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Obituary: Lionel Jeffries

Lionel Jeffries
Lionel Jeffries: Versatile film star

Lionel Jeffries enjoyed a long and varied acting career, most notably in film comedies like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. He also wrote the screenplay for, and directed, The Railway Children.

It used to be a standing joke in the UK acting profession that one should "never work with dogs, babies and Lionel Jeffries".

Although the maxim is not original, there is no doubt Jeffries's innate abilities as a comic were formidable. He did not so much steal scenes as remould them in his own image.

Take, as a case in point, the 1963 film The Wrong Arm of the Law. Originally conceived as a star vehicle for Peter Sellers, who played a bumbling crook, it was Jeffries's equally incompetent police inspector who was most memorable.

Jeffries, bald and with a distinctive moustache, was instantly recognisable and, besides more than 100 film appearances, he was a regular on both stage and television for more than 40 years, often as policemen and military types.

Wide range

He was born in London on 10 June 1926. Both his parents were members of the Salvation Army and worked with poor people in London's East End.

Lionel Jeffries's father owned a cine camera and projector and some of his earliest memories were of home-made movies which he edited with his father, on the kitchen table.

During World War II he served in the Army in Burma and as a member of the West African Frontier Force. He also lost his hair at the same time, a result, he said, of sweating in the humidity of the Far East.

After being demobbed, Lionel Jeffries started his acting career in repertory theatre, making his film debut in 1950.

Lionel Jeffries as Grandpa Potts in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
Lionel Jeffries as Grandpa Potts in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

Two years later came Jeffries's first major role, alongside Sir John Mills and Eric Portman in The Colditz Story.

During the 1950s, he appeared in films like Bhowani Junction, Doctor at Large and Blue Murder at St Trinian's before excelling as the instantly dislikeable Marquis of Queensbury in The Trials of Oscar Wilde in 1960.

But it was as Grandpa Potts in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang that he will perhaps be best remembered. He later recalled: "Dick Van Dyke was older than me and I was playing his dad."

In 1970, Jeffries directed and wrote the screenplay for the film version of E Nesbit's The Railway Children. The movie proved a huge success and remains a perennial Christmas favourite.

More recently, Lionel Jeffries worked on television, in sitcoms like Tom, Dick and Harriet as well as making a cameo appearance on BBC television's medical drama Holby City.

Obituary: Lionel Jeffries
19 Feb 10 |  Entertainment
Railway stars remember Jeffries
19 Feb 10 |  Entertainment

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