, Phillips had become a familiar face through his appearances as genial but gaffe-prone nitwits in Gerald Thomas’s early Carry On films Carry On Nurse, Carry On Teacher (both 1959) and Carry On Constable (1960). However, having stolen scenes as a medic who is depicted as a philanderer in a scurrilous bestseller in Thomas’s Please Turn Over (1959), Phillips switched director brothers to star as inept smoothie Tony Burke in Ralph Thomas’s Doctor in Love (1960) and Doctor in Trouble (1970), and roguish charmer Gaston Grimsdyke in Doctor in Clover (1966).

Things might have been very different if a trip to Hollywood to biff Gene Kelly on the nose in Les Girls (1957) had gone better. But Phillips objected to director George Cukor’s dictatorial manner and returned to Pinewood after opting not to become a “poor man’s David Niven”. Instead, he oozed easy charm whether essaying opportunistic bounders in The Man Who Liked Funerals (1959), Crooks Anonymous and The Fast Lady (both 1962); hapless husbands in No Kidding (1960) and A Weekend with Lulu (1961); or well-meaning bunglers in Raising the Wind (1961) and In the Doghouse (1962).

Carry On Constable (1960)

While such roles raised his profile, they frustrated Phillips – as did his womanising leads in such smutty Whitehall romps as Not Now, Darling (1973), Don’t Just Lie There, Say Something! (1974), Spanish Fly (1975) and Not Now, Comrade (1976), which merely confirmed his skills as a farceur. So he turned his back on film and focused on theatre and television in order to demonstrate his range. Notable stage displays as Gayev in Lindsay Anderson’s production of The Cherry Orchard and Falstaff in the RSC’s The Merry Wives of Windsor led to film roles in Sydney Pollack’s Out of Africa (1985) and Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun (1987), for which he shed two stone to play an emaciated prisoner of war. 

After contributing a supremely seedy Lord Astor to Scandal (1989) and playing Clive Owen’s scheming boss in Chancer (1990 to 1991), Phillips guested as King Ferdinand in Carry On Columbus (1992). He also matched Anthony Hopkins in August (1996), Bruce Willis in The Jackal (1997), John Malkovich in Color Me Kubrick (2005) and Michael Caine in Is There Anybody There? (2008). Moreover, he earned a BAFTA nomination for his work as the lovesick Peter O’Toole’s thespian friend in Roger Michell’s Venus (2006), during a period in which he was reaching a new audience in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2004) and as the voice of the Hogwarts Sorting Hat in the first two and the final Harry Potter movies. 

Phillips once claimed ‘retirement’ wasn’t in his vocabulary. He proved true to his word by bowing out with footage from his performance as Jeremiah Jones in After Death (2012) being recycled for the forthcoming gothic chiller, Darkheart Manor.

  • Leslie Phillips, 20 April 1924 to 7 November 2022
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