Tony Selby (1938 – 2021): An Appreciation

Mark Cunliffe pays tribute to the epitome of a down-to-earth, authentic Londoner.

“I think I identified with Selby through his comic sensibility. As a kid, comedy was my first love. The breadth and variety of his career meant that I could discover other facets of his abilities that helped to make his screen persona so rich and multidimensional. In truth I think I also identified with him because he has frizzy dark hair just like me.”

The news of Tony Selby’s death at the age of 83 at the weekend has been a particularly hard, almost surreal experience. It was only two months earlier that social media was flooded with tributes to the congenial British character actor, only to find that it was a case of mistaken identity. Selby was, as his agent verified, alive and well. The phrase ‘reports of his death have been greatly exaggerated’ immediately came to my mind. For an actor who achieved a certain cult cache among Doctor Who fans for his portrayal of the intergalactic (though decidedly cockney sounding) rogue Sabalom Glitz, one of the final characters for the series by legendary writer Robert Holmes, defying the ultimate odds and coming back from the dead seemed wholly fitting. It was with some hesitation that I received the news this week. I waited for verification, hoping that it would never arrive, but alas it has.

In a career stretching over sixty years, Tony Selby was almost exclusively the epitome of a down-to-earth, authentic Londoner. Born Anthony Samuel Selby on 26th February 1938 to parents Annie Elizabeth, a waitress, and Samuel Joseph, a streetwise cabdriver, the young Tony grew up in Lambeth, South London and was bitten by the acting bug at an early age, training with the Italia Conti Stage School and appearing regularly on television as a child actor from 1951 onwards. He made his film debut in 1955 in the uncredited role of ‘Boy with a Stick’ in the Diana Dors comedy An Alligator Named Daisy and made his stage debut as an adult a year later. A slew of uncredited roles for the big screen dominated his career in the late 50s to mid 60s appearing in such films as the Anthony Newley vehicle Jazz BoatThe Entertainer, opposite Laurence Olivier, the Norman Wisdom comedy The Early Bird and as one of Michael Caine’s drinking buddies in 1965’s Alfie.

By now, Selby was beginning to get noticed, most significantly by a young Wednesday Pladirector named Kenneth Loach. Encouraged by the series producer Tony Garnett, the filmmaker now best known as plain old Ken Loach was keen to reflect everyday society on the TV screen, challenging head on the issues of the day. One such issue was capital punishment and with screenwriter Jimmy O’Connor, Three Clear Sundays was a 1965 drama at the heart of the contemporary debate for its abolishment. Selby was cast as a convict under sentence of death. It was his natural authenticity as a performer that helped to humanise what could otherwise have been an exercise in dramatising the debate.

Roles in Loach’s subsequent Wednesday Play’s A Tap on the Shoulder and, most memorably, Up the Junction would follow later that same year, culminating in an appearance in the director’s cinematic debut, Poor Cow in 1967. Like its star Carol White, Selby was one of the first Loach stars and one of a brace of realistic, natural actors that would move the kitchen sink aesthetic into something more durable and solid for future years to come.

Apart from a supporting role in the cult English folk horror classic Witchfinder General in 1968, the remainder of the 1960s and much of the subsequent decade played out in the same familiar trajectory of many a character actor, with appearances in popular series such as The Avengers, Department S, Z Cars, CallanPublic EyeCrown Court, The Sweeney and Special Branch. But in 1970, Selby took on regular roles in several series. Mostly these are forgotten now, but Ace of Wands still remains a standout for cult TV aficionados. The children’s crime drama that feature Michael Mackenzie’s flamboyant super-sleuth magician Tarot was nicely grounded by a solid supporting turn from Selby as Sam Maxstead, a reformed convict who worked as Tarot’s stage manager. It was a role that resonated deeply with Selby, who claimed that the writer Trevor Preston wrote the part specially for him with much of Selby’s father as inspiration for the character.

