During the mid-1870s, the industrial revolution
was bringing changes on the high seas as well as on the land. And when the
future looks as though an old sailing line is going to be overtaken by
steam-powered ships, a violent clash of interests breaks out in the Onedin
As The Onedin Line returns this week, Madeleine Kingsley asks Peter
Gilmore about his five years as James Onedin.
damp morning in Kew: the most cheerless of February days when nothing
flourishes (except perhaps, the botanical greenery under its rococo domes).
From the terrace of newish-built houses where Peter Gilmore lives opposite
the Gardens there issues a low drone of vacuum cleaners assaulting deep
pile; in the otherwise empty road two removal men struggle to disentangle a
pair of Parker Knolls. It is, in short, exactly the sort of day that sends
every one of us diving for his own particular panacea, be it aspirin, drink
- or a touch of escapist romance.
Of such romance, ten million committed viewers would no
doubt affirm, Peter Gilmore is a purveyor par excellence; hero of a
soap-with-salt opera that has outlived even Upstairs Downstairs
(which started the following year). Since The Onedin Line was
launched five years ago, Gilmore's craggy countenance has dominated its
melodrama of 19th-century Liverpool folk, their sailing ships and the sea.
He is the rough-cut adventurer, James Onedin, a man possessed of 'more
ambition than Napoleon' - but he's more than a rough trader.
Every so often the piercing
blue eyes above savage sideburns and tight lips soften enough to reveal a
vulnerable Victorian beneath a stony exterior. A seaman whom ladies, like
Anne, Leonora and Caroline have each in turn found irresistible and longed
to frame in some oval, velvet-bordered miniature. He is something of a
working-class Hornblower is James Onedin, managing with a little help from
Khachaturyan, to keep all hands on deck and millions of eyes swivelled
towards the small screen.
It is rumoured that President Tito himself manipulated the
transmission time of Onedin episodes to suit his schedule. So far
Yugoslavia, along with 28 other countries from Iceland to Israel, Belgium to
Barbados have seen the sailing saga on their television screens, and
doubtless they are eagerly awaiting the further adventures on the
Charlotte Rhodes to be seen here this summer. For Peter Gilmore is, if
anything, more of a popular hero abroad than he is in his own country. About
half his working life he spends on the Continent, making personal
appearances and giving concerts in his gravelly baritone, from a repertoire
of heartfelt melodies like 'Home Loving Man' and 'Ne Me Quitte Pas'.
Whenever he travels, he says, fans eagerly press upon him
their hand-made gifts: driftwood boats, glass-blown ships-in-bottles,
handkerchiefs embroidered with chain-stitched reef knots. They send letters
of appreciation or seek out nautical advice: 'Can you tell me, please, if
May is the best month for sailing round the Horn?'
British admirers, of course, write too. A thousand fan
letters had piled up before the first series of The Onedin Line had
come to an end. There are still sackfuls of unanswered letters in Gilmore's
upstairs cupboard, where they weigh heavily on his conscience. But, having
no secretary he estimates that even at the rate of one every three minutes
it would take him five hours to plough his way through a mere hundred
replies. To say nothing of all the signed photographs. How could he find
time to work as well?
One might expect that Gilmore would be savouring the sweet
smell of success now, having spent more than 20 years, as he says, 'in and
out of character parts, and flop musicals' and having long enjoyed the joke
of exiting through the stage door and being asked by the assembled crowd if
Peter Gilmore has come out yet. Instead he sits on the edge of his chair in
the sitting-room decorated to the pretty Victorian taste of his actress wife
Jan Waters, crosses and uncrosses his long legs nervously, rubs at his eyes
behind their owlish spectacles and sniffs with considerable suspicion at the
small-screen stardom. As if it might vanish with the next trade wind.
Far from seeing himself in the
John Braine-ish mould of what one reporter termed 'a man at the mizzen top',
Gilmore is as security conscious as a bank manager, wondering if he ought
sell his Mercedes sports car, loathing the vicissitudes that bring a lump
sum one week followed by nothing more for weeks on end. 'I don't even spend
money on clothes as perhaps I ought to,' he protests, offering a quick
inventory of the outfit he happened to have on. 'Shirt: admittedly made to
measure, but years ago, and in Hong Kong, not Jermyn Street. Tweed safari
suit and pointed brown lace-ups: perks from some old theatre production.
