New Title Tuesday: Frank Thornton

Fantom Publishing releases a brand new authorised biography of actor Frank Thornton by Brian Slade exclusively via our website!

As author, Brian Slade explains Frank Thornton was an unusual character…

Frank was one of the stars in two of the BBC’s most successful comedy shows, Are You Being Served? and Last of the Summer Wine, just two highlights of a career that spanned over 70 years. And yet, whenever friends suggested he document his career, he would dismiss such a suggestion, believing that nobody wanted to read about him. It was an intriguing standpoint from someone who kept a vast archive of mementos, cuttings, correspondence and journals from his long career.

Frank clearly did have thoughts about publishing his own story. He even left a note with his archive addressed to his beloved wife Beryl, daughter Jane and ‘whoever else might come into its possession,’ imploring that anything derogatory he may have said as a younger man be left out of publication in the interests of friendship. (In reality, even a younger Frank said nothing of concern within his pages that would have offended.)

The conflict between publishing his story and dismissing his own relevance was consistent with Frank’s career. Here was a man who bemoaned the demise of people like his old RAF chum, Tony Hancock, whose star shone intensely brightly but for a tragically short time. Frank preferred the option of simply staying in paid work consistently for as long as his talents would allow. He admired the single-mindedness of the stars but resisted any opportunity to join them as a star in his own right. He was content to contest with any director how a production should be run, but conversely would cheapen his own achievements with throwaway comments that he was merely a jobbing actor.

Frank of course became a permanent fixture on British television for decades. Every top comedian across several generations turned to him as they knew his combination of comic timing and dignified Britishness would add gravitas and a perfect foil to their act, and he never disappointed. He continued to crave dramatic roles while at the same time, donning lady’s lingerie substituting for Kenny Everett in a classically self-deprecating sketch of silliness. It typified Frank.

Frank Thornton was a private man. He obliged his fans willingly and revelled in talking about the old days of treading the boards as a member of the Donald Wolfit Company, but being home with Beryl, tending to the garden, scribbling away locked in his study for hours on end – these were simple pleasures that he loved. It seemed wrong that someone who was so meticulous about storing his own archive would not receive the affection and recognition his popularity justified.

When Jane and her three sons gave me the green light to tell Frank’s story, it was an honour. As I reached out to colleagues and friends, it became clear that while he could be prickly from time to time, there was an underlying affection from almost everybody touched by his career. He was the classic British gentleman, a talented straight actor who became one of the best-known faces in British comedy. I hope through my book I have shown that Captain Peacock and Truly of the Yard were merely the tip of the iceberg that was his career, and gives just a little insight into what it was like To Be Frank…

The hardback edition is available exclusively via our website here, priced £19.99 plus postage.