Said role also brought Selby to the attention of a new audience, children – though that didn’t stop him from taking a role in the 1971 X-rated gangland drama Villain, appearing as a henchman of Richard Burton’s gay cockney mob boss. Selby’s ability to take his natural innate charisma and shape it into something altogether darker and more menacing underneath its all-smiles surface is firmly on display here, though guest appearances in CatweazleThe Basil Brush Show and The Adventures of Black Beauty ensured he kept his family friendly profile too.

Just as his ability to play the hood began to rear its head, so too did his natural affinity for comedy and the 1970s provided Selby with ample opportunity to showcase these talents. He routinely played stooges to Gordon Peters, Reg Varney, Cilla Black and Harry Worth in their self-titled TV shows, starred in two editions of Comedy Playhouse and made guest appearances in How’s Your FatherThe Good Life, Bless This House and No, Honestly, as well as a regular role in Moody and Peg. But it’s arguably two military set productions from this era that his comedic talents is likely to be best remembered. In 1973 he starred as Bill, one of the raw recruits alongside Jim Dale’s Spike Milligan in Adolf Hitler, My Part in His Downfall, the big screen adaptation of the former Goon’s first volume of war memoirs.

It was arguably the National Service set sitcom Get Some In! in 1975 that made Selby a household name. Written by John Esmonde and Bob Larby, who had been so impressed with Selby’s appearance in their BBC sitcom The Good Life that they invited him back for a second episode, Get Some In! was a sitcom success for ITV, capitalising on the nostalgia many of its audience felt for their own years of National Service and in Selby’s sadistic drill instructor Corporal Marsh (spelt he memorably instructed the new recruits, amongst whom was a young Robert Lindsay, “B A S T A R D!”) the series gave them the opportunity to recall their own maniacal tormentors from the comfort of their armchair and the bosom of their family.

He starred in two Play For Today’s, 1978’s brilliant suburban moral dilemma comedy A Touch of the Tiny Hacketts, again penned by Esmonde and Larbey, and in 1981’s The Union he played a real-life figure Frank Chapple in Tony Perrin’s dramatisation of the vote rigging scandal within the Communist Party-led Electrical Trades Union two decades earlier. He also scored another uncredited appearance on the big screen, playing a hood in Richard Donner’s 1978 smash hit superhero fantasy Superman. But at this stage in his career Selby had become the kind of familiar face that would routinely grace many a TV series as its guest of the week. Roles in The Gentle Touch, C.A.T.S Eyes, Bergerac, Give Us a Break, Minder, Lovejoy, The Paradise Club and Casualty would cement his screen persona as a genial cockney, often living on the edges of what is strictly legal and sometimes blatantly crossing right over. It was arguably Doctor Who that gave him the showcase to take what viewers saw as familiar in him and graft it into something more substantial and, at the same time, offbeat.

On paper, the character of Sabalom Glitz bears little relation to what audiences expected from Tony Selby; I mean, an alien mercenary for hire from the planet Salostophus in the Andromeda Constellation? Glitz made his first appearance at the start of the Time Lord’s twenty-third season, The Trial of a Timelord starring Colin Baker and from the pen of Robert Holmes. And what an eccentric pen that was. In reality Glitz would possess many of the characteristics that had come to define characters portrayed by Selby. He was streetwise (no, spacewise) and prone to colloquial dialect and slang. Though he initially appeared quite dangerous, the character developed more along the lines of a loveable rogue, something which Selby could excel in.

He proved so popular with audiences that he was brought back a year later opposite the new Doctor, Sylvester McCoy, in the climactic story to his debut season, Dragonfire. Here Glitz is on the hunt for buried treasure to settle a gambling debt and, like any ’80s wideboy, his ‘drive’ (in this case a starship named the Nosferatu Two) is equipped with furry dice! Though Dragonfire would prove to be Selby’s final on-screen association with the enduring sci-fi series, Glitz lived on in several Doctor Who novels, Mission: Impractical by David A. McIntee, Head Games by Steve Lyons and Goth OperaLove and War and Happy Endings all by Paul Cornell, the latter two establishing the fact that Glitz had taken the virginity of the Doctor’s future companion Ace in events leading up to Dragonfire.

