Obituaries: Colin Welland
Television actor who later won a scriptwriting Oscar with the screenplay for the hit film Chariots of Fire
Published 08/11/2015 | 02:30
Colin Welland, the actor and scriptwriter, who died on Monday aged 81, won an Oscar in 1982 for his screenplay for the film Chariots of Fire.
Welland began his career as a television actor in the 1960s, playing Constable David Graham, one of the original characters based at Newtown police station in the long-running police serial Z Cars.
His scripts reached a cinema audience with John Schlesinger's Yanks (1979), and he continued to enjoy a parallel career as an actor, winning acclaim for his supp- orting role in Ken Loach's Kes (1969) and appearing in Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs (1971). He also achieved a genuine triumph in Dennis Potter's television play Blue Remembered Hills (1979).
Chariots of Fire, though, was the high point of his career. Produced by David Puttnam and directed by Hugh Hudson, the film concerned the 1924 Olympics in Paris and the stories of two of Britain's runners, both outsiders - the Jewish Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) and the Scottish Christian missionary Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson).
The film was an entirely British production. It became a box office hit in Britain and later in America, where it garnered seven Oscar nominations and four wins, for Best Picture, Best Screenplay, Best Original Score and Best Costume Design.
Chariots of Fire in time came to be seen by some critics as excessively class-conscious, with scenes of snobbish and emotionally constipated young men in white ties at formal dinners contrasted with the altogether more sympathetic working-class scruffiness of the Scottish street urchin.
Welland described himself as a "romantic socialist", and although he was intensely proud of his country, he clung to a view of British society as riven with class conflict.
His tendency to wear his political views on his sleeve, and his failure to get to grips with the social upheavals of the 1980s which rendered his brand of socialism moribund as a political force, may have denied him the chance to capitalise on his early success.
He remained a solid Lab-our man even in the party's darkest periods, when he scripted a series of stirring party political broadcasts for Neil Kinnock, designed to emphasise the leader's strength of character. He was never slow to voice his political opinions, reserving particular spleen for "that clown" Margaret Thatcher and for the police, whom he considered right-wing and racist.
He was born Colin Will-iams, in Leigh, Lancashire, on July 4, 1934, the son of a Merseyside docker. At Newton-le-Willows Grammar School he excelled as a sprinter and rugby winger and wanted to become a rugby league player, but found he did not have the necessary aggression. He went on to study at Bretton Hall College and Goldsmiths' College, London, where he gained a teacher's diploma in art and drama.
After four years working as an art teacher, he joined the Library Theatre, Manchester, in 1962 and was picked to play PC Graham in Z Cars that same year. The series brought a new realism to cops and robbers drama, though the image of policemen as fallible human beings created some controversy, and for a time the chief inspector of Lancashire withdrew his support from the programme on the grounds that it might undermine public confidence in the police.
The regular stars all became household names and Welland went on to appear in various plays, films and television movies. He was particularly admired for his performances in Kes (1969), in which he played the sympathetic Mr Farthing, and in Willy Russell's comic television play Dancin' Thru the Dark (1990), which was set in the bars and clubs of Liverpool. As a scriptwriter, Welland wrote many plays for television (he was voted Best Television Playwright by the Writers' Guild in 1970, 1973 and 1974), many of which dealt with northern working-class themes.
He never managed to repeat the success of Chariots of Fire. He wrote 10 further screenplays, of which two - The War of the Buttons (1995) and Twice in a Lifetime (1985) - were made into films and one, A Dry White Season (1989), a drama about the cruelties of apartheid in South Africa, was reportedly rewritten by its director.
He had his biggest disappointment with a screenplay for Rocket, the story of George and Robert Stephenson which, characteristically, he saw as a tale of working-class lads taking on a snobbish establishment.
"I took Rocket to America immediately after Chariots of Fire had come out," he recalled. "It's another Chariots of Fire," he told the Americans. But they were not interested.
Perhaps the most memorable image from Welland's career as a TV actor came in Blue Remembered Hills, in which Potter sought to recapture the days of his youth and expose the cruelty that often lurks beneath childhood innocence. In company with Helen Mirren, Michael Elphick, Colin Jeavons and John Bird, all playing the roles of young children, Welland danced around the countryside in a pair of boy's shorts.
He had used the success of Chariots of Fire to berate British investors who had failed to provide backing for the film, and he continued to lead a fairly substantial field in bemoaning the state of the British film industry, though latterly he conceded that the problem was not all about lack of investment.
"Small ideas like Billy Elliot and The Full Monty are becoming small-budget films when they once would have been television dramas," he said in 2001. "Whether it is because the money isn't there or because the ideas aren't there, we seem to have lost our confidence in thinking big." But he admitted: "It's no good saying we need to make films like Kes again: you can't make Kes now, any more than people could play football in the way that Stanley Matthews once did."
Colin Welland married, in 1962, Patricia Sweeney; she survives him with their son and three daughters.