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Today in history… actor never went back to drawing board

12:00am | & Lifestyle

Born 95 years ago today was a memorable Scottish actor whose expressive face and distinctive voice will almost certainly grace our TV screens this Christmas.

Gordon Cameron Jackson was born in Glasgow on December 19th, 1923, the youngest of five children. While attending Hillhead High School he took part in amateur dramatics and was scouted for roles in BBC radio shows, including “Children’s Hour”.

However, this was seen as a hobby rather than a potential career and at 15 he left school to begin training in a ‘proper job’ as a draughtsman for Rolls-Royce. It was the Second World War which reignited his involvement with and love for acting. When producers at Ealing Studios were looking for a young Scot to act in a wartime propaganda film, Jackson was suggested and got the part.

Afterwards he returned to his job at Rolls-Royce, but was soon being asked to appear in other films promoting the British war effort, often made in co-operation with the War Office. With the safety net of his trade as a draughtsman behind him, the young Jackson decided to try and make a career out of acting.

His breakthrough film role came in 1949 with “Whisky Galore!”, the comedic story of a Hebridean island deprived of whisky during the war until a cargo ship runs aground loaded with the precious ‘water of life’. Jackson was cast as the repressed and teetotal George Campbell, who finally stands up to his overbearing mother after becoming fortified with illicit whisky salvaged from the wreck. He reprised the role in the 1958 sequel, “Rockets Galore”, but it was the original which really launched Jackson’s post-war film career.

He would go on to appear in more than 100 films and, although too often typecast as the ‘dour Scot’, his presence in the cast was always a boon. Some of the more notable films he appeared in over four decades included “The Quatermass Xperiment”, “Hell Drivers”, “The Navy Lark”, “Greyfriars Bobby”, “The Long Ships”, “Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines” and “The Great Escape”. Suffice to say, he was always in demand and never needed return to the draughtsman’s drawing board.

But it was television which delivered Jackson two of his best-known roles, first in the early 1970s as the stern butler Hudson in “Upstairs, Downstairs” and then, from 1977 to ’83 as George Cowley, the boss of CI5, in gritty action drama “The Professionals”. Appearing in all 60 episodes of “Upstairs, Downstairs” from 1971 to ’75, Jackson won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Single Performance by a Supporting Actor for the 1974 episode “The Beastly Hun”. Also in 1974 he was named British Actor of the Year and in 1979 was awarded the OBE for services to drama.

He carved out another memorable character as the hard-nosed and formidable head of CI5 in “The Professionals”, often using unconventional methods in his determination to safeguard the nation’s security. The ITV series also launched the careers of Lewis Collins and Martin Shaw, who played Cowley’s two best agents, Bodie and Doyle.

After “The Professionals”, TV and film roles continued, including a five-hour Australian TV adaptation of Neville Shute’s novel “A Town Like Alice”. In 1986 he had another major role in a 10-episode series for South African TV, “Shaka Zulu”. It saw Jackson, by then in his sixties, starring alongside the likes of Trevor Howard, Edward Fox, Christopher Lee, Fiona Fullerton and Robert Powell.

Although less frequent due to his extensive TV and film commitment, Jackson also took on roles on the theatre stage, always to great acclaim. Away from the public spotlight, he was married in 1951 to stage, film and TV actress, and fellow Scot, Rona Anderson. The couple met on the set of the 1949 film “Floodtide” and later had two sons, Graham and Roderick.

In December 1989, while still working and just before his 66th birthday, Jackson was diagnosed with bone cancer. Tragically the diagnosis came too late and nothing could be done. Gordon Jackson died in London on January 15th, 1990, at the age of 66, but his substantial legacy in film and TV lives on.

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