Actor who played a series of cold-blooded television villains and became an unlikely sex symbol.
Anthony Valentine became famous in a string of television roles as handsome but cold-blooded villains. In the 1960s and 1970s, he played a fanatical Nazi, Major Horst Mohn, in the popular prisoner-of-war drama series Colditz, and the sadistic, upper-class agent Toby Meres in Callan. However, his first love was musicals and as a boy he wanted to be Gene Kelly.
Valentine came from a working-class Blackburn family — both parents had worked in the Lancashire cotton mills — but elocution lessons smoothed out his accent and the baddie roles turned him into an unlikely sex symbol as well as one of the highest-paid actors in British television.
As a bachelor with a string of girlfriends, he received as many as 750 fan letters a week, including from women inviting him round to spank them while their husbands were away. “Some are totally incredible,” he told one interviewer.
Valentine maintained that, away from the cameras, he was a “gentleman”. He had been a professional actor since the age of ten and had only ended up playing villains because, as his mother pointed out, he never seemed to smile on screen.
His family moved from Blackburn to London when Valentine was a boy and his mother took him to the cinema regularly. “My mother was always crazy about the pictures and she’d take me three times a week to see people like Gene Kelly and Danny Thomas and Fred Astaire,” he said. “I wanted to be a dancer and I used to jump about the place, and this drove my dad so mad that he finally said: ‘If lad’s going to jump around like that all the time, then get him bloody well trained.’”
He was sent to dancing lessons and appeared in a Robin Hood pantomime at Ealing town hall. “It was while I was doing this that one of those peculiar creatures who I have never met since spotted me — he was a talent scout.” Valentine was cast in a small role in the 1949 crime drama No Way Back as “little fighting boy”.
When his father realised his son could earn more in a day or two of filming than either parent could in a week, he suggested pursuing other acting jobs. Before long, Valentine was getting fairly regular work on BBC children’s television, including The Children of the New Forest and Billy Bunter of Greyfriars School, in which he initially played Lord Mauleverer, in a top hat, and then Harry Wharton. Gerald Campion was Bunter and the distinguished young cast also included Michael Crawford, Jeremy Bulloch and Melvyn Hayes. “It was there that I had to say that classic line, ‘Roll along old fat man’, every week,” Valentine recalled.
He was also a gifted singer. He led the children’s chorus in Sadler’s Wells operas in his early teens and was offered a scholarship at St Paul’s School, but he was getting so much work that he turned it down. He left Acton Grammar School and was educated by tutors. “I started acting for a living at the age of ten and just carried on,” he said. He never went to university, but remained inquisitive and a voracious reader all his life. He had boxed at school and later admitted in one interview that he got into a few fights when he was younger, usually as a result of drinking too much whisky. He gave up alcohol after insisting on taking on two soldiers at once and ending up in hospital.
He worked on Billy Bunter for several years and it paid for the first of the motorbikes he preferred to cars. The move in theatre and film towards kitchen-sink drama and working-class subjects in the 1950s and 1960s should have suited him. However, by then, people more readily associated him with the public schoolboys of Greyfriars. “At that time you couldn’t get work at the BBC unless you spoke nicely,” he said. “It was virtually a collar and tie for rehearsals.”
He had periods without any acting work, during which he earned money as a taxi and coach driver, played drums in a dance band and singing in a café with his guitar. His role as the ruthless killer Toby Meres in the spy drama Callan, which ran from 1967 to 1972, finally pushed him into the public consciousness and turned him into a star. One reviewer later noted, “He curls his lip better than any other screen cad in the business.”
This was followed by his appearance in Colditz as a Nazi war hero and a survivor of Stalingrad, who had been personally decorated by Hitler before being sent to guard high-security Allied prisoners. In between, he was equally chilling as Joey Maddocks, the gangster who whips James Fox and is then shot by him in the classic movie Performance.
Such roles brought him a huge army of fans and he was voted the sexiest man on television. He had been engaged in his early twenties, but then went through a barren patch in his career and was barely earning enough to keep himself. Later, he had a lengthy relationship with Alexandra Bastedo (obituary, Jan 14, 2014), the star of The Champions television series, and was linked with a number of other women.
He insisted that he liked solitude. “I’ve got to get away from people and switch off,” he said. “Otherwise I get irritable and twitchy and end up by getting in the car and saying ‘I’m just going round the corner for a packet of fags’. But I end up in the Lake District five hours later.”
He enjoyed the anonymity of arriving at studios in his crash helmet and leathers, “Even the studio doormen usually send me to the tradesmen’s entrance,” he said. “It doesn’t bother me.” He travelled as much as his acting allowed and was once caught in a hotel during the Turkish invasion of Cyprus.
He finally married in 1982, to the actress Susan Skipper, whom he had met on the set of Raffles in the 1970s and then worked with again a few years later on an ATV production of Ivor Novello’s musical The Dancing Years. The couple bought a house in Oxshott, Surrey. She cared for him after he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2012 and survives him.
The title role as the suave, upper-class jewel thief in Raffles softened his image a little. Children began to wave at him in the street, he said. “I was quite overcome at first. I never particularly wanted to be feared.”
Other television roles included a professional poker player in several episodes of Minder and a smuggler on The Knock in the 1990s. He also worked regularly in theatre, appearing in productions as varied as No Sex Please, We’re British, along with Michael Crawford, the famous two-hander Sleuth, and Yasmina Reza’s play Art. One of his most recent roles was as George Wilson, the wealthy grandfather of Simon Barlow on Coronation Street. He suddenly turned up in 2009, having been estranged from his daughter, to discover that she was dead but he had a grandson.
At 6 feet, Valentine was athletic and enjoyed tennis, squash, diving, horse riding, skiing, running and walking in the Lake District and the Scottish Highlands. “I don’t live to act,” he said. “That’s not why I’m alive. I live to be happy.” He once remarked that, if he was reincarnated, he would like to come back as an eagle and soar above it all.
Anthony Valentine, actor, was born on August 17, 1939. He died on December 2, 2015, aged 76.