Z Cars actor who went on to star on stage and screen

Born: February 3, 1935;

Died: July 19, 2019

JEREMY Kemp, who has died aged 84, had a distinguished career on stage, and a prolific one in films, but was a superb television actor. He was perfectly suited to small screen drama of the 1960’s and 1970’s. When first seen in a wide shot, his imposing height and build, with red hair (swiftly to recede) and sometimes an equally ruddy face, often combined with upright bearing, made his characters appear resolute and often forceful.

But then, when in close-up, his craggy face could perfectly convey inner torment, incomprehension at the world around him, and painfully acquired self-knowledge. The earliest run of the BBC’s innovative, realistic police drama Z Cars gained him his earliest fame, as PC Bob Steele, one of the occupants of Z Victor Two.

He was born Jeremy Walker, in Derbyshire. His mother Elsa’s maiden name became his professional surname; his father Edmund was an engineer. Following National Service, as a Lieutenant in the Black Watch, he attended the Central School of Speech and Drama.

Upon graduation in 1958, he won the Central’s prize for best male performance, named after Laurence Olivier; he later played Cornwall in Olivier’s King Lear (Granada, 1984). He also won a radio acting prize, and was offered a three-year contract with the BBC’s Radio Drama Company, but turned it down. His London stage debut was in Ionesco’s The Chairs (Royal Court, 1958).

From 1958 to 1960, Kemp was in the Old Vic Company. When he played Antonio in The Tempest, Caliban and Prospero were respectively Joss Ackland and John Philips; all three would become Z Cars regulars. At the Nottingham Playhouse, he was a sardonic, taxi-owning relative in Celebration (1961), a Northern comedy by Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall, involving a wedding in its first half and a funeral in its second. Decades later, Kemp could be glimpsed in the arguably not dissimilar film Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994).

His film debut was playing, as he termed it, “a rabble-rouser” in Cleopatra (1963); while it brought him his first sports car, he found constant delays to filming in Rome tiresome. He then eagerly accepted the BBC’s offer of a new TV series. One early casting idea was for Kemp as Sergeant Watt, eventually played by Frank Windsor.

Eventually, Kemp was cast as Bob Stark, slotted in alongside Bert Lynch, played by James Ellis. The character was renamed Steele by the time the first episode, from the Scottish duo of writer Troy Kennedy Martin and director John McGrath, was broadcast on 2nd January 1962. Steele’s combustible marriage illustrated the makers’ intent to depict policemen as real people. Off screen, Kemp had made noises about wanting to leave the show by the end of its first series.

An incentive for him to stay into the second series was that he would be given a particularly strong final episode. Written by the highly respected John Hopkins, “A Simple Case” (1963) saw Steele upset by a confused elderly woman being prosecuted for shoplifting and his superiors failing to acknowledge a slight lapse rather than genuine larceny, and after much agonised cogitation, handing in his resignation. Kemp worked for Hopkins again in Walk Into The Dark (BBC, 1972), enacting a verbal, psychological duel with Hopkins’ wife, Shirley Knight.

In 1964, Kemp told a meeting of a theatrical social club, the Gallery First Nighters’, “I am violently anti-typecasting of all kinds”, adding “There is no such thing as a type”. He expounded: “What is interesting about a soldier, for instance, is the one who doesn’t stand up straight and march about…The weaknesses about people always illuminate, and the imaginative approach is often more effective than the actual correct thing.”

Incident At Vichy (Phoenix, 1966) by Arthur Miller and starring Alec Guinness, cast Kemp as a German major in the Second World War, at times driven to drink by his responsibilities. An alarming number of his future film and television roles would be as Nazis or Germanic adversaries, although on the lighter side in the Julie Andrews vehicle Darling Lili (1970), and in Top Secret! (1984).

He had a departure in Simon Gray’s Spoiled (Haymarket, 1971) as a pedantic teacher attracted to a pupil (Simon Ward) staying at his home. A revival of Pinter’s The Caretaker, at the Mermaid in 1972, teamed him with Leonard Rossiter (in real life a near-neighbour) and John Hurt. He was an unreconstructed embodiment of Empire, again opposite Hurt, in East of Elephant Rock (1976).

At the National Theatre in 1979, Kemp was Buckingham to John Wood’s Richard III. In 1985, the BBC began filming Slip-Up, with Larry Lamb as Ronnie Biggs and Kemp on his trail as Superintendent Jack Slipper; due to legal action by the real Slipper, its screening was postponed several times. Reasonable Force (1988), a BBC2 single drama asking ‘who polices the police?’, saw Kemp as the patrician adversary of Adrian Dunbar, who could be found in the same subject matter thirty years later, in Line of Duty.

Ill-health clouded Kemp’s later years. Having once said he viewed marriage as “too tying”, his partner predeceased him. Two sisters survive him.

Gavin Gaughan