Bell – who became best known for his roles in film and television, particularly as detective Bill Otley in Prime Suspect for which he was Bafta-nominated - was born on 2 August 1933 in Liverpool. He was evacuated from Liverpool as a child during the Second World War and lived with three different families near Morecambe.
In 1948 at the age of 15, Bell began to act in his first school plays, and went on to train at the Bradford Civic Theatre with Robert Stephens and Billie Whitelaw, the latter with whom he later starred in The Krays. He started his professional acting career in repertory theatres. In addition to Bent, Bell’s other stage credits included Travesties for the Royal Shakespeare Company, and Hedda Gabler.
In the 1979 premiere of Martin Sherman’s play about the persecution of homosexuals in Nazi Germany, Bell created the role of Horst, the resilient concentration camp inmate who falls in love with the play’s protagonist Max, then played by Ian McKellen. The role of Horst has subsequently been taken by Michael Cashman in the 1990 revival at the National Theatre, and now in the West End, by newcomer Chris New. At last night’s press performance of Daniel Kramer’s new production of Bent, Sherman made a curtain-call tribute to Bell.
Bell’s many films include The Kitchen, L Shaped Room, Dead Man’s Cards, The Magic Toyshop, Devilsgate, Oh Marbella, Kraft, Swing, Long Time Dead, My Kingdom, All the Right Noises, Ballad in Blue, A Prize of Arms, Lock Up Your Daughters and The Innocent. On television, he appeared in Blue Murder, Waking the Dead, Taggart, Dalziel and Pascoe, Four Fathers, Out and Sons and Lovers.
Bell’s last appearance in Prime Suspect airs later this month. The actor is survived by his son Aran from an early marriage, and by his partner of 30 years, the costume designer Frances Tempest, with whom he had a step-daughter, Nellie, and a daughter, Polly.
- by Caroline Ansdell