George Sewell (1924-2007)

Actor George Sewell, who died in April aged 82, was the last surviving lead actor of Gerry Anderson’s UFO series, his younger co-stars, Ed Bishop and Michael Billington, having predeceased him in 2005. In the first 17 episodes of the series, Sewell played SHADO deputy Colonel Alec Freeman, Commander Ed Straker’s closest friend who often provided an emotional contrast to Straker’s apparently detached persons.

Perhaps best-known to the general public for a notable part as Con McCarty in Mike Hodges’s cult thriller in Get Carter (1971) and his starring role as Detective Chief Inspector Alan Craven in Euston Films’ Special Branch series, he also appeared as the tough EUROSEC security chief Mark Neumann in Gerry Anderson’s Doppelgänger (1969) feature film.

Born in Hoxton in the East End of London on August 31st, 1924, George Sewell left school at 14 and followed his father into the printing trade as an apprentice printer. When the outbreak of the Second World War restricted print work due to a shortage of paper, he initially became a builder, repairing bomb-damaged houses. He was called up in 1943 and served with the Royal Air Force for the remainder of the war although he had not completed his pilot training before the war ended. After demobilisation, he took a succession of jobs – including street photographer, bricklayer, window-cleaner, carpenter, assistant road manager and drummer for a rumba band – before joining the Merchant Navy, sewing as a ship’s steward for the Cunard Line aboard the Queen Mary, the Queen Elizabeth and the Carionia on Atlantic crossings to New York. Feeling in need of a change, he resigned his commission and for six years became a motor-coach courier for a holiday tours company, a job which enabled him to explore Europe.

Sewell had never considered joining his brother Danny in the acting profession until a chance meeting with actor Dudley Sutton in a pub. Sutton suggested that Sewell should go and see theatre producer Joan Littlewood who was casting a production of a musical, Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be (Theatre Royal, Stratford East, 1959), and was looking for someone with Sewell’s distinctive features. Sutton impressed upon Sewell that Joan Littlewood didn’t like using actors in her productions, so Sewell’s lack of training would prove ideal. He accepted Sutton’s challenge and he was given a role in the production. At the age of 35, George Sewell made his acting debut and the following year he appeared on stage in the West End when the show transferred to the Garrick Theatre in 1960 – he even featured on the original cast album recording of the show, singing a duet with Barbara Windsor.

This role was followed by another, as Bert in Sparrers Can’t Sing (Theatre Royal, Stratford East, 1960), and then as Field Marshal Haig in Oh! What A Lovely War (Theatre Royal, Stratford East and Wyndham’s Theatre, 1963), which went on tour to Paris and Broadway. These three roles for the Theatre Workshop were Sewell’s training in the theatre and paved the way to a lucrative film career, with roles in This Sporting Life (1963), the film version of Sparrers Can’t Sing (1963), The Informers(1964), Deadlier Than The Male (1966), Kaleidoscope (1966), Robbery (1967), Poor Cow (1967), The Vengeance Of She(1968) and The Haunted House Of Horror (1969). He also landed a regular role as Detective Inspector Brogan in the BBC ‘s Z Cars, a recurring role in ATV’s The Power Game and guest appearances in episodes of Man In A Suitcase (The Sitting Pigeon), Gideon’s Way (Boy With A Gun), Redcap (The Pride Of The Regiment), The Man in Room 17 (The Fissile Missile Makers), Mr. Rose (The Bright Bomber), Randall And Hopkirk Deceased (Vendetta For A Dead Man) and Public Eye(Welcome To Brighton). He was also seen in instalments of the BBC ‘s acclaimed (and controversial) Wednesday Play strand, notably Three Clear Sundays, The Coming Out Party and Up The Junction.

