Craggy faced character actor Victor Maddern appeared in hundreds of British films, and wrote hundreds of angry letters to the BBC. This is his story, as told to the ladies of the Women’s Institute…
Victor Maddern At The Women’s Institute…,
Victor Maddern Enterprises VE2,
There is a telling scene in the 1960 British comedy film Carry On Constable. Kenneth Williams, playing the role of an eager new police recruit too full of theory and not enough practice, apprehends a suspicious-looking Victor Maddern lingering with intent outside a jeweller’s shop. Williams recognises Maddern immediately as a criminal type determined to launch a smash and grab raid, informing him that he is ‘a simian amorist with a paralysed conscience’ and that ‘crime is an illness, its symptoms show in the face’. The joke is of course that Victor Maddern is actually a police detective sergeant, and his only scheming is wondering how to purchase jewellery for his wife without her finding out. These sorts of comic situations seem to happen all the time in the early Carry On films.
It is not the strongest joke in British cinema history I admit, but those distinctive criminal looks were to guarantee Victor Maddern a long career in film and television. Maddern’s craggy, beaten and crumpled face was the key to an acting career that would see him make well over 200 film, TV and radio appearances. Many a classic British film called on his talents to play soldiers, sailors, villains and generic tough-looking bruisers, and while never quite taking the lead Maddern would be a familiar face in a career spanning over forty years.
Victor Maddern was born in Ilford, Essex, 1928, the son of a bus conductor. He was inspired to act from an early age by appearing in plays staged in local church halls by the youth temperance movement Band of Hope, which he had cheerfully joined as a three-year-old after renouncing the evils of alcohol. Little came of these early youthful ambitions, though the desire to act would remain with him. Already tall for his age and looking (as he always seemed to throughout his life) much older than he actually was, Maddern left school in 1943 aged just 15 and joined the Merchant Navy, partly to avoid the constant suspicion that he was somehow dodging his military call up.
He would serve on-board ships for the next three years, making many crossings between Britain and India, and was on the first ship to enter Singapore after the surrender of the Japanese. Despite many dull office jobs that followed his post-war discharge, that youthful desire to act had never quite left him. Frustrated by his lack of progress since leaving the Merchant Navy and in the absence of any information about how to become an actor, Maddern made his way to a Citizens Advice Bureau in search of some sort of hope and maybe a job as a door-to-door salesman. It was a journey that would change the course of his life.
The woman on duty that day was the actress Margaret Diamond, sister of character actor Arnold Diamond, and on seeing that the exasperated Maddern was carrying a RADA prospectus, the conversation turned away from the subject of sales techniques, to her own experiences at the Academy before the war. Put off as many were by the pre-war RADA’s reputation as a finishing school for the elite, Maddern had previously held out little hope of entering but encouraged by Margaret Diamond’s advice and encouragement, he applied for and won a Leverhulme scholarship and was ready to take his place. Before joining though, Maddern discovered a government scheme intended for former service personnel that paid a whole ten shillings a week more than his scholarship. So now with money to spare and his place at RADA assured, Maddern became one of the first scholars at RADA to make up that post-war influx of working class raw acting talent, which relied more on actual ability, than on cut glass accents, Brylcreemed hair and old school ties.
Maddern was lucky enough to be taught at RADA by a teacher who lived next door to John Boulting, one half of the influential film-making Boulting brothers. Invited by the teacher to attend a play Maddern was appearing in, Boulting was immediately impressed by his ‘marvellous face’, a polite way to describe a look that was full of character and pock marks but low on beauty. On the back of what he had seen, Boulting cast Maddern in his 1950 thriller Seven Days to Noon. Without hopefully giving the ending away, Victor Maddern’s small but key role comes towards the end of the film, and was the first of many rugged-faced military types he would play on screen. As a part of the Boulting brothers’ informal repertory company, Maddern would go on to appear in their other classic 50s comedies, Private’s Progress, and its follow-up (of sorts) I’m All Right Jack.
In amongst the many of hundreds of film and television appearances he made, Victor Maddern’s one real shot at enduring stardom came in 1962 when he was taken to Hollywood’s Desilu Studios to film the TV series Fair Exchange, starring opposite American film and stage actor Eddie Foy Jr. The premise saw Maddern and Foy playing World War Two army buddies whose daughters would swap places, moving in turn to the USA and England for a weekly hour of comic culture clashes and humorous misunderstandings.
