Actor and screenwriter who took Hollywood by storm with the 1981 film Chariots of Fire
Tuesday 3 November 2015
When Colin Welland, who has died aged 81 after suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, was handed the Oscar for his screenplay of Chariots of Fire in 1982, he waved it in the air like a battle mace and declared: “The British are coming!” In fact, it was some years before another British film received an Academy award. But Welland as a screenwriter had certainly arrived.
Hollywood recognition for Chariots of Fire, which was based on the true story of two athletes in the 1924 Olympics, gave him immense satisfaction. He later wrote that the initial American reaction to the idea had been: who wants a story about two runners from long ago? “When we showed it at Twickenham, a Hollywood producer left after 10 minutes, came back at the end and said that they wouldn’t have anything to do with it. When it won four Oscars, I don’t know where he hid himself.”
Welland was a champion of British talent and complained about a lack of investment in it. His own reputation was based on his versatility as an actor and writer in theatre, television and film. As the English teacher Mr Farthing, in Ken Loach’s film Kes (1969), he won a Bafta for best supporting actor. He became a popular figure after three years (1962-65) in the television police series Z Cars. It was, he recalled, “written by the best writers and had the best directors” – including Loach. Welland’s reputation grew alongside the rise of the political left in the 1970s; his views were inspired by a personal background that he saw as limiting and unfair.
He was born Colin Williams in Leigh, Lancashire, and grew up in Liverpool, the son of Jack, a keen leftwinger and trade unionist, and his wife, Nora. His father forbade mention of Winston Churchill, a controversial figure with the left since his time as home secretary in 1910, and refused to fly the Union Jack on Empire Day, as was common practice at the time. Sometimes theirs was the only house in the street not to do so.
Welland attended Newton-le-Willows grammar school, St Helens, where he was good at acting and art. But he disliked selective education and later said in the Observer that grammar schools were “the epitome of bad education”.
After spells at Bretton Hall College of Education, West Yorkshire, and at Goldsmiths College in London, where he gained a teacher’s diploma in art and drama, he became an art teacher (1958-62). Meanwhile, he would sit in the bar of the New Theatre in Manchester, which was frequented by Granada TV staff, hoping to wangle a job as an assistant floor manager. It never happened, but he was eventually offered a job as an assistant stage manager and actor by David Scase at Manchester Library theatre (1962-64). Welland would joke that not only had he played the lead in Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party, but he had also swept the stage and managed the props between speaking his lines.
He also tried his hand at radio, presenting the BBC news programme North at Six. Told to speak informally, as if to friends in a pub, he was accused by listeners in Cheshire of not being able to speak the Queen’s English, and lost the job. Meanwhile, though, the acting roles were coming in. After appearing in the Granada TV crime series The Verdict Is Yours, he was given the part of PC David Graham in the BBC’s groundbreaking series Z Cars, and became a familiar face in the nation’s sitting rooms.
The stage work that followed included playing in farce in Johannesburg at £140 a week. He had pangs of conscience about going to South Africa to play before segregated audiences, but comforted himself with the thought that back in Britain he would have a retort to those who argued with him about apartheid: “Yes, but have you ever actually been there?”
In films, too, his Z Cars experience came in handy. He played a detective in the film Villain (1971), about an East End gangster played by Richard Burton. In the meantime, also, he was developing as a writer. In the late 60s he wrote his first play, Bangelstein’s Boys, intended for stage production and built around the life and obscenities of a rugby club outing. It was at a time when the TV campaigner Mary Whitehouse and her supporters were on the attack and theatre managements were cautious. Welland’s own account of the situation was that stage impresarios had laughed loud and long at the experiences of the rugby outing, but then said it was too vulgar.
When the play was produced on ITV’s Sunday Night Theatre in 1969, it proved to be so popular that he stepped up his writing (in longhand in notebooks), creating in 1970 the plays The Hallelujah Handshake for the BBC and – screened a week later on ITV – Roll on Four O’Clock, drawing on his own experiences as a teacher and heightening the frustrations he had felt. Another TV play from that year, Say Goodnight to Your Grandma, was turned into a West End success with its title tweaked to Say Goodnight to Grandma (1973), its blend of political militancy and bawdy humour making it highly fashionable. Its principal character was a wife who fights her jealous mother-in-law, who is always trying to exclude her, by turning up to a party dressed in a football shirt and red knickers, and propositioning every man in sight. Kisses at Fifty (1973), an exploration of middle-aged affairs, won him a Bafta. In 1970, 1973 and 1974 he received the Writers’ Guild awards for best TV playwright.
The Thatcherite and Majoresque 80s and 90s were not the most fruitful ground for Welland, whose political stance was seen by some as becoming old hat, but following on from his writing successes with Yanks (1979), directed by John Schlesinger and starring Vanessa Redgrave and Richard Gere, and Chariots of Fire, he pulled off memorable adaptations for the big screen: A Dry White Season (1989), based on a novel by André Brink and starring Donald Sutherland and Janet Suzman, and War of the Buttons (1994).
As an actor he had always done well in films – in addition to Kes, his appearances included Straw Dogs (1971) and Dancin’ Thru the Dark (1990), directed by Mike Ockrent and written by Willy Russell. On TV, he was in Dennis Potter’s play Blue Remembered Hills (1979).
On stage, he starred in Howard Brenton’s 1988 Royal Shakespeare Company “deconstruction” of Winston Churchill, The Churchill Play, in which he portrayed the great war leader as a less than great politician and a less than perfect man. In one of his final TV roles, he played the Everton manager Harry Catterick in The Fix (1997).
Welland’s columns on sport for the Observer and the Independent proved popular. One included a resounding denunciation of snobbish rules imposed by golf clubs, headlined Beware the Bores and Bigots. His admirers insisted that his broad streak of concern for human decency prevented him from becoming either.
Welland married Patricia Sweeney in 1962. She survives him, along with a son, three daughters and six grandchildren.
• Colin Welland (Colin Williams), screenwriter and actor, born 4 July 1934; died 2 November 2015