Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Maurice Colbourne's Way

For any fan of retro TV - specifically TV of the mid 70s to late 80s - Maurice Colbourne is a familiar name and face.

He's best remembered for lead roles in BBC shows as diverse as Gangsters, the punchy, gritty and surreal Birmingham set 1970s thriller and Howards' Way, the glamourous 1980s Sunday night drama of boat building and high fashion that was suggested as Britain's answer Dallas and Dynasty.

As John Kline, Gangsters

For sci fi fans, he also starred as Jack Coker in the definitive 1981 BBC adaptation of John Wyndham's Day Of The Triffids, and was once shortlisted (alongside Warren Clarke) for the role of intergalactic revolutionary Roj Blake in Blake's 7 ultimately losing the role to Gareth Thomas. He did however have a recurring role as the mercenary Lytton in two 1980s Doctor Who Stories, Resurrection of The Daleks alongside Peter Davison and Attack Of The Cybermen with Colin Baker.

As Lytton, Doctor Who: Resurrection Of The Daleks

He also appeared in several cult classics in supporting roles that saw the tall and trim Colbourne cast as the heavy. He provided brilliant menacing performances in programmes such as Strangers, The Return Of The Saint and Van Der Valk. As well as appearing on the big screen, notably in Ridley Scott's debut film The Duellists, in which he appeared as Harvey Keitel's second. 

The Duellists

But surprisingly and sadly, there's little actually out there about the man himself on the net.

Why is that?

Well partly it's due to his tragic and premature death at the age of 49. Colbourne died of a heart attack whilst mending the roof on his home in Brittany, on 4th August 1989 leaving behind his wife, Chan Lian Si and their daughter, Clara, aged just nine at the time. It also spelled the end of Howards' Way, the show coming to a close with a sixth and final series that explained Tom had died whilst out sailing his beloved boat. 

The only information I had ever gleaned about this actor whom I had long admired was from interviews on TV shows and DVD commentaries by his co-stars, who all claimed that he was a very nice quiet and gentle giant of a man. Colin Baker in the Attack Of The Cyberman DVD commentary recalls a somewhat shy man who would get in early and walk through his lines alone on set, mumbling them over and over again as he worked out his movements and how he would play each scene.

As Lytton, Doctor Who: Attack Of The Cybermen

Whilst on a recent holiday in Settle, Yorkshire I went to a book fair and picked up a random selection of books at just 50p a pop. One of them was a companion/making of book about Howards' Way and at last I got to get some more background on Colbourne. I have to say it was a pleasure to read up about him in the book and interviews and it's a pleasure to get to know him, away from the characters he played, from there.

The book

Colbourne was born Roger Middleton in Sheffield in 1939. Sheffield, then as indeed now, is famous for its steel industry and as a young teen, not wishing to add to that industries employment statistic, he originally wanted to run away to sea, a result of reading too much Marryat and Conrad as a boy. With no qualifications to his name, he began an apprenticeship as a stonemason in his native city. However, like Tom Howard, the sea was calling and to realise this ambition he journeyed to Liverpool, only to find the town in one of its regular slumps, with many merchant seamen out of work and claiming the dole.

From Liverpool he went up the M62 to Manchester where he became a fairground roustabout, working the Ghost Train at Bellevue initially before travelling with the touring fairs. The fairgrounds weren't for him, though he met some amazing and interesting characters, recalling one "The wife of a director of one fair - she could lay a man out with a single blow" Eventually he ended up in London, wanting to become a writer but ending up working as a waiter. It was a chance encounter with the movie star Tom Courtenay that planted the seed in his mind of becoming an actor.

He auditioned for the Central School of Speech and Drama and, after a couple of false starts, he won a place. He would change his name to Maurice Colbourne in tribute to an actor of the same name who had passed away in 1965 and had shared the same birthday 24th September (but obviously not in the same year) as him. Following his training, he went into Rep touring Birmingham and Leicester performing Shakespeare one week and Brecht the next. Eager for more experimental work, the tail end of the 60s saw him working in fringe theatre; a touring group of David Hare's and Jim Haines' Arts Lab. Ultimately, Colbourne became a director of the Half Moon theatre (a disused synagogue) in London's East End. It proved to be a successful and radical theatre troupe.

Gangsters title sequence

Television came calling in the mid 70s and Colbourne's career there was swiftly assured, especially when playing the lead role of former SAS man and intelligence puppet John Kline in Trevor Martin's groundbreaking Gangsters "Usually I get cast as villains," he commented in 1985 when taking the role in Howards' Way, a big departure for him, "which I have to say I quite enjoy playing"

Howards' Way cast

The book discusses the nomadic existence Colbourne was feeling at the time of filming Howards' Way "I have to do a hell of a lot of travelling, between London, Southampton and Birmingham, and we need a big car when the whole family's aboard  - wife, daughter and cats" The car was a Volvo 480ES and the cats numbered three, one of whom, a marmalade called Albie 'insisted' on going on location! It also claims the show helped reunite his interest and love of the sea.

