Born: April 20, 1924;

Died: November 7, 2022.

LESLIE Phillips, who has died aged 98, was an comic actor who for many years was defined by his catchphrases: 'Ding Dong', 'I say!' and 'Hello!', the last of which was usually said, slowly and lecherously, to a pretty girl. However, later in his career, after making three Carry On movies and several of the 'Doctor' series of films, he deliberately tried to move on from his familiar role as the toff or the affable womaniser. And he succeeded: in the latter part of his time as an actor, he won acclaim for some serious roles on stage and on screen.

His wife Zara said today: "I've lost a wonderful husband and the public has lost a truly great showman. He was quite simply a national treasure. People loved him. He was mobbed everywhere he went."

For most of his working life, Phillips was known for his fruity, posh accent but he was born a Cockney in Tottenham, the third and last child of Frederick and Cecelia Phillips. His father worked for a gas cooker manufacturer but died when Leslie was young; the family lived in poverty, his mother taking in clothes to repair to make enough money.

From an early age, however, Phillips displayed a talent for acting and performing and impressed the judges at an audition for the Italia Conti drama school. His family could not afford the fees but Italia Conti was sufficiently impressed with the young actor to offer him a place, promising to find him work and pay for the fees that way.

While still at the school, the child actor started getting bit-parts in films, the first of which was the romantic comedy, Lassie in Lancashire, in 1938 and The Citadel, with Robert Donat, the following year. He also worked on some of the first movies made at Pinewood Studios.

By the time the Second World War broke out, he also had a developing career in the theatre and by this time was working to get rid of his Cockney accent. After being called up, he was posted to the Durham Light Infantry and was sent to Dunbar in East Lothian for training in the Lammermuir hills. At weekends, he and his comrades would go into Edinburgh to have fun, although on one occasion it went badly wrong. One of his friends was challenged to drink a whole bottle of whisky in a single go, stood on a table and started the challenge only to collapse and land on his back, dead.

Despite the tragedy, Phillips always retained a fondness for Edinburgh and many years later returned for a one-man show at the festival, written by Peter Tinniswood. He played an old Tory MP reminiscing on his career and would walk the full length of Princes Street every day, going over his lines.

In the end, after completing his military training, Phillips was not able to join active service after doctors discovered a malfunction in his nervous system that caused partial paralysis. He was then told he had been transferred from the Durham Light Infantry into the 51st Highland Division and was put in charge of a transit camp in Suffolk. In this job, he was responsible for co-ordinating the movements of thousands of men from the Black Watch, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and other Scottish divisions en route to France. He was still only 20 years old.

After the end of the war, he initially struggled to get his acting career going again and worked for a time as a box office assistant. He then landed a job with Dundee Repertory Theatre’s production of Hamlet as Guildenstern, although it was not a success for him. The director did not like his performance and gave most of his lines to Rosencrantz.

But his luck changed again when the Glaswegian actor Caven Watson asked Phillips to join a production he was staging of the play, Hunky Dory. This then led to more work in rep, where Phillips began to establish his reputation for comedy. He then started to pick up small parts in television, starting with a BBC play called Morning Departure, which was set in a war-time submarine and was broadcast live.

His first big movie role was in Train of Events, a thriller about a train disaster starring Jack Warner. Phillips played the fireman to Warner’s train driver and it was one of the few roles that reflected his Cockney background. The film also effectively launched his film career.

By the mid-1950s he was well established and busy and had about 20 films to his credit, although he was still not a big star. It was around this time, though, that MGM in Hollywood showed an interest in him and offered him a leading part in Les Girls, with Gene Kelly. The film was a hit although Phillips never felt settled in California and returned to pursue a career in the UK.

On his return, he won a part in the radio sitcom, The Navy Lark, which would go on to become a national institution. Also starring Jon Pertwee and Ronnie Barker, it ran until 1977 and Phillips was in every one of the 250 episodes.

He then starred in Carry On Nurse, the second in the series of Carry On films. It was certainly not financially rewarding for him – he got £100 – but it did cement his reputation as a leading star of British comedy. He was also offered a bonus if he agreed to do other films in the series, Carry On Constable and Teacher. It was in Carry On Nurse that he first uttered that the first of the phrases that would haunt him – “ding dong”.

He also became a stalwart of another series of comedy films: the Doctor movies, appearing in three of them: Doctor in Love, Doctor In Clover and Doctor In Trouble. The series was already well established by the time Phillips took over from Kenneth More, and it was in Doctor in Love that he first said the second of what would become his catchphrases: “hello”. For the rest of his life, people would shout out “ding dong” or impersonate his version of 'hell-oh' at him in the streets.

Many other comedy films followed, including The Fast Lady, with Stanley Baxter; he also had a starring part as a vicar in a TV comedy, Our Man at St Mark’s, and for a while was the highest-paid actor on television. However, in a more censorious age, he had to give up the part when rumours of his marriage break-up began to spread and he was replaced by Donald Sinden.

By the late 1980s, he was worried about being forever trapped in the role of the naughty, affable womaniser and began to consciously seek other work, telling producers he would turn down any parts involving amorous twits and their chat-up lines.

The strategy began to work and he had success in a play called Chapter 17, about an alcoholic, and Peter Nichol’s masterpiece, Passion Play, which led to serious movie roles, beginning with the part of the governor in the Oscar-winning Out of Africa, which starred Robert Redford and Meryl Streep. He later appeared in Steven Spielberg’s The Empire of the Sun, and Tomb Raider, with Angelina Jolie, and played the Sorting Hat in two of the Harry Potter films. One of his personal favourite films was Venus, written by Hanif Kureishi and co-starring Peter O’Toole; it also won Phillips a BAFTA nomination.

He did make a brief re-appearance in a Carry On when the series was revived in 1992 for Carry On Columbus, but in his later years he became known as a reliable serious actor, often playing aristocrats and judges. He appeared twice with the Royal Shakespeare Company, in The Merry Wives of Windsor and Canaries Sometimes Sing and performed his one-man show at the Edinburgh Festival, On the Whole, It’s Been Jolly Good, in 1999.

He was made an OBE in 1998 and CBE in 2008.