Michael Coveney: 'Sam Kelly was an actor of great technique and comic, Dickensian flourish'
Our chief critic pays tribute to the late actor, who died on Saturday aged 70
Sam Kelly's last stage appearance was playing the Wizard in Wicked for the second time for a few weeks just before Christmas. And the last time I saw him was at an early screening of Mike Leigh's Mr Turner - the ninth of his collaborations with Leigh - a few weeks ago, where he plainly said he wasn't doing too well. He died peacefully of cancer in a hospice on Saturday morning aged 70.
He was a great singer as well as a brilliant comic actor, well known on television in series such as 'Allo 'Allo, EastEnders and Casualty. But he combined singing and depth of acting in his penultimate stage appearance in Leigh's Grief at the National three years ago, playing a sad old 1950s bachelor with a habit of singing "I'll Be With You in Apple Blossom Time" with his widowed sister, played by Lesley Manville, and a glass of sherry, before dinner each evening.
He was small and bespectacled, but well-built, so he always looked the part of officialdom or blustery incompetence - sometimes at the same time - and twice played Uncle Sam in Pinter's The Homecoming (the second time directed by Roger Michell at the National in 1997).
"He was a great singer as well as a brilliant comic actor"
Kelly started off in the Lincoln Rep with Philip Hedley, joined the Young Vic for a year, co-founded the Croydon Warehouse, played in panto with Roger Lloyd Pack (at the Barbican) and Ian McKellen (at the Old Vic), was an almost perfect Dogberry for Peter Hall in Much Ado at Bath and fussed about hilariously in the rather bumpily produced When We Are Married Revival at the Garrick four years ago.
He was Ronnie Barker's dim-witted sidekick conman in Porridge, married to Maggie Smith in Emma Thompson's second Nanny McPhee movie and an unofficial member of the Mike Leigh repertory company alongside Manville, Phil Davis, Marion Bailey, Ruth Sheen, Lindsay Duncan and Timothy Spall. And he was very unusual in combining qualities of vaudevillian hard edges, touching sentimentality, vocal dexterity and an utterly natural warmth and funniness.
Born in Manchester, he trained at LAMDA after working for three years as a civil servant in Liverpool. There's an explanation, perhaps, for his acuity in portraying oddballs and loners: he was abandoned by his natural mother, raised as an "only child" by his adoptive parents and lived mostly alone; until he shared his life for twelve years with Grace Pieniazek, a psychotherapist, who died five years ago.
But this history explains his warmth and kindness towards the world, too. And of course he was, primarily, an actor of great technique and comic, Dickensian flourish.