He met his wife Chan Lian Si, a Malay Chinese and nurse on Hampstead Heath. She was out jogging and Colbourne was indulging in his favourite past time of fishing. It was a hobby he continued when the couple moved back to London (after a spell living in his native Sheffield), fishing on the reservoir just north of his Hackney home; "In summer I leave the rehearsal rooms in Acton, travel home on the hot and dusty tube, pick up some sandwiches and a flask, or maybe a can of Special Brew, bung my rugs in the car, and within ten minutes I can be on the bankside, casting my eyes around for fish"

Other hobbies include music - 60s pop, The Beatles and Crosby Stills and Nash, reading biographies, playing poker and horse racing, specifically the National Hunt.

Acting didn't seem to be the only career he wanted either, having considered opening a Malaysian restaurant with his wife in Bristol and alternatively, relocating to Hampshire to take over the running of a mushroom farm, another example of his liking for the rural life; "It's a beautiful part of the world, and the people are relaxed and tolerant. We'd taken it as far as arranging a loan from the bank and everything was ready to roll, but at the last minute we rechecked the figures and found we'd be working more for the bank than for ourselves. I wouldn't want to live in the country without working there. I haven't much time for weekend cottage types"

Sadly as I say Colbourne died in 1989, an actor. But he can take some pride in being an actor who had a place in the hearts of millions of viewers who watched him as Tom Howard every Sunday evening before they went to work the following day, in a BBC show that is still fondly remembered to this day.

This striking artwork of Colbourne as Kline in Gangsters comes from the excellent 7 Inch Cinema a media event group based in Birmingham which has often screened Gangsters, originally some six years ago now as an all nighter!

Gangsters is such a wonderful piece of television, a rich and heady brew that throws Colbourne's anti hero against Triads, Yardies, Asian gangsters and the Intelligence Services. Bold and utterly off the wall, it really deserves it's own blog post...and maybe I will one day? But for now, here's the opening titles to give you a flavour of what was Colbourne's break through role

I'm indebted to the book Howards' Way: The Story of the BBC TV Series by Gerard Glaister and Ray Evans for the detail of this post. Howards' Way has long been a guilty pleasure of mine (not that I truly think any pleasure can be guilty) and this is a great read for anyone interested in the show.


  1. Hi there, I have just been Watching the Howards Way series (now up to final season) and was researching online about it and stumbled on your excellent article about Maurice Colburn. Great research , and its amazing to see someone still posting about Maurice and Howards Way as late as June 2013! Keep up the good work!

    1. Hi, thanks for stopping by.

      Why thank you. It was precisely because of the little info available that I attempted to rectify matters somewhat. I'm pleased to hear it found an audience.



  2. Great article. I've just reached the 6th series of Howards' Way myself and I feel the profound sadness the actors must have had to work through after he died. It is a double whammy because I am almost certain that Howards' Way inspired my father into sailing and sadly he suddenly passed away too. I am now researching online how to find a copy of the Howards' Way book. Maurice was a fine actor and I am inspired to read your blog of how he achieved his ambitions. Again, many thanks.

    1. Thanks for saying that. Its always nice to 'meet' someone who was touched by Colbourne's talent and recalls him fondly. It's less nice though to hear about your father passing away; I can totally understand how such things now go hand in hand as a result. My apologies.

  3. Hey your article is great reading and has helped me enormously. I relate to Maurice because my father was a design engineer and a lot like Tom Howard's character. Also they look alike as real people too! I realised in my grief that Maurice's family have suffered a great loss too, I am about the same age as his youngest child, so I wonder how she feels. I hope one day she reads this and realises her father inspired many people. :)

  4. Hi there was an interview with Maurice Colburn on a program called hooked it was a fishing program hope the links works

  5. Thanks so much for that invaluable link!

  6. thanks Maurice enjoyed you in day of the triffids was on when i was about 4 years old but remembered you from it just watched the whole series again better than i remembered you was a proper spoken English actor creating a tense atmos great actor gone at 49 TVs loss hope your family know you will be missed by fans of classic British TV rip

  7. Great article. I was searching for more info on him, and as you said not much is out there. Thanks!

  8. Does anyone know how tall he was? He towered over Colin Baker who is 6 feet

    1. He was certainly a big fella! I'm not sure off the top of my head what his actual height was

  9. brilliant series,just watch them over and over again, maurice colbourne was Howard's way and was missed in the final series.