Stage and screen actor who appeared in many TV police dramas including Z Cars, The Gentle Touch and A Touch of Frost
The actor Bernard Holley, who has died aged 81, was a well-known face on British screens for 50 years, notably a four-year stint in the popular BBC police drama Z Cars, highly regarded since the 1960s for its ground-breaking social realism.
Originally cast as an unnamed PC, he was quickly taken on as a regular. Over 250 episodes between 1967 and 1971 he became familiar to the viewing public. PC Newcombe was a dependable, genial copper, and Holley’s unshowy, authentic performance was a central asset to the series, which was hugely popular at the time. “It came as a wake-up call to television,” he said about the show. “Gritty, northern, tough – people just loved it.” And BBC staff crammed into the galleries just to see this new way of making television, he said.
A subtle actor with a natural twinkle and a warm, reassuring presence, he rose through the TV cop ranks, later playing a detective-inspector – and the love interest of series star Jill Gascoine – in another mould-breaking police series, The Gentle Touch (1982-84). He ultimately made chief constable in A Touch of Frost (1999, 2003) – the lead actor, David Jason, personally requesting him for the role.
Bernard was born in Eastcote, Middlesex (now in the London borough of Hillingdon), the son of Doris (nee Martin) and Fred, a heating engineer. Fred died when Bernard was two years old, and Doris later married Henry Wilton. They had a further six children, which resulted in a happy, close-knit family. He was educated at Kilburn grammar school but left aged 16 to work as an office boy. The class clown, he always felt that he was performing to an imaginary camera and hankered to act – and so he enrolled at the Rose Bruford drama college, Sidcup, in 1961.
Upon graduation he made his professional debut in Arnold Wesker’s Chips with Everything (Lincoln, 1963) followed by repertory theatre in Manchester, Derby and Hornchurch before his London debut at Regent’s Park open air theatre in 1966. That year he made his first television appearance in a BBC schools programme, Men in History, and after episodes of The Newcomers soap (1966) and Softly, Softly (1967), he joined Z Cars.
When he decided to leave the show he first defied typecasting with a strong turn as the double-agent Gilbert Gifford, opposite Glenda Jackson in the acclaimed Elizabeth R (1971) and then in Doctor Who as the titular nemesis in The Claws of Axos (1971) with Jon Pertwee. This involved a spandex costume, ping-pong balls for eyes and the application of gold spray paint to his face and hair. He had already played a friendly scientist opposite Patrick Troughton in 1967’s The Tomb of the Cybermen, and in 2011 and 2015 revived both parts – with Doctors Tom and Colin Baker – for the audio company Big Finish, for which he also played memorable villains in Dorian Gray (2014) and Survivors (2015).
Other TV roles – of many, he was rarely out of work – included Mr Hurst in Please Sir! (1972); the lead in both series of John Esmonde and Bob Larbey’s superior nostalgic comedy Now and Then (1983-84); Richard, Lesley Joseph’s love interest, in Birds of a Feather (1998); the Rev Green in Hollyoaks (2000-01) and four different parts in other Doctor Whos (2001-14).
A successful working relationship with the producer Clive Doig also made him a regular face on children’s television, displaying his versatility as part of the resident ensemble in both The Deceivers (1981) and Eureka (1982-86). He was a familiar storyteller on Jackanory (1974-91), his renditions of Joan Eadington’s Jonny Briggs stories being especially well loved.
With his modulated tones and clear diction – sturdy, reassuring, or cushion-soft as needed – Holley was always in demand for documentary narrations, video games and adverts. He even spoofed his voice-over man persona in the 2013 short film A Voice to Die For.
On stage he took leading roles in Sleuth (Bromley, 1977), The Norman Conquests (a favourite, playing the title role at Leatherhead in 1978), Bedroom Farce (Leatherhead, 1979), Wife Begins at Forty (national tour, 1982), Noises Off (Savoy, 1983), and joined a number of productions at the Orange Tree, Richmond: most recently Mary Broome in 2011. In 1972 he appeared in the West End in My Fat Friend (Globe, Shaftesbury Avenue – now the Gielgud) with Kenneth Williams. Holley, a great listener and kindly man, is one of the few to escape a wrathful comment in Williams’s famously waspish diaries.
He met Jean Brockie, a model, in the 60s when he gatecrashed her farewell party – she was due to emigrate to Canada the following week but after meeting him she decided to stay. They married in 1964. She survives him, as do their son, Michael, grandchildren, Marly and Isla, and five of his siblings.
• Bernard John Holley, actor, born 9 August 1940; died 22 November 2021