Obituary: Windsor Davies
Actor who made his role his own in the BBC sitcom, 'It Ain't Half Hot Mum'
Windsor Davies, the actor who has died aged 88, was best known for playing Battery Sergeant-Major Williams, the bigoted, beet-faced Welsh disciplinarian with the fearsome moustache bellowing "Shut up!" at such gale-force intensity in the BBC television sitcom It Ain't Half Hot Mum (1974-81) that it came out as "Shaaddaap!".
As the senior NCO in charge of a Royal Artillery concert party at Deolali, India, at the end of World War II, Williams yearned to see action in the jungle, lectured the locals on the triumphs of British civilisation and berated his unsoldierly ensemble as a "bunch of poofs".
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It was this antagonism between Williams and his concert party that was the central tension driving It Ain't Half Hot Mum. In contrast to his motley platoon of military misfits, the strutting, swaggering Davies delivered a caricature of masculine physicality, underscored by his clenched buttocks, sucked-in stomach and barrel chest thrust outward and upward.
In his efforts to make real soldiers (meaning real men) of them, Williams was always devising punitive gestures such as midnight parades, and there was the ever-present threat of "jankers", or a posting "up the jungle", where the fighting was.
The character's personal tics - rolling eyes, knowing winks, twitching waxed moustache, and pursed lips that would crack open to reveal a menacing gap-toothed smile - added to the absurdity, as did his deadpan sarcastic put-down, "Oh dear, how sad, never mind".
Williams was racist, homophobic, vociferously jingoistic and anti-intellectual, all traits that the show's creators, David Croft and Jimmy Perry, recognised from their own wartime service.
The series perpetuated assorted stereotypes, notably the flamboyant transvestite, Gunner (later Bombardier) "Gloria" Beaumont (Melvyn Hayes), and the concert party's Indian bearer Rangi Ram, played in blackface by the white actor Michael Bates who deferred to Williams as "Sergeant-Major Sahib".
Latterly considered to be so un-PC as to be unrepeatable, It Ain't Half Hot Mum highlighted BSM Williams's bawling insistence on conventional gender identity, rejecting his on-screen charges' predisposition for cross-dressing, face-painting and other theatrical effusions. ("It's not natural, Sir," he would complain to the commanding officer.)
The slightest inkling of a university education was also suspect; Williams would pillory "Mr Lah-Di-Dah" Gunner Graham (John Clegg) for having an Oxford degree in English Literature, which in his view rendered the weedy, bespectacled pianist unfit for military service.
Another running gag had Davies as BSM Williams developing a soft spot for Gunner "Parky" Parkins (Christopher Mitchell), whom Williams suspected was his own illegitimate son, and towards whom he felt protective. ("Shoulders back, lovely boy, you've got a fine pair of shoulders on you. Show 'em off! Show 'em off!")
It was a triumph of disciplined acting for Windsor Davies.
He was born on August 28, 1930 in Canning Town to Welsh parents. "I grew up with two accents," he later explained, "one Cockney, one Welsh." With the approach of war in 1939, the family returned to their native village of Nant-y-Moel, near Bridgend in South Wales, where he was educated at Ogmore Grammar School before working briefly in a colliery.
After National Service with the East Surrey Regiment in Libya and Egypt between 1950 and 1952, he trained as a teacher at Bangor Normal College, in his words, "to avoid the pits". But he found working in a classroom even harder than mining and credited it with honing his skills as an actor.
As an English and maths teacher at Mountainside Boys' School in Leek, Staffordshire, he earned a reputation for kindness and good humour. One of his pupils remembered a boy walking into a Davies class and asking: "Is this 2B, Sir?" Quick as a flash, the teacher replied: "2B or not 2B? That is the question."
Davies enjoyed amateur dramatics and, in the 1950s, his wife, Eluned, persuaded him to go on a six-week acting course. He joined a repertory company in Cheltenham, but early success eluded him. His wife's parents provided free accommodation while he auditioned for a series of bit parts, almost all characters in uniform.
Notable television appearances included a series of ATV's Probation Officer (1962); as a policeman in Ring Out An Alibi (1964); in a smuggler-themed show, Orlando (1966); as a returning officer at the local council elections when Len Fairclough defeated Annie Walker in Coronation Street (also 1966); and as both thieves and thief-takers in Softly, Softly (1966 and 1970-72), Dixon of Dock Green (1965-72) and Z Cars (1967-74).
An appearance in Under Milk Wood at Sadler's Wells in 1972 won favourable notices, The Daily Telegraph's John Barber praising "the versatile Windsor Davies" for his ability to "suggest a lecher or a ninny at a moment's notice". As well as appearing on stage with comedians such as Charlie Drake, Dick Emery and Norman Wisdom, Davies also turned up on the big screen in Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1968) and Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall (1973).
Some imagined that the part of Sergeant-Major Williams was written specifically for Davies, but the writers David Croft and Jimmy Perry screen-tested several others first. "We had a job casting that role," Perry recalled. "Nobody seemed quite right. Leonard Rossiter came to see us, and he was extremely rude… A few days later Windsor Davies… tried the role in Cockney and it was hopeless because his Welsh accent kept peeping through. So we rewrote the part with Welsh cadences and idioms." The actor took charge of the character, to the extent of inventing a catchphrase of his own: "Lovely boy".
The show also spawned a hit record when, in 1975, Davies and his diminutive co-star Don Estelle (Gunner "Lofty" Sugden) - who, much shorter than Davies at 4 ft 9 in, was a talented tenor - topped the charts with a novelty rendition of Whispering Grass, a hit for the Ink Spots in 1940. Between Estelle's vocalising, Davies supplied spoken nonsense in the character of Williams while mugging for the camera.
He took leading film roles in Carry On Behind (1975), in which he replaced Sid James, and as Sergeant-Major Bloomer in Carry On England (1976). On television he appeared in the BBC rugby comedy feature Grand Slam (1978) and from 1981 co-starred with Donald Sinden in the ITV sitcom Never the Twain.
A gentle tale of rival antiques dealers, one smart, the other decidedly not, Never the Twain ran for 11 series and was a surprise hit with a British public seeking respite from recession and politically driven alternative comedy. The title sequence featured Davies as an animated Toby jug.
He had a regular role as George Vance in The New Statesman (1985) and provided the voice of Sergeant-Major Zero, a floating metal ball, in the 1983 sci-fi series Terrahawks. Well into his 70s he continued to turn up in prime-time television series.
Windsor Davies died on January 17. His wife, Eluned Evans, whom he married in 1957, died last September. Their five children survive him.