Michael Elphick 1946-2002

Elphick grew up in Chichester, Sussex, where his family had a butcher’s shop. He was educated at Lancastrian Secondary Modern Boys School in Chichester where he took leading parts in several school productions including Noah and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. According to his mother, he had hankered to be an actor since the age of 10, but, on leaving school at 15,with 5 good O levels behind him, the nearest he could get to the stage was an electrician’s apprenticeship at the newly built Chichester Festival Theatre.
Mike said of that time in a TV Times interview:  “Having worked on the site I knew all the wiring and lighting, so when the theatre was finished they asked me to stay on as a resident “sparks”. I stayed there for three years, watching people like Laurence Olivier and Michael Redgrave and Dame Sybil Thorndyke rehearsing and I became very interested in acting.

“Olivier, in particular, was marvellous. He gave off a sort of electricity. A power came off him, even when he was only rehearsing.” He was also very approachable. When the young Elphick confided that he, too, would like to become an actor, Olivier didn’t scoff.

Laurence Olivier, who was then running the Chichester festival prior to launching the National Theatre in 1963, encouraged him to try for drama school. (Michael had invited him  to watch him in an amateur production of TS Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral which he accepted and was obviously suitably impressed). He won a scholarship to the Central School of Speech and Drama, in London.

“He gave me two speeches to learn,” Elphick recalled, “and I got offered places at all the schools I auditioned for, including RADA, but I went to Central because that’s where Olivier went.”                                                                                                                         

Mike Elphick and Ian (“Pack of Cards”) Richardson in “Private Schultz”

On leaving Central, Elphick toured with repertory companies throughout the 1960s. Despite appearing most often as what he called “the Cockney thug”, his performances were often favourably noted in reviews. In 1967 he made his film debut in Dino de Laurentis’s Fraulein Doctor. Two years later he made his television debut in Roads to Freedom, in which one critic described him as “versatile but evil-looking”.

However, something that is not widely known is that throughout his career he appeared in a number of successful stage productions between rehearsals for TV and Film parts. On stage, Elphick played Marcellus and the Player King in Tony Richardson’s stage version of Hamlet at the Roundhouse Theatre and on Broadway and he later played Claudius to Jonathan Pryce’s Hamlet at the Royal Court Theatre, directed by Richard Eyre. In 1979 he appeared with a George Baker and Helen Mirren in a longish tour of Britain’s theatres in Measure for Measure and in 1981 he appeared in the Ray Davies/Barrie Keeffe musical Chorus Girls at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East and he was also seen in The Changing Room, directed by Lindsay Anderson, at the Royal Court Theatre. His last West End stage appearance was in 1997 as Doolittle in Pygmalion directed by Ray Cooney at the Albery Theatre.                                                                                                                                    

It was for his television rôles, however, that Elphick became best known. He briefly appeared in Coronation Street (1974) as Douglas Wormold, son of the landlord Edward, who for many years owned most of the properties in the road. Douglas unsuccessfully tried to buy the Kabin newsagent’s from Len Fairclough.

In 1979 he appeared in Crown Court as Neville Griffiths QC, prosecuting the daughter of the Selsey family for harming her abusive father. He was the only actor in that three-part story to correctly pronounce “Selsey” as “Zell-Zey”, in the manner of the West Sussex village near where his mother lived in Chichester.

He played one of the main roles in the film Black Island in 1978 for the Children’s Film Foundation, played a villain in The Sweeney episode “One of Your Own” (1978) and played a policeman in The Professionals episode “Backtrack” (1979) and had a minor role in Hazell (1979), and appeared in the Dennis Potterplay Blue Remembered Hills (1979). Elphick took the title role in Jack Pulman’s drama Private Schulz (1981). Here he played Gerhard Schulz, a German soldier conscripted into SS Counter Espionage during the Second World War to destroy the British economy by flooding it with forged money.

He appeared as the Irish labourer Magowan during the first series of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet (1983) and starred as Sidney Mundy in the ITV sitcom Pull the Other One (1984), before playing Sam Tyler in four series of Three Up, Two Down (1985–89). In 1986 Elphick landed his biggest television success, Boon (1986–92, 1995). He played Ken Boon, a retired fireman who opened a motorbike despatch business and later became a private investigator. Boon was very successful and ran for seven series, attracting audiences of 11 million at its peak. There was also a one-off episode screened in 1995, two years after it had been made. During breaks from Boon, Elphick continued to act in film with cameo roles in The Krays (1990) and Let Him Have It (1991).

