Tuesday, November 07, 2023

James Beck (Walker in Dad's Army) and David Whitaker

Here are two stills from the earliest known TV appearance by actor James Beck, later famous as spiv 'Joe Walker' in Dad's Army.

Ivor Salter, Ronnie Corbett and James Beck
in Crackerjack, BBC TV, 19 March 1958
Michael Darbyshire and James Beck
in Crackerjack, BBC TV, 19 March 1958

This role in Crackerjack is from three years before what's usually cited as Beck's first TV role - as 'Roach' in The Fifth Form at St Dominic's (1961). (Dave Homewood's exhaustive list of Beck's TV credits says Beck might also have been in episodes of I Made News and Fabian of the Yard in the 1950s.)

The Crackerjack sketch, 'Cops and Robbers', was written by its regular comic guest stars Ronnie Corbett and Michael Darbyshire. Darbyshire receives a visit from Beck's 'Police Inspector Bright', who warns him to be on the look out for a dangerous criminal called 'Kelly' (Ivor Salter). Corbett and Darbyshire are excited by the chance to play Sherlock Holmes and catch the crook. Mayhem ensues... 

Radio Times listing for 19 March 1958
with credit for 'David Whittaker' (sic)
Although this sketch was written by Corbett and Darbyshire, I think Beck probably got the part through his friend David Whitaker, who was credited in that week's Radio Times as writer of the rest of the episode. David will have written host Eamonn Andrews's links, the 'party' games played by the child contestants and so on.

Beck and Whitaker met as actors in repertory theatre in Paignton in the summer of 1955. Two years later, still in Paignton, Beck had a role as 'Arthur Leicester' in A Hand in Marriage, a play David wrote and co-directed. Immediately after this production, David began a full-time job in the Script Unit at the BBC, and quickly worked on a wide variety of shows, Crackerjack among them.

A little after this TV appearance, in October 1958, Beck began a long stint at the York Theatre Royal, where he made life-long friends with a number of other cast members, including Jean Alexander (later 'Hilda Ogden' in Coronation Street), Trevor Bannister (later 'Mr Lucas' in Are You Being Served?), June Barry (later 'Joanie Walker', daughter of Annie, in Coronation Street and also 'June Forsyte' in The Forsyte Saga) and Alethea Charlton (an amazing character actress who later played the cavewoman 'Hur' in the first Doctor Who serial).

That last piece of casting may again have come about through David Whitaker, who was story editor on the first year of Doctor Who. Alethea was also bridesmaid when June Barry married David in the summer of 1963, and James Beck gave away the bride. The gang of friends are all visible in the surviving film from the day, some of which is including in our documentary Looking for David included on the Doctor Who - The Collection: Season 2 box-set.

St Mary Abbots Church, Kensington, 8 June 1963
Groom David Whitaker, bride June Barry, bridesmaid Alethea Charlton, ushers Trevor Bannister and  James Beck

According to June Barry, David was also at Beck's home on 31 July 1968 to watch the first episode of Dad's Army go out. More on all this in my book, David Whitaker in an Exciting Adventure with Television, which is published this week.

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