Brown silk scarf, with Jacqumar label chicly exposed: borrowed from wife.'
Extraordinarily, Gilmore cannot even bring himself to regard
the popularity of James Onedin as his own achievement. 'Any one of 40
actors,' he says, 'could have played that part and been as successful as I
was. I was just the lucky one.' But then, in a profession not normally noted
for its false modesty or reserve, Gilmore is a strikingly reluctant
interviewee. After a particularly sticky interchange on Open House
Pete Murray wanted to know why he was always reticent 'Reticent?' muttered
Gilmore, wilfully hearing 'resin'. 'Isn't that something that comes out of
And what he does tell you is all too often material that
would strike despondency in the heart of the most artless publicity agent. A
steady stream of gags told against himself, often delivered in the heavy
tones of Hollywood. As if he's mocking that part of him that's busy being a
hardworking Yorkshire-born series star. The one anecdote he never fails to
relate is how he's appeared in 14 flop musicals, mostly West End. True to
form he tried to tell me, 'For some years I drifted from one disaster to
another ... 14 flops.' 'Fourteen?' I challenged. 'Surely not 14?' 'At
least 12.' Long pause: 'Well, I can name six ...'
Later, came another admission: he became an actor less by
design than by default. Having left school without any paper qualifications
he came south to seek his fortune, and before very long found a fixed
address in Chalk Farm and a job in a percolator factory. It took another
year or so before he decided that the stage was the only good career open to
an academic duffer. So he applied - and was accepted - at RADA along with
near contemporaries Bryan Pringle, Ronald Fraser and James Villiers. They
stayed but Gilmore was asked to leave, because, as he says plainly, 'They
thought then that I showed no promise.'
No simple salty yarns these days; James Onedin (played by
and sister Elizabeth Fraser (Jessica Benton) find their separate shipping
interests bring them into head-on collision.
There followed what Gilmore
graphically describes as his 'Lost Empires' period: gloomy auditions and
some Good-Companions-style rep in which fading theatre and
ex-Gaiety-girl landladies figured largely. Advancement and a £5 a week raise
(to £8) came in the early 50s when he was reunited to the ranks of the
George Mitchell Singers, the precursors of the Black and White Minstrels.
Decked out in spangles or nipped-in soldier suits he found himself
memorising 'Sing Something Simple' songs and backing soloists like Eve
Boswell at the Blackpool Opera House.
It's conceivable that Peter Gilmore owes his well-developed
humour to the next stage in his career - stooging for comics like Al Read
and Harry Secombe, with whom he spent several happy summer seasons. Not so
long ago he was reunited with Secombe in the lift at Television Centre and
they launched spontaneously into their favourite old routines. 'Jokes as old
as the hills,' says Gilmore. 'The sort of sequence where he'd be a Greek
statue surprising the "servant bearing tray" by coming to life with some
nonsense like "What's a Greek urn?" The days of sexist jokes of the "She's
all meat and no potatoes" order they were.'
They were also the days, or rather the years, when Peter
Gilmore could be seen in a wider range of jobs than he can easily recall. He
read the prayers on television, flitted through a good many Carry On
films and was whistled off the shopping floor by Miriam Karlin in The
Dress Factory (1961). He turned up in Hugh and I with Terry Scott
and played a medical inspector in The Doctors before they merged into
Owen MD. He read Enid Blyton's Island of Adventure on
Jackanory (but points out that for a really knock-out thriller he really
prefers the John Buchan and H.G. Wells works he read as a child). He
has been Prince Charming in a Palladium pantomime and (passing unrecognised
because of his short back and no sides) played a cameo part as Private
Burgess in the shooting-stand sequence of Oh! What a Lovely War.
He is pleased now to be
returning to The Onedin Line, which he thinks offers the audience a
degree of involvement with characters they have learned to love. And this
new series brings a twist to the plot as James Onedin's sister Elizabeth
becomes interested in her father-in-law's steamship company and enters into
bitter competition with her brother.
With hindsight, Gilmore is not altogether convinced that he
would have chosen to be an actor: 'Ideally I'd have liked to work with my
hands. To have followed a romantic and lucrative course as, say, a market
gardener. That would have yielded glittering prizes and security. In
this profession you just have to count on being out of work four or five
times a year. It's more like gambling than a career. But if you stake a
fiver at roulette you can't demand to win.'
24 - 30 April 1976
© Radio Times
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