It is well known that Northern Ireland has produced and continues to produce significant numbers of talented actors and actresses. A glance through Ulster’s theatrical history will find a dazzling litany of successful names and for decades cinema cast lists have been festooned with much locally generated talent. Of course, not everyone can be a Stephen Boyd, James Ellis, Kenneth Branagh, James Nesbitt or Liam Neeson, to name a few. Some, clearly, have that extra special something that takes them to top billing.
But in the history of movie-making, the all-important supporting roles and character parts have been blessed by the involvement of Northern Irish names, and cinema has been the richer for it. Some names survive in our fondest memories but, sadly, many are forgotten as time marches on. One name, however finds itself sandwiched between these two notions, and that name is Sam Kydd.
We just have to look at his film and television credits from the late 1940s to the early 1980s to realise that Sam Kydd’s career coincided with a wonderful era of British cinema and evolving television. It is 100 years since his birth and as good a time as any to reflect on his career and contributions to the big and small screens.
Sam Kydd was born in Belfast on 15 February 1915. His father was an army officer and, as is inherent in military life, nomadic by career choice. The family moved to England when Sam was a child, but Belfast has fair claim to the name. James Ellis told me that Kydd lived in the Donegall Pass area but, with the exception of his most successful TV role, which we will come to later, he rarely used a Northern Ireland accent in his work. There was, said Ellis, a wall of prejudice surrounding English directors and casting agents when it came to Ulster accents and other non-English voices. Kydd got round the problem by doing auditions mostly as a Cockney.
In the 1930s, he was an entertainer, warm-up man and master of ceremonies in dance halls before joining the army. He was posted to France but was captured by the Germans and ended up in a concentration camp. Later, he wrote about his time as a POW in a book called “For You The War Is Over” and recalled, amongst other experiences, his efforts to keep inmates busy and amused by organising theatrical events and variety shows.
After the war, he was able to use his producing, directing and performing experience at the camp to find work in films. These days, anyone at home in the afternoons, in between price comparison, pension and insurance advertisements, can often see him popping up in black and white films in various small parts. Look out for him in “The Cruel Sea”, “Cockleshell Heroes”, “The 39 Steps”, “Carlton Browne of the F.O.”, “I’m Alright Jack”, “Passport To Pimlico”, “Reach For The Sky” and on and on. He has played soldiers, sailors, policemen, sentries, ticket clerks, truck drivers, mechanics, postmen, engineers, milkmen, taxi drivers and all sorts of other roles as an almost never out of work journeyman actor.
In the early 1960s on television, he had a decent role as Croaker Jones in around 40 episodes of a cargo ship sitcom called “Mess Mates”, with Archie Duncan, Fulton Mackay and Victor Maddern. But his biggest break came along in 1963 when he was cast as Orlando O’Connor in the television series “Crane”, starring Patrick Allen. The location scenes for the series were filmed in Morocco and the plot involved a businessman, tired of the rat race, who opts for a beach existence running a café, with a little bit of smuggling on the side.
Kydd played Patrick Allen’s sidekick and confidante. It was a major success in its day combining intrigue, glamour and comedy. The series lead to a spin-off with Kydd reprising the Orlando role in a show aimed at children’s television. It ran from 1965 to 1968. “Orlando” ended up so popular that twice as many episodes of it were made compared to the original “Crane”. As his career progressed, Sam Kydd could be seen in shows like “Dixon of Dock Green”, “Z Cars”, “The Dick Emery Show”, “Crossroads”, “Man In A Suitcase”, “The Persuaders”, “Sykes” and even “Coronation Street” in which he played Mike Baldwin’s father. In fact, in his 35-year career, he was cast in nearly 300 different film and television productions, amassing around 500 appearances in total, a phenomenal workload in a fickle business.
Sam Kydd died in 1982 at 67 from a respiratory problem. He was the classic example of an actor as a working man, not a big star by any means but a grafter who brought warmth and humour to the screen through his personality, professionalism, and very distinctive face and features.
Remember Orlando O’Connor? As homage to his place of birth, he chose to use a broad Belfast accent in his portrayal. He may have left the city as a child but he nailed the voice perfectly. Many people of a certain age will recall Sam Kydd with affection. He is one of many supporting players, unsung in a lot of cases, that British cinema and television should be grateful for. He was a son of Belfast and proudly joins the list of the great and good from this part of the world.
Aspiring actors and actresses should learn from him that they can’t all be big stars but they can carve out lower-key careers and earn a decent living if their ambitions are realistic. Sam Kydd and his like can be their role models.
Note: If any of the images here violate anyone's copyright, please let me know and I will remove on request.
Also, Sam Kydd's actor son Jonathan Kydd has a website that includes a terrific section of his Dad. It is well worth a look - http://www.jonathankydd.com/