In 1993 Elphick took the role of a former Fleet Street journalist running a Darlington news agency in Harry (1993, 1995). He played the alcoholic and ruthless Harry Salter, who frequently used exploitation and underhand tactics to get a story. This series however was less successful and it was soon cancelled. Elphick went on to play Billy Bones in Ken Russell’s televised version of Treasure Island (1995) and Barkis in David Copperfield (1999).

In 2001 he joined the cast of EastEnders, where he played Harry Slater, a romantic interest for Peggy Mitchell (Barbara Windsor).

Elphick met his long-term partner, school teacher Julia Alexander, in 1963 and remained with her until her death from cancer in 1996. The couple had a daughter, Kate.

For many years Elphick struggled with alcoholism. He made the first of many attempts to stop drinking in 1988, after doctors warned him he could die within a year if he continued. He sought help from Alcoholics Anonymous in the early 1990s, although he admitted he was still drinking in 1993. In 1996 he admitted that he had begun drinking heavily again and also contemplated suicide after the death of his partner of 33 years. However he rallied and returned to the stage in Loot. The actor also confessed to having taken cocaine and once, whilst high on drugs, grabbing a shotgun and chasing a gang of thugs after he had been carjacked near his villa in Portugal. Elphick was admitted to the Priory Clinic in Roehampton, in an attempt to beat his addictions. Reports of his alcohol abuse persisted, however, and during his brief spell on EastEnders during 2001 it was reported that the BBC was considering dropping his character if his drinking were not curtailed.

On 7 September 2002, Elphick died of a heart attack complicated by his drinking problem. He had collapsed at his home in Willesden Green, London, after complaining of pains. He was rushed to hospital where he died twelve days before his 56th birthday.

Accolades from fellow actors

Colleagues and friends of Michael Elphick have been paying tribute to the actor, who died aged 55 at the weekend.

Men Behaving Badly star Neil Morrissey – who starred alongside him in ITV drama Boon – described him as his “great friend and mentor”. “He is one of the best actors this country has ever seen and he will be sadly missed,” said Morrissey. Elphick was last seen on TV as Harry Slater in the BBC One soap EastEnders in 2001.

Barbara Windsor, who once romanced Elphick on screen in the soap, told BBC News Online: “I liked him very much. He was a terrific actor and has left a great legacy of great shows.”

June Brown, who plays Dot Cotton in EastEnders, said: “I was so shocked. He was a very humble man who had no side to him. “He was such a wonderful actor over the years and I’m sure the world of theatre and TV will miss him.”

And Martin Kemp, who worked with Elphick in the crime thriller The Krays as well as on EastEnders, said: “He was lovely to work with and he was a great actor.”

His 84-year-old mother Joan, who still lives in the actor’s home town of Chichester, Sussex, said: “He wanted to be an actor from the age of 10 and was very quiet and very kind, just like his father – a very nice man.”

An EastEnders spokeswoman said: “Everyone in the cast and crew was shocked to hear of Michael’s early passing. “He brought a wealth of talent to the show and will be sadly missed.”



Mike Elphick as Boon

Accolades from the public

Michael Elphick’s Barkis in the 1999 version of David Copperfield was definitive for me. He and Pauline Quirke were brilliant together and thoroughly loveable. It is so sad that we won’t see him in more roles of that calibre, for he was a mature and talented actor.

Jez Worth, Canada (expat UK)

We’ll miss your great acting Michael, especially as Boon and again, as Harry in EastEnders. You really made him an interesting if hated man! Thank you.

Anne, Saudi Arabia

Wonderful in Boon, a true master of his craft who will be sorely missed.

Matthew Wentworth, UK

Very sad to hear of Michael Elphick’s passing. A first-class character actor. I treasure his performance as Jake the poacher in Withnail and I.

Paula Abell, UK

A wonderful actor, I loved all his work, right from the early days watching Private Schultz through to Boon. He came across as a real character. Few actors could achieve his down to earth appeal; he will be very sadly missed.

Keith, San Francisco, USA

Private Schultz was the funniest zaniest craziest programme since the Goon Shows and it is equally crazy it’s never been re-shown. Michael Elphick was absolutely perfect in it. Farewell and thanks mate.

Howard Wilkinson, UK

We all seem to have forgotten “Three up, Two down” He was priceless as Daphne’s flatmate, protector and would-be lover, thanks for all the laughs Michael, you will be remembered with fondness by a great many fans.

