He was known as the scene stealer par excellence, an actor whose performances were so ebulliently over the top that he could cast even a talent as towering as Peter Sellers into the shade. Lionel Jeffries, who has died aged 83, was as at home in the theatre, on the telly or on the big screen. An actor, writer and director he was a hit with kids (for triumphs such as The Railway Children and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) and with their parents (for British classics such as the Wrong Arm of the Law). In nearly 100 movies, he played comedy and drama with equal aplomb, starring on both sides of the Atlantic.
Yet Jeffries’ beliefs, character and sense of duty were forged a long way from the tinseltown of Hollywood (or Elstree and Pinewood come to that). In the East End of the 1930s, he absorbed the moral code of his Salvation Army parents, learning the importance of helping those less fortunate than himself, and developing a lifelong distate for the sex and violence that pervaded movies in his latter years.
Which Jeffries’ moment do you pick from the dozens of films in which he starred or supported? Is it playing Grandpa Potts, Dick Van Dyke’s irascible father in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang? Was it as the officious and useless Inspector ‘Nosey’ Parker, trying to outwit crooks Peter Sellers and Bernard Cribbins in The Wrong Arm of the Law? Or playing the deeply unpleasant Marquis of Queensberry, persecuting playwright Oscar in Wilde (1960)? In truth, the one movie that will live long after his death is one in which he didn’t even appear. Moving behind the camera to direct The Railway Children in 1970, he not only scored a massive hit, but one which would endure year after year. It’s probable that families will be settling down to watch the heartwarming hit, starring Jenny Agutter and Bernard Cribbens, long after most of us are gone. And that would have delighted family man Jeffries.
He was born on 10 June, 1926, and caught the end of World War 2, with military service in the Oxford and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry and the Royal West African Frontier Force in Burma. He made captain but lost his hair – blaming the fierce humidity of the tropics for his premature baldness. Returning to London in the late 1940s, he secured a place at RADA. “I was the only bald one there,” he remembered with rueful humour. “Of course I was upset. Tried a toupee once, too, but it looked like a dead moth on a boiled egg.” He went on to win the college’s prestigious Kendal Award but was told by agents and bookers that his looks would hold him back. However, his London stage debut – in Carrington VC at the Westminster Theatre in 1949 – was the beginning of more than 40 years’ non-stop work.
By the early fifties he had moved from stage to screen. In British and American films alike, he managed the tricky feat of playing both broad comedy (often as a hapless crook or copper) and drama (frequently as uptight and officious authority figures). The prematurely bald and distinctively moustachioed Lionel now turned his appearance to his advantage, and always played above his age (in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, he was in fact six months younger than his ‘son’ Dick Van Dyke). Whether in comedy or drama, he managed to suggest the barely suppressed hysteria of his characters while not going over the top – or only when the role demanded. “Most of the people I played were caught in desperation. In their hearts they knew that they were failures – but they would never admit it, even to themselves,” he mused later.
The non-stop Jeffries made excellent choices, but his daughter had an even surer eye. The eight-year-old Martha Jeffries had read The Railway Children and told her dad: “I think that would make a good film.” Jeffries bought the rights for Edith Nesbit’s book for £2000, worked up a script and fruitlessly trailed it round producers’ offices before his old friend Bryan Forbes took on the project. Jeffries had never directed but he persuaded the moneymen to give him the job. Family movies such as The Amazing Mr Blunden and Wombling Free followed (and an enduring association with Cribbins) but Jeffries didn’t have the directorial career he deserved.
By the 1980s, despite a lifetime in the movies, and with a trio of children’s hit movies behind him as director, he couldn’t get his projects to the screen. “No one wants family entertainment any more. They want explicit sex”, he reflected sadly. He returned to the theatre and began to pop up on TV (of which he could be scathing), appearing in Lovejoy, Shillingbury Tales, All for Love and Inspector Morse.
The young, East End Salvationist remained a committed Catholic in later years. Jeffries retired from acting in 2001 and for the last few years of his life lived in a nursing home in Poole, on the south coast. He died aged 83 on 19 February this year, leaving his widow Eileen, two daughters and a son. In a business noted for its shortlived and multiple marriages, Eileen and Lionel had been happily together for 59 years.