Francis Matthews

Francis Matthews with Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise
Francis Matthews with Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise
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THE actor Francis Matthews, who has died at the age of 86 after a short illness, is best known for his 1970s suave sophistication as eponymous gentleman sleuth Paul Temple in the BBC detective series, though it’s an image that belittles the breadth of his powers as a comic and dramatic actor over a sixty-year career.

It also belies an early life in working-class York and Leeds – although by the 1950s he was circulating amongst cinema royalty: whilst filming alongside Ava Gardner in the epic Bhowani Junction in London in 1956, he introduced the glamorous movie idol – then married to Frank Sinatra – to suburban life.

Said to be bored with studio diktats to be seen out and about in London’s nightspots as pre-publicity on the arms of all her leading men (Matthews, Stewart Granger and Bill Travers all took turns for the photographers), Gardner rebelled one night, and took up Matthews’ offer to slip away and have tea with his mother and father (now living in Surbiton).

The actor’s sister later reported returning home after a hard day in the office to find the best china deployed and the world’s biggest film star sitting in the front room of the family’s three-bed semi in Hook Road.

Francis Joseph Matthews was born in York on September 2, 1927, into a large Roman Catholic family, son of Henry Ernest Matthews, a shop steward at Rowntrees’ chocolate factory, and Kathleen, nee Empson.

The family moved to York in the 1930s, where Fran, as he was known to friends and family, attended St Michael’s Jesuit College.

He got the theatre bug early, starting his career at the then Leeds Rep, before National Service in the Royal Navy.

After his demob, he completed his apprenticeship in rep in theatres across the country, including two years at the Oxford Playhouse opposite legends such as Dame Flora Robson, and appeared in several West End productions.

It was experience which stood him in good stead for a successful film career in British and European studios in the 1950s and 1960s: working for organisations such as for Hammer Studios meant cast and crew would often be involved in two or three films at the same time. Viewing some of Francis Matthews’ contributions to the canon this becomes more obvious: films such as Rasputin: the Mad Monk (1966) and Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966) were clearly shot on the same set.

He also made his mark in several bigger budget movies, including Bhowani Junction. His turn as the traditional Indian Gardner’s character spurns at the wedding ceremony to run off with Stewart Granger probably isn’t to modern tastes (“blacked up” as he was for the part), but he made enough of an impression to become a stalwart of British TV and cinema screens over the next 40 years.

Alongside the Hammer films were dozens of roles in British films as diverse as Morecambe and Wise’s The Intelligence Men (1965) and That Riviera Touch (1966), to swashbucklers such as The Mark of the Hawk (1957) and thrillers including Crossplot (1968). And when he wasn’t on a film set, he was in demand in theatres all over the country.

In 1962, he travelled to the Hebrides to film a six-part thriller for the BBC called Dark Island (later wiped by the corporation in the 1970s). He was picked up at the airport at South Uist by a young actress who had volunteered to meet him in the company Land Rover and bring him to the set on her day off.

Angela Browne was building her own career on stage and screen. It was, according to both actors in later years, love at first sight. They married the following year.

The couple appeared together on stage and screen several times over the next few decades, including in an episode of The Avengers, in the BBC series Brat Farrar, and in several Alan Ayckbourn productions such as Absurd Person Singular.

In 1967, puppeteer Gerry Anderson approached Matthews to voice the main character of his follow-up series to Thunderbirds. Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons is still screened around the world and Matthews later admitted that his voice was based on a party-piece impression of Cary Grant.

Over the years, he was happy to attend many fans’ conventions for the cult series, accompanied by Browne, who was equally feted for her role in an episode of The Prisoner.

In 1969, the BBC gave him the role which many still associate with him: playboy detective Paul Temple, alongside Ros Drinkwater as his wife Steve and George Sewell as their down-at-heel sidekick.

Sixty-four one-hour episodes were made, in colour. Unusually for the time, the series was a co-production with West German TV’s ZDF, and some episodes were shot in Germany.

Many more of the episodes dubbed into German survive in the ZDF archives than the original English ones – only 11 were retained by the BBC.

The series ended in 1971, by which time he was a household name, and a friendship with Morecambe and Wise forged from shared Northern roots on the sets of their films meant he was a star guest several times on their shows during the golden “Braben” era.

After Paul Temple, Matthews was never long out of work on stage or screen, and he took particular pride in his multiple role-playing in the 1975 Alan Plater-scripted series Trinity Tales, where he was finally able to plunder the comic roots of his working-class Yorkshire upbringing.

The series was the first modern re-telling of The Canterbury Tales, as a group of rugby league fans travel to Wembley to see their team in the Challenge Cup Final. Six episodes telling six tales allowed Matthews to play everyone from a greased-up Hell’s Angel to a six-stone weakling transformed into a rugby-playing genius by the power of love.

As well as a cult classic BBC2 series, the production spawned a popular theatrical tour, Matthews playing in an ensemble cast including Bill Maynard and Paul Copley.

In 1977, he played a successful playwright alongside George Cole’s struggling author in the BBC2 comedy drama Don’t Forget to Write, reuniting the two men who’d shared digs in London in the 1950s.

Throughout the next 20 years he continued to work on both stage and screen. Theatrical credits included Badger in the National Theatre’s Wind in the Willows at the Old Vic, Middle Aged Spread at the Lyric and Higgins in a European tour of My Fair Lady.

Angela Browne died after a short illness in 2001, but Francis Matthews continued to work (guest appearances in The Royal, Taggart and Jonathan Creek just three of many) until illness forced him into retirement several years ago. He is survived by his sons Paul, Dominic and Damien, five grandchildren, his brother, the actor Paul Shelley, and his sister Maura. His brother Anthony pre-deceased him.