Television actor who starred in Upstairs Downstairs, Last of the Summer Wine and In Loving Memory
Christopher Beeny as Billy Henshaw in the funeral parlour sitcom In Loving Memory, 1982. Photograph: ITV/Rex/Shutterstock
Projecting an easygoing and likable personality on screen and off, the actor Christopher Beeny, who has died aged 78, tugged at heartstrings as the footman Edward Barnes in Upstairs Downstairs, the 1970s TV series that captured the imaginations of 300 million viewers worldwide with its depiction of British master-and-servant society in the early 20th century.
He gave a remarkably moving performance when the normally high-spirited Edward was seen, in the fourth series, set during the first world war, as a soldier returning from battle to his home below stairs at 165 Eaton Place, Belgravia, on New Year’s Eve 1916. Edward speaks of the horrors he has witnessed in the trenches – including seeing his best friend slowly dying on barbed wire – to his employer, Richard Bellamy (played by David Langton), who realises that Edward is suffering from shell shock.
Beeny had portrayed Edward’s vulnerability, too, during an episode in the third series when the Bellamy family’s former footman, Alfred (George Innes), on the run after murdering his male lover, holds him at knifepoint.
Over five series of Upstairs Downstairs (1971-75) Edward rose from footman to chauffeur, then under-butler. Then Beeny switched to comedy, which served him well for the rest of his career, most effectively in the long-running funeral parlour sitcom In Loving Memory (1979-86). He starred as the gormless Billy Henshaw, joining his aunt Ivy Unsworth, played by Thora Hird, in running an undertaker’s business in the fictional Yorkshire town of Oldshaw, following the death of her husband. Beeny credited Hird with giving him a masterclass in comedy.
The programme’s writer, Dick Sharples, set In Loving Memory in the 1920s and 30s because the switch from horse-driven to mechanical hearses at that time provided plenty of scope for humour. Up to 15 million viewers tuned in as the black comedy of funeral mishaps unfolded and Billy sought romance, finally marrying in the last series – with Ivy accompanying him and his new wife on their honeymoon.
Beeny was born in London, the son of Norah (nee Conder) and Francis Beeny, both teachers. When Christopher was four, the family moved to Bristol, where his father lectured at the university, then to Clyst St Mary, Devon, where his parents set up a school.
After seeing a ballet performance, Christopher decided he wanted to dance and was accepted by the Ballet Rambert school when he was six. The family returned to London and, a year later, in 1949, Christopher switched to the Arts Educational school, with a new ambition: to act.
Christopher Beeny as the footman Edward Barnes, with Gordon Jackson, left, in Upstairs Downstairs, 1972. Photograph: ITV/Rex/Shutterstock
He made his screen debut at 12 on children’s television as Pepito, the cabin boy, in The Queen’s Admiral (1953), a play about Christopher Columbus, and followed it with the role of Michael, one of the Darling family, in the annual production of Peter Pan at the Scala theatre in London.
Then came his big break, as Lennie, the bright but fib-telling younger son always attracting trouble, in British TV’s first soap opera, The Grove Family (1954-57). The cosy serial, written by the father-and-son team of Roland and Michael Pertwee and set in suburban Hendon, Middlesex, starred Edward Evans as Bob, a builder setting up his own business after paying off the mortgage, and Ruth Dunning as his wife, Gladys. Beeny also appeared in the 1955 film spin-off, It’s a Great Day!
While studying at Rada (1957-59), he played schoolboys alongside other child stars – Anthony Valentine in a 1957 episode of Billy Bunter of Greyfriars School and Michael Crawford in the 1960 film farce A French Mistress.
Playing Ken Mitchell, the son of a police detective (Glyn Houston), in the 1962 thriller serial Outbreak of Murder appeared to herald a bright future for Beeny, but he found few jobs forthcoming as he tried to make the transition to adult actor. He left the profession in 1963, working in a bakery and peeling onions at Battersea Fun Fair before setting up his own building firm. Then a chance call from Beeny’s former agent in 1970 led him back into acting.
After Upstairs Downstairs he went straight into two sitcoms. In Miss Jones and Son (1977-78) he played Geoffrey, the next-door neighbour of a single mother (Paula Wilcox). Then, in a revival of the 1960s comedy The Rag Trade (1977-78), he was the foreman, Tony, with Peter Jones starring as the boss of Fenner Fashions.
Beeny was reunited with Hird when he joined the long-running sitcom Last of the Summer Wine in 2001 as a debt collector. He continued on and off in the programme until it ended in 2010.
On stage, Beeny brought some comic levity to the role of the station master, on tour and then in the West End, in Noël Coward’s Brief Encounter (Lyric theatre, 2000). He was seen on video, as the storyteller, in The Dreamers (St James theatre, 2015), a musical marking the centenary of the first world war, co-written by his son James.
Beeny was twice divorced. He is survived by Johanne and Richard, the children of his first marriage, in 1964, to Lynda Price, and James, from the second, in 1979, to Diana Kirkwood.
- Christopher Winton Beeny, actor, born 7 July 1941; died 3 January 2020