Obituary Peter Coke Stage The Guardian
The actor Peter Coke, who has died aged 95, will be remembered for having brought his firm delivery and precise diction to the role of Paul Temple. For audiences on the Light Programme, he became what BBC publicity once termed “radio’s famous investigator” at a time when radio was the dominant form of home entertainment, and continued with it well into the television age. In what could mildly be described as a full life, he inhabited several artistic disciplines, writing plays and creating sculptures from sea shells.
Born in Southsea, Hampshire, he moved with his family to Kenya after his father changed careers from commander in the Royal Navy to coffee farmer. The family surname was pronounced “Cook”. A side effect of this was that the comedian Peter Cook, when commencing his professional career, was nearly forced by Equity to change his name; after he had suggested such alternatives as Xavier Blancmange, the union backed down, and Cook “assured them I wouldn’t go round telling people that I was Paul Temple”.
After attending Stowe school in Buckinghamshire, and working briefly in a consulate in southern France, the young Coke made a belated application to Rada, winning a scholarship. Several West End roles followed before the second world war, when he became a major in the Royal Artillery, serving in north Africa. In peacetime, he opened an antique stall at the Portobello Road market, later expanding to a shop in Parson’s Green, west London.
Having played a villain in Paul Temple and the Vandyke Affair (1950), which starred Kim Peacock as Temple, Coke took the role of Francis Durbridge’s creation himself in 1954. Marjorie Westbury, renowned for readings on radio, played the sleuth’s wife, Steve. In the words of the entertainment historian Keith Howes: “All the plots were hugely convoluted, usually set in and around shady nightclubs and studded with murders and attempted murders, halting deathbed revelations, breathtaking escapes from gunfire, flooded mills or burning boats, and a final episode gathering of the suspects.”
Coke was also active on early TV. Lady Precious Stream (1950) and The Man Who Was Caliph for a Day (1951), with his fellow radio eminence Valentine Dyall, were adapted from ancient oriental tales. The second was made for children, as was Sister Gold (1952), with Coke as St Francis of Assisi, the equally durable future producer Barry Letts, and Leslie Crowther.
Again for Durbridge, he was in two of the writer’s earliest TV “serials”, Operation Diplomat (1952) and The Teckman Biography (1953-54); the former was produced by Martyn Webster, also responsible for all the Temple radio stories. Despite the involvement as writer of Val Gielgud (John’s brother), Gravelhanger (1954) received devastating reviews. From 1950 onwards, Coke wrote several boulevard plays, the most successful being Breath of Spring (1958), about a bunch of mildly larcenous old ladies, later musicalised on Broadway as 70, Girls, 70 (1971).
It was also loosely filmed as Make Mine Mink (1960), starring Terry-Thomas. Coke’s feature films included Keep Smiling (1938), supporting Gracie Fields; I Met a Murderer (1939), starring James Mason; and A Gentleman’s Gentleman (1939), from Roy William Neill, director of Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes series. The comedy Carry On Admiral (1957) was not one of the Carry On series, although it did feature Joan Sims.
He played Temple for 11 stories, of which all but one still exist; some were remakes of earlier stories which had starred other actors. The last, in 1968, was a remake of a 1945 tale, in which Temple had been played by Barry Morse. The following year, a Temple television series began, starring Francis Matthews.
Coke would later maintain that this had been a failure – in truth, it was a success (it ran until 1971), but with a different audience. Having retired from acting in 1976, and returned to the family base in north Norfolk, Coke developed a fascination with intricate sculptures made from sea shells. Eventually he made his own, ambitious in size and design; they were later successfully exhibited in London, and remain on display at the Peter Coke Shell Gallery at Sheringham.
With the popularity of Temple repeats on the digital channel BBC7, one of its presenters, Michaela Saunders, interviewed Coke for a special, Peter Coke and the Paul Temple Case, in 2006. He recalled how Temple’s phrase “By Timothy!” always struck him as rather silly, so he tried to say it as quickly as possible, and that he once wrote a parody, which he and Westbury performed during studio downtime; Durbridge was not amused. Coke’s partner, Fred Webb, pre-deceased him in 2003.
Peter John Coke, actor, writer and sculptor, born April 3 1913; died July 30 2008 This article was amended on Thursday September 11 2008. The plots of Francis Durbridge’s Paul Temple stories sometimes depended on halting deathbed revelations, rather than revolutions as we originally said.
This has been corrected.
Obituary Peter Coke Stage The Guardian