In a glittering career spanning over half a century, actor, writer and director George Layton has remained a permanent fixture on our television screens and helped to define the 1960’s kitchen sink generation. Attending the prestigious RADA for two years in 1960 at the age of just eighteen, George was able to hone what was to be his craft for the rest of his life. Being awarded the Emile Littler for the most promising actor worth £25 and the Denys Blakelock award for outstanding performance in a minor role which earned him £30 was enough to buy his first personal telephone. This would prove to be a huge advantage when sharing a house with two fellow jobbing actors as when waiting to hear back from an audition, it would be pot luck as to who would be the first to the phone to accept a role and sometimes roles would be accepted by actors who were never auditioned for the part. This is exactly how George landed his first TV role in Z Cars when he answered a call from the legendary Ken Loach at BBC TV Centre who had originality wanted to offer the part to John Lowe but his flat mate, George, got to it first. Yet Lowe was able to get a part in the same episode which maintained harmony within the house.
Press play, below, to listen to the full interview
His first professional job came when George enrolled in rep at the Belgrade Theatre Coventry. Fresh from RADA, this was invaluable experience and gave him an insight into the life of a true actor and the grueling turnaround of performance was frequently rapid. The Belgrade Theatre based on the Shakespearean format where a play would be on for a limited amount of time before you were forced to learn a whole new play. From Twelfth Night to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, George spent six months learning and enjoying the unique disciplines of classical theatre before returning to television. In 1964 he auditioned for the part of Terry Collier in a Comedy Playhouse pilot for the new BBC2 entitled The Likely Lads written by future comedy powerhouses Dick Clement and Ian Le Frenais. Unfortunately the pair concluded that George wasn’t yet a recognised name to head up a brand new sitcom such as this and eventually gave the role to James Bolam. Yet they did cast him as a supporting character in the series which gained him the attention of television executives.
By 1969 George was ready to take on a major comedy role as an ITV sitcom came knocking. Cast as medical student Paul Collier in Doctor In The House gave him his first identifiable role which made him a household name. Having been tipped off about the role by his good friend Christopher Timothy, George was so excited at the thought of a TV version of the legendary Dirk Bogarde film that he rang the casting director himself to enquire about a part. The director informed him that they were just casting the students at the present moment and would concentrate on the teaching staff at a later date. At just twenty-seven, this stunned the youthful George but he still secured a major role. Yet it wasn’t just his acting skills which were being celebrated. Writing under a pseudonym of Oliver Fry for the first series in collaboration with Jonathan Lynn, the most difficult thing about writing a show that you’re also starring in is the natural worry that you’re giving yourself all the good lines. Yet this didn’t halt his passion for writing and deciding to drop the pseudonym after the first series, The character of Paul Collier was written out of the series in 1972 when George moved onto star in another cult sitcom of the day but he continued as part of the writing team. George continued to write for Doctor In The House until the series came to an end in 1977 with subsequent versions made for the Australian audience in 1980.
In 1972 George was cast as Bombardier Solly Solomons in Perry and Croft’s It Ain’t Half Hot Mum. Being associated with the sitcom giants Jimmy Perry and David Croft was very important to the development of George’s career and he was able to get to know Croft reasonably well and developed a friendship which would last up until Croft’s death in 2011. As an actor, George has always been blessed with a great sense of foresight and has been able to determine the right time to leave a successful show. After just two series, George called time on Solly Solomons and It Ain’t Half Hot Mum but still remembers this time with great affection and more than forty years on, he still delights when people identify him with such a special series.
Beyond acting, George is a celebrated children’s author, writing his first collection of short, funny, bittersweet stories about growing up in the Fifties entitled The Fib in 1961 to national acclaim and has since become part of the curriculum. The most famous being The Balaclava Story about a schoolboy called George who really wanted a balaclava to be like the rest of the children in his class. Yet at the end of the school day, he finds a balaclava on the floor and is faced with a dilemma: did he do the moral thing and hand it in to a teacher or did he keep it for himself? Such a simple idea was to hit home with classrooms full of children throughout the country and in 2006 these stories were collated into a special anniversary celebration of The Fib which meant a lot to him.
His writing credentials do not stop at books and sitcoms and in 1980 George wrote and created the BBC comedy drama series Don’t Wait Up starring Nigel Havers and Tony Britton surrounding life after divorce. Writing for someone of Havers’ calibre was a dream for George as he knew instinctively what was expected and trusted his ability to take the words from the page to the screen. This formula proved successful and gave the BBC six popular series until 1990. The trials and tribulations of middle class life had only been portrayed as innocent do gooders such as Tom and Barbara Good in The Good Life. Yet this was more of a gritty representation of love and marriage and was easily identifiable with its audience and was a contributing factor in the show winning countless awards. Almost forty years on, the show is still fondly remembered by an audience of thoughtful comedy lovers making this one of George’s greatest achievements.
Slowly becoming an elder statesmen of the Arts, George can afford to be selective with the parts he secures and recent roles in BBC serials Doctors and Eastenders have cemented this. At the tender age of 77, George remains excited about future career prospects in a career which has already delivered so much success. It was a fantastic pleasure to meet and interview the legendary George Layton and wish him all the very best for the rest of his remarkable career in entertainment.