Book review: The Richard Beckinsale Story

by David Clayton

Any talented celebrity who dies young is likely to be remembered with fondness – especially those who found fame bringing laughter. When Richard Beckinsale died of a heart attack in 1979, at the age of just 31, he had already taken pivotal roles in not one, but two, hugely successful sitcoms.

He’ll long be remembered for playing both Godber in Porridge, the naïve youngster taken under the wing of Ronnie Barker’s seasoned old lag, and student Alan Moore, the laid-back foil for Rising Damp’s neurotic, seedy Rigsby. His star was certainly in the ascendant as his natural Everyman style – not to mention the charismatic twinkle in his eyes – was winning him plenty of fans.

So what can a biography hope to add to that legacy? In this case, not a huge amount – although David Clayton’s book does serve as a poignant reminder of a talent taken away too early.

Though affectionate, this is a largely perfunctory run-down of Becky’s professional CV, including his less-famous roles, interspersed with tender tributes from those who worked with him. But while it comprehensively charts his rise from school through RADA and rep and on to small-screen fame, little insight and revelation is to be found in its 188 brief pages.

There doesn’t seem to be much input from the family, so many personal aspects are glossed over. His first marriage to Margaret Bradley, for example, lasted six years, though it’s treated as if it was a brief, youthful mistake.

For the main part, the book comprises chunky quotes from former colleagues, linked by just enough narrative to get from one to the next. It gives the feel of a This Is Your Life-style tribute, with one celebrity after another recalling what a natural he was on screen, how charming and unassuming he was to be around, and what a shame it was that this great man died before his full potential could be realised.

Unfortunately, the traits that apparently made him such an all-round good egg, also make him an unexciting subject for a biography, so Clayton tends to wind up repeating himself. We’re told at least three times, in slightly different forms of words, that women wanted him while men wanted to be him.

Clayton a Manchester Evening News journalist previously specialising in Man City books, is also an inelegant writer, and the prose is laden with the overblown cliché and empty speculation of a football commentator. Typical is this sentence, about his split from Margaret and their daughter Samantha: ‘A caged bird sings, but the song is that much sweeter when they are free to spread their wings and go where they please. Richard was singing sweetly…’ Gimme a break.

Or how about this insight: ‘Deaths of celebrities before their time were rare, but not totally unheard of.’ Does that actually mean anything? We also learn that Rising Damp co-star Don Warrington was ‘unique in his own way’ – what, as opposed to unique in the same way as loads of people?

This is a book in need of a good editor. Whenever Clayton strays from his quotes, the sentences clunk along, needing someone to tidy up the awkward phrasing – someone, ideally, who knows the correct use of the word ‘ironically’, too.

Clayton reports that Beckinsale had premonitions of his early death, once waking up in a cold sweat over a dream that he was dying of a heart attack. That, he suggests, is why he worked so hard – though he concedes it could simply have been any actor’s fear of unemployment that was driving him. To further satisfy lovers of the supernatural, even Doris Stokes gets a look-in, claiming to have spoken to Beckinsale from beyond the grave. He was ‘sensitive’, she concludes.

Oh, and any biographer who gets something as important as the date of their subject’s death wrong doesn’t instil much confidence in the accuracy of the rest of the information they impart. Beckinsale was found dead on the morning of March 19, 1979, not the 31st as Clayton has it.

The actor’s early death was certainly a loss to the world of entertainment, but he surely deserves a more insightful biography than this.

Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

  • The Richard Beckinsale Story by David Clayton is published by The History Press at £20. Click here to buy it from Amazon for £13.

Published: 5 Jan 2009

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