The Daily Telegraph
Character actor whose career ranged from Ken Loach social-realist drama to the sitcom Get Some In!
TONY SELBY, the actor, who has died aged 83, could play social realism with conviction, but his genial Cockney personality and highly mobile facial features made him well suited to comedy roles; he created a memorable sitcom baddie, the drill instructor Corporal Marsh, in the series Get Some In!
Written with Selby in mind by the creators of The Good Life, John Esmonde and Bob Larbey, Get Some In! (ITV, 1975-78) was a nostalgic look back at National Service in the 1950s and the misadventures of a group of conscripts at “RAF Skelton”.
It regularly attracted 15 million viewers and launched the career of Robert Lindsay, as the reformed Teddy Boy Jakey Smith (“that’s Smifff, with three fs”). But Selby, who topped the billing, was in his element as the sadistic, sarcastic, insecure and scheming NCO, Cpl Percy Marsh, who craves promotion and delights in bullying the “erks” (as the lowest ranks were known). “My name is Marsh,” he snarls. “B-A-S-T-AR-D Marsh.”
Selby’s character would be better known today if the series had been repeated; but, perhaps on account of some outdated language, it is one of a number of shows from that decade to have faded into obscurity.
By the time Selby was cast by Thames TV in Get Some In!, he had already established himself in the 1960s as an actor sought out by up-and-coming directors of gritty drama, particularly Ken Loach, who cast Selby in his debut television play, an experimental work called Catherine (1964) for the BBC’S “Teletale” strand; the following year Loach directed Selby again, for the acclaimed Wednesday Play anthology series, in Up the Junction, Tap on the Shoulder, and 3 Clear Sundays, the last of which tackled capital punishment, with Selby on stirring form as the young man sentenced to hang.
The same year he appeared in Edward Bond’s Saved at the Royal Court, which so appalled the Lord Chamberlain that he refused to grant it a licence, so the fearless director, William Gaskill, showed it to a private audience under “club conditions”. (The attendant publicity hastened the end of theatre censorship.)
As part of a remarkable ensemble of young talent, Selby played Fred, leader of a gang of council estate youths – “monsters of amorality” as Alan Brien put it in The Sunday Telegraph – who casually stone to death Fred’s baby in its pram. Selby recalled hearing the noise of seats being vacated mid-performance by horrified theatregoers.
Attending a rare revival of the play 46 years later, he explained that he understood it intuitively because he had grown up on a London housing estate.
From a family of cab drivers and musical theatre performers, Anthony Samuel Selby was born in Chelsea on February 26 1938 and brought up in one of the Pimlico Peabody flats. His father Samuel (“taxi Sam”) drove a cab; his mother Annie (née Weaver) was a seamstress and waitress.
Tony was bitten early by the acting bug and from age 10 spent six years at the Italia Conti stage school. In 1949 he made his London debut as Curly in Peter Pan at the Scala Theatre. Other theatre highlights included Brendan Behan’s The Quare Fellow in 1956 with Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop; Lacey in Alfie at the Duchess Theatre (1963 – and uncredited in the 1966 film); a Cockney trooper in Robin Maugham’s wartime drama Enemy! co-starring Dennis Waterman (1969); and in 1996 his turn as Ben Rumson in Paint Your Wagon at Regent’s Park open air theatre was nominated for an Olivier award. One of his own favourites was the part of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof at the Theatre Royal, Plymouth (1989).
Of Selby’s films, two that stand out are Villain (1971) with Richard Burton, and Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall (1973). In 1967 he took a small part in Loach’s kitchensink film Poor Cow.
Meanwhile, over six decades Selby contributed countless solid guest-starring roles to television drama series and sitcoms, among them Crown Court, Bless This House, The Good Life, Minder, Lovejoy, The Bill and its spin-off, Burnside. In a 1975 episode of The Sweeney, “Queen’s Pawn”, he dialled up the flamboyance as Johnny Lyon, a cocky London hoodlum who goads John Thaw’s DI Regan into a ruthless pursuit.
The bulk of his fan mail in later years, however, came from Doctor Who fans, after he joined two successive embodiments of the Doctor – Colin Baker and Sylvester Mccoy – as the roguish mercenary Sabalom Glitz, a sort of intergalactic Del Boy, in “The Trial of a Time Lord” and “Dragonfire”.
More recently he gained a wide audience as Phil Mitchell’s uncle Clive in Eastenders; in New Tricks he once again acted opposite his friend Dennis Waterman, one of the original cast of Saved; and in My Family he was reunited with Robert Lindsay.
An actor’s actor, held in high regard by his peers, Selby was happiest performing within an ensemble, and his social life also revolved around friends in the theatre world; other interests included football – he played for the Showbiz XI and supported Queens Park Rangers – and singing jazz standards.
He married first, in 1964, Jacqui Milburn, a dancer; they had two children, Matt and Samantha; the marriage was dissolved in 1981. In 1986 he married, secondly, Gina Sellers (née Bright), who survives him, along with his children and a stepson, Richard.
Tony Selby, born February 26 1938, died September 5 2021