Kevin Spencer, UK

I was lucky enough to see Michael Elphick at work as ‘Boon’ was filmed just outside where I worked. He became closely identified with Nottingham and he’ll be sorely missed by those of us who had a real fondness for this down-to-earth but highly talented actor.

Nick Clark, England

I am very sad at this news. Although I’m young I have enjoyed all of Michaels work, Ken Boon, Harry Slater and even Sam Tyler in Three Up, Two down. We shall miss your work Michael.

Kelly, UK

Boon was part of my childhood and made an impact on me with the way that his character treated others on screen. Personal problems aside, a great man, a sad loss to British acting.

Pete Sutcliffe, United Kingdom

Ah, Private Schultz. This is the role I love to remember Michael Elphick playing. One of those childhood memories that will stick with me forever. Somebody out there, bring it back.

Anne, UK

I used to watch Boon when I was younger and I loved Michael Elphick, he was my hero for a long time! RIP you will be missed!

Sue Richards, England

What a great actor, my thoughts with his family and friends. To his Family, thanks for his talents, he entertained us all.

Michael, England

Michael Elphick was one of the most underrated of contemporary British actors. An excellent, intelligent performer, and a lovely man to boot. He will be missed terribly, and my thoughts are with all his family.

Eddie, UK

I have fond memories of Michael. I used to watch Boon with my granny as a young boy and will always remember how she loved his good-humoured gentleness. A sad loss, indeed, though it was great to see him on screen again in EastEnders.

Calan MicAmlaidh, Scotland

Richard E Grant became a star with his appearance in Withnail and I but his whole performance was overshadowed by Michael Elphick’s outrageous cameo. RIP, madman with the eels!!

Peter Lotis Abram, Australia

Rest in peace, Private Schultz – may your fortunes never be at the bottom of a lake.

Graham, US

A very talented actor who was perfectly suited to the role of Ken Boon. I could imagine there being many similarities between the onscreen character and that of Elphick. Sad to hear of his rather sudden and premature death, though. Another loss from the ‘old school’ of actors.

Nick Clayton, UK

Michael Elphick never seemed to be far away from motorcycles, but to many bikers he will be best remembered as the hapless and hilarious Inspector Cleaver in I bought a Vampire Motorcycle – after Quadrophenia (in which he also starred), surely the best British biking movie.

Joolz, GB

Michael Elphick was one of the most under-rated of contemporary British actors. An excellent, intelligent performer, and a lovely man to boot. He will be missed terribly, and my thoughts are with all his family.

Eddie, UK

Brilliant in Boon and played the part in EastEnders – versatility!

Tony Prendergast, UK



















As Harry Slater in EastEnders

Final word by Philip Purser

“Barrel-chested British actor who can look as thick as two short planks but still give a sensitive performance.” So, I’m afraid, says Halliwell’s Television Companion of Michael Elphick, who has died at the age of 55. It is a verdict as inadequate in its praise as in its description of him; he was, in fact, an intelligent and masterly screen actor.

As author of the offending entry, I can only claim, in mitigation, that it was written when Elphick was newly occupying his most popular – and populist – role, as the eponymous hero of the long-running ITV series Boon (from 1986). He played a Birmingham fireman, forced to retire early because of illness, who had become a motor-bike courier, was available as a tough guy for hire and was, of course, a bit of a Galahad. It was a worthy format, but one that made rather obvious use of Elphick’s stocky physique and ready scowl.

His great performances came when these attributes were deployed in less predictable outlets – notably as the extravagant showman Wallace Parnell (brother of Val) in The One And Only Phyllis Dixey (Thames, 1978), and as the bully boy Pete in Dennis Potter’s Blue Remembered Hills (BBC, 1979), in which a cast of grown-up actors played seven-year-old children.

There was a wonderful little scene in which Pete’s principal victim, Willie (Colin Welland), hit upon a ruse to discomfit the bully by spinning a tale that the apple he was eating might be poisoned. As Pete began to half-believe him, and lose his self-assurance, Willie scuffed casually along a fallen tree-trunk that first put him on a level with the taller Pete, then looking down on him – a brilliant stroke of highlighting by director Brian Gibson.

Then came Private Schulz (BBC, 1981), a bizarre wartime comedy derived by Jack Pulman from an actual, but unrealised, Nazi plot to flood Britain with forged £5 notes, thereby wrecking the economy. Schulz was the minor fraudster who was released from prison and parachuted into Britain to carry out the scheme. Elphick delivered a very funny, sly and stoical performance, while staying firmly in character.

Elphick as Barkis in the BBC’s David Copperfield