In 1968, George Sewell was cast in Gerry Anderson’s Doppelgänger (1969) where he appeared in one of his scenes with Ed Bishop. His performance led directly to the part of Colonel Alec Freeman in UFO. Freeman ultimately proved to be one of the cult series’ most popular characters with television audiences although he was dropped from the cast before the first programme aired, During a six-month hiatus in production caused by the closure of the MGM British Studios where the series was initially filmed, changes in the cast were demanded by the American arm of ITC, the production’s financiers. The primary casualty was George Sewell, whose pock-marked features were considered to be offensive to American viewers. Gerry and Sylvia Anderson were instructed by ITC to dismiss Sewell from the cast and when filming resumed at Pinewood Studios in 1970, he had been replaced by Wanda Ventham. In order to spare his feelings, Sewell was never told the true reason for his absence from the series’ last nine episodes.

Fortunately, Sewell’s career was unaffected by his unfavourable treatment at the hands of ITC’s American executives and he moved on to other projects, including recurring roles in LWT’s Manhunt and the BBC ‘s Paul Temple (as Sammy Carson). Shortly after, he guested in another episode of Public Eye (Come into The Garden, Rose) and appeared in Get Carter (1971) before being cast in the lead role in the two filmed seasons of Special Branch, co-starring with Patrick Mower. He was also seen in Diamonds On Wheels (1973), Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975), Operation Daybreak (1976), Running Blind (1978), and instalments of The Adventurer (Target), Rising Damp (The Prowler), Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em (Learning To Drive), Don’t Forget To Write and The Sweeney (Bait).

Over the last 25 years, Sewell had appeared regularly on British television with roles in series such as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, The Gentle Touch (The Ring and Protection), Callan (Wet Job), The Chinese Detective (Wheels Within Wheels), West End Tales (Leaning), Minder (Rembrandt Doesn’t Live Here Anymore), Tales Of The Unexpected (A Passing Opportunity), Hammer House Of Mystery And Suspense (Mark Of The Devil), C.A.TS. Eyes (Love Byte), Bulman (The Name Of The Game), Doctor Who (Remembrance Of The Daleks), The Upper Hand (Minder) and The Bill (Gate Fever). He also starred as millionaire Robert Palmer in the Thames sitcom Home James! and as Detective Superintendent Frank Cottam in the BBC sitcom The Detectives.

More recently, he had appeared as ‘Huggy’ Bear in ITV’s adaptation of Harry And The Wrinklies and guested in episodes of Heartbeat (Against The Odds) and Doctors (Call Me A Sweetheart). His theatre roles included productions of Oliver!, Verdict, Putting On The Glitz, Who Killed Agatha Christie?, Policy For Murder, The Thirty Nine Steps, Dial M For Murder and a number of pantomimes. His last stage appearance was touring in Francis Durbridge’s The Gentle Hook in 2004 while his final television role was in Needle, an episode of Casualty broadcast in July 2006.

Apart from his film, television and stage work, Sewell also appeared in many corporate videos and was popular on the after-dinner speaking circuit. He also enjoyed playing roles in murder weekends as the format allowed him to improvise while working within the general framework of the plot.

Sewell had been a keen supporter of Fanderson and its activities since his first convention appearance at UFOria in London in 1988. He stepped in at the eleventh hour as the star guest at Project Straker in Bradford in 1992 (after Ed Bishop had to pull out at the last minute due to an important work commitment) and made a surprise guest appearance at Fanderson Gold in Weybridge in 1996. He was also one of the contributors to Fanderson’s The UFO Documentary programme. Always happy to talk with fans about UFO, Doppelgänger and his other work, he confessed to having an affinity with collectors, being one himself – he possessed one of the country’s finest collections of military helmets.

In recent years, George Sewell had divided his time between homes in London and Cannes in the south of France. He had been suffering from cancer for some time and died on Sunday, 1st April. He is survived by his wife Helen, their daughter Elizabeth, Elizabeth’s daughters, Isabel and Nina, and Helen’s stepson Alain. His brother Danny died in 2005.

Originally published in FAB 57.