Actor best known for Z-Cars

Born: October 20, 1939;

Died: November 12, 2019

THE actor Ian Cullen, who has died aged 80, became a household name thanks to six years – and over 200 episodes – on British television playing PC/DC Joe Skinner in the seminal BBC police series Z-Cars, which had begun in 1962 and specialised in earthy realism and social issues.

Skinner, introduced in 1969, was sullen and misunderstood, but Cullen imbued him with humanity, even vulnerability, excelling at the series’ house style of underplayed, naturalistic performances. Viewers were shocked when, in 1975, he was gunned down in the line of duty: one of the most seismic TV events of the decade. It was a downbeat, unsentimental and bittersweet exit – his death the result of him being in the wrong place at the wrong time – befitting this luckless square peg of a character. The episode was also a quality piece of television, a valediction that Cullen’s consummate skill and committed performance deserved.

Two decades later, in 1997, he was Angus, the head of the Hart clan, the initial focus of Channel 5’s first soap opera Family Affairs. His intelligent, nuanced acting and solid professionalism helped to ground a show with a low budget and fast turnaround, but he ultimately fell victim to another shock exit when the Harts were all killed off in an explosion.

George Ian Cullen was born in the mining town of West Boldon, County Durham, the youngest of two sons of wine merchant John Cullen and nurse Elizabeth (nee Riches). She was an amateur actress who wrote her own plays and pantomimes and so Ian was allowed to attend acting classes at the age of four.

Aged six he determined to become a professional and at eight vowed to get into the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (the only drama school he had heard of): ambitions he fulfilled.

He made his professional debut in 1952 playing Tiny Tim in a stage version of A Christmas Carol and then his father – overhearing some actors discussing their need for a talented youngster – suggested him for the title role in The Winslow Boy opposite Frank Finlay.

Emboldened by these successes he won a scholarship to RADA at the age of 16, graduating in 1958. He then began building up an extensive CV in repertory theatre all over the country and joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1960.

Two years with them found him appearing in many productions including Macbeth, King Lear (with Paul Scofield), Becket and The Devils. His eight West End appearances included The Mousetrap (as Sergeant Trotter, Ambassadors’ Theatre, 1968), and Run For Your Wife (Criterion Theatre,1985).

He was rightly proud of his Paul of Tarsus, on stage throughout, in Man of Two Worlds (1985, Westminster Theatre), won excellent notices for playing Jay in The Road to the Sea (2003, Orange Tree, Richmond) and in 2012 played Scrooge in A Christmas Carol in Reading.

He had his biggest successes on television, a medium he mastered very quickly. His big break came when he was cast, in 1963, as the lead in a 13-part serialisation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped. Soon afterwards he played a good guest part in Doctor Who (1964) as a cunning and arrogant Aztec warrior opposite William Hartnell in the programme’s first year.

In 1966 he was drafted into the medical soap Emergency Ward-10 to bring a bit of conflict as Dr Warren Kent, head of a new accident unit. After Z-Cars he cropped up on television regularly, playing Geordie Watson in when The Boat Comes in (1977-81), Peter Talbot in Our John Willie (1980) and Robson Green’s father in The Gambling Man (1995) as well as roles in everything from Blake’s 7 (1978) and Sorry! (1981) to Spender (1991) and Harbour Lights (2000).

His film credits included Voyage of the Damned (1976), Dawn of the Dragonslayer (2011) and the forthcoming Summer Can Wait. He was also a prolific writer – he had many original screenplays, five episodes of The Paper Lads (1977/78) and one of Z-Cars made for television, penned a number of pantomimes, and had plays produced on stage and by BBC Radio 4. Voice work included winning a Gold Award for his narration of the feature-length documentary The Destiny of Britain (2007) and rekindling his proud association with Doctor Who for the audio adventure series Dark Eyes (2012, with Paul McGann).

He remained committed to his craft, and saw passing on his knowledge and experience as an obligation. He was more than happy to appear in short films for fledgling directors, ran the Surrey Heath Youth Actors’ company with his wife, and was a valued and respected teacher and director with a passion for Shakespeare (voicing the Early Shakespeare video project, now rolled out across London schools). At the time of his death he was planning his next production for Farnham Repertory Theatre, his zeal undimmed.

He married the actress Yvonne Quenet in 1970 – she survives him, as do their three daughters Emma, Anne-Marie and Adele and eight grandchildren.