The ‘90s saw Selby return to regular screen roles in romantic drama series Love Hurts where he played Max Taplow, confidant and chauffer to Adam Faith’s millionaire smitten with Zoe Wanamaker and in yet another Esmonde and Larbey production, Mulberry. Starring fellow Get Some In star Karl Howman, Mulberry remains one of the most enigmatic and unusual sitcom ideas; ostensibly Howman’s titular character is a carer for the reclusive aristo Miss Farnaby (Geraldine McEwan) but Selby’s groundsman character Bert has his suspicions – and quite rightly too. It is revealed that the charming Mulberry is in fact the son of Death and the Grim Reaper has earmarked Miss Farnaby as his heir’s first task. The sitcom follows Mulberry’s intentions to plead a stay of execution in which he can get the acerbic Miss Farnaby to see the wonders of life before her time finally comes. Unfortunately the less than forgiving scythe of the BBC came first, axing the series before it reached any conclusion – a fate that made it all the more enigmatic really.

Apart from a recurring guest role in the Jasper Carrott and Robert Powell sitcom The Detectives, Mulberry proved to be Selby’s last major role on TV. For the next decade he returned to guest appearances, Casualty again and again, Holby CityThe Bill numerous times, Midsomer Murders, New Tricks and Doctors. In 2002 he appeared as one of the Mitchell clan, Clive Mitchell, in an episode of EastEnders, but his last significant role was Darryl in the 2012 horror comedy Cockneys and Zombies, the story of a band of cockney pensioners fighting the undead. Though he was of course a South Londoner in reality, Selby was to your average viewer the archetypal cockney. As such it seems only fitting that he got to bow out in such a movie.

As for me personally, I can’t tell you when I first noticed Tony Selby. The mark of a prolific actor is that they appear to have always been there. This makes the news that Selby has now really died all the more difficult. I suspect it was Doctor Who that first introduced me to him. I was exactly the right age for the show in the mid 80s, turning eight when McCoy’s season aired. As such McCoy remains my Doctor. I do remember watching Dragonfire, so I presume Selby’s twinkly eyes rogue had the desired effect and became memorable to me. I certainly knew of him during his busy stints on Love Hurts and Mulberry in the early 90s so perhaps it was those programmes that cemented him in my mind, or maybe it was the regular repeats of programmes like The Good Life, or a guest appearance on Casualty. Maybe it was watching Alfie at the inappropriate age of ten. Maybe it was all of these.

I think I identified with Selby through his comic sensibility. As a kid, comedy was my first love. The breadth and variety of his career meant that I could discover other facets of his abilities that helped to make his screen persona so rich and multidimensional. In truth I think I also identified with him because he has frizzy dark hair just like me.

When an actor resonates with you in some way, you often want to let them know, to thank them for their entertainment through the years. A couple of years ago, a little while after Selby had entered into retirement following what was to be his final TV appearance in 2016, a guest spot in the James Nesbitt drama Lucky Man, I decided to write a letter to him saying how much I admired him as an actor and the work that he had done. In my letter I asked for a signed photo. The fate of fan mail is a fickle one as any devotee will tell you and this proved just such an experience. I received a reply from his agent informing me that they would not forward my mail to their client without a further stamp on top of the SAE I has provided. A bit of a cheek I thought, they basically saw no need to go to the expense of forwarding mail onto a retired client who no longer brought them business. But I persisted. I resent my letter with an extra stamp, two if you include the charge for sending it a second time, and waited patiently.

A little while later, I received not one but two signed photos from Tony Selby. One was a headshot, the other a still from Doctor Who. I’m glad I took the time to write to him. I’m glad I have these photos now, this proof on contact with a personal favourite, to treasure.

❉ Tony Selby (26 February 1938 – 5 September 2021).

❉ Mark Cunliffe is a regular contributor to The Geek Show and has written several collector’s booklet essays for a number of releases from Arrow Video and Arrow Academy. He is also a contributor to Scarred For Life Volume Two: Television In The 1980s, now available to buy in paperback, £19.99, and as a full colour Ebook (PDF format) £6.99.

Become a patron at Patreon!