With Judy Carne and a teenaged Dennis Waterman playing Maddern’s children, the show was broadcast on CBS at prime time as a replacement for The Twilight Zone. Despite its popularity Fair Exchange was dropped from the schedules after just one season, leading to a campaign by viewers to see it restored. With the studios bowing to pressure, it duly returned for a further season in 1963 before finally being axed. Maddern would make other brief appearances in American series such as Bonanza and Perry Mason, but he soon returned once more to the UK and to further jobbing bit parts, popping up in familiar British fare such as The Larkins on TV, and in films like Carry On Spying.
Despite a long career in acting, Victor Maddern managed to lead an active life outside of show business, becoming something of an entrepreneur in the process. With his wife’s help he founded a successful business, Scripts Limited, typing and printing film and television scripts for many years. An empty upstairs room in his city offices would lead to another sideline coaching speech makers and public speakers, and eventually to the founding of his own public speaking school Talking Point, which would apparently offer discounts to members of the Conservative party.
Ever enterprising then, it is no surprise to learn that Victor Maddern also turned his entrepreneurial attention to setting up his very own record label. While that does sound mightily impressive, the grandly named Victor Maddern Enterprises only ever released two discs. Sadly there are no novelty recordings, children’s songs or comedy ditties, but the two releases are both highly odd and reveal a lot about Victor Maddern’s ongoing obsessions.
The first Victor Maddern Enterprises release, 1979’s Just For Today was a collection of religious reflections and prayers, roping in various members of Victor’s family and a selection of his showbiz chums such as Dame Sybil Thorndike, Sydney Tafler and Bernard Lee. Also included in the package was a wealth of photocopied notes presented on Victor’s own headed notepaper. Lengthy letters addressed to the record’s purchaser bemoaning the lack of interest in the record by the BBC, and imploring them to buy numerous copies for friends and family, were accompanied by press clippings referring to Ranulph Fiennes’ avowed intention to take Victor’s record on his next polar expedition for the benefit of his crew, as well as photocopied letters from the Vatican with a photo of Pope John Paul II acknowledging receipt of a gifted copy of Just For Today. Presumably it resides there still in the Pope’s personal record collection.
The second release, or final release depending on your point of view, was the equally odd Victor Maddern At The Women’s Institute… Released in 1984 it is, just as the name suggests, a recording of Victor Maddern addressing the Women’s Institute. The tale of Victor’s life is interspersed with various showbiz anecdotes and recollections, and the record serves as a lively humorous recounting of a long and successful career to an appreciative audience. It does though end on a rather odd and typically Maddernesque note as the address to the WI abruptly finishes and Victor addresses the listener directly, pleading his case for the establishment of a clean wholesome family TV channel to protect the very old and the very young.
While Victor is at great pains to state his opposition to censorship, his vision of a TV channel free from obscenity, bad language, and crudity is important enough for him to give out his Just For Today PO Box address, urging and imploring anyone buying the record to write to him directly in support. It is an odd way to end what was up to that point a rather cosy avuncular chat. Even a mere cursory glance through the routine tastelessness and vulgarity of television channels some forty years on, does make me wonder what on Earth must have so riled Victor Maddern so much back in the early 1980s. It also makes me glad that Victor Maddern did not live long enough to witness the likes of Naked Attraction or Love Island. The point is again made on the rear of the album sleeve, which rather than being decorated with cheery pictures of Victor amusing the gathered WI ladies, is plastered with a collection of random letters from the BBC, the IBA and various government departments, courteously acknowledging Victor’s latest angry diatribe railing against the TV industry, and politely hinting in a not too subtle manner that he stop writing to them and maybe find some other way of occupying his time.
Towards the end of his career, Victor moved to a farm in South Ockendon, Essex, where he continued with his various money making schemes; growing mushrooms and rearing rabbits without any notable success in either enterprise. With his classic, far from good looks always ensuring regular employment on TV and films, and despite his habit of writing angry letters to broadcasters and film companies, Victor Maddern worked as a jobbing actor until the very end of his life, dying in 1993 aged 67 of a brain tumour.