When PETER WYNGARDE first acquired the acting bug as a child in Lung-Hau Civil Assembly Centre during World War 2, he never for one moment envisaged that he’d be besieged by hysterical women or converted by gay men. To him, performing on stage was a kind of religion, and he saw actors as the priests.
His very first ‘role’ was in ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’, a production of which was put on in the Camp canteen; theatre being one of the only concessions the Japanese would allow. To help his performance, PETER “borrowed” a prop from the Commandant in the form of a rabbit which the Officer wished to have for his lunch. When PETER was found to be the culprit of this heinous crime, the budding young thespian was put into solitary confinement for two weeks.
When liberated from the Camp by the American’s in 1945, and finally brought home to England, he completed his education both in Britain and Switzerland. Although, or perhaps because, there was a very well-known actor already in the family (the French player, Louis Jouvert, is PETER’s uncle), his parents pressed him to go into law, and so he obtained a place at Oxford University. Whilst he managed to stick it out for a couple of months, his heart really wasn’t in it, and so he found a position at an advertising agency in central London.
It was during his lunch break one day that he passed the Hippodrome Theatre on the corner of Leicester Square and Charing Cross Road, where he spotted a line of people queuing outside. He asked one of the young men standing in line what he was waiting for, and was informed that there was an open audition taking place. PETER automatically joined the line.
When his turn came around to take to the stage the director and producer, who were both sitting in the front row of the stalls, asked him which part he’d be reading for. PETER had no idea, and so replied, “THE part”, and began to recite all the lines from every character in the script. Nevertheless, both the men in the stalls were sufficiently impressed to cast him as the understudy to the lead in the play which opened in Brighton the following month.
‘I wish he was a lot younger like myself. I’m 13.’
From Janet from Birkenhead, 1971
It didn’t take long for PETER to establish himself as a genuine young talent, nor did his good looks and natural charisma go unnoticed by the ladies. Indeed, in an Fifties edition of Plays and Players magazine, under the banner ‘Tomorrow’s Lead’, he was already being referred to as a “heartthrob”, and it was reported that, more often than not, there’d be a gathering of female admirers assembled outside the stage door wherever he appeared.
By the time he’d made his very first television appearance, the BBC were being inundated with letters from fans – mainly of the female variety, asking who he was; was he married, and when would they be likely to see him on TV again.
It wasn’t just the fans who were left drooling. Actress, Patricia Laffan, was said to have fallen for him in a big way (“If I were a film producer I would sign PETER WYNGARDE up right away. He has everything – looks, height, a black magic voice… and he can actually act.”), as did Theatre Critic, Margaret Hinxman. Both Dame Edith Evans and Cicely Courtneidge were also said to have “adored” him.
It’s said that when Vivien Leigh first met PETER during rehearsals for ‘The Good Woman of Setzuan’ at the Royal Court in 1956, she was smitten. He was a founding member of the theatre, which had become a magnet for young up-and-coming actors and playwrights. Both Ms Leigh and her husband, Lawrence Olivier, were regular visitors.
In 1957, PETER was cast as Sidney Carton in the BBC’s seven-part rendition of Charles Dicken’s ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, which was broadcast between mid-August and mid-September. The Corporation found themselves under a tsunami of mail, exclusively from female fans, wanting to know more about PETER and requesting photographs. It was even reported in the press that one well-to-do lady who’d seen his portrayal of the tragic hero, Carton, had replaced a priceless Van Gogh painting over her fireplace with a picture of PETER!
When asked back in 1957 what he thought of all the attention he was getting from female admirers, he said: “It’s absolutely wonderful. I’m delighted to think I’ve replaced Tommy Steele – or Van Gogh – in their hearts.”
“I rang up the telephone exchange but they could’t help me because you are ex-directory. I do advise you to put your name in the phone book. It saves such a lot of trouble. You must now think me a very rude girl, but I don’t mean to be. I’m a great fan of yours, so is my mum and grandmother.”
From Helen from Harley, 1971.
When PETER was cast as Count Marcellus in ‘Duel of Angels’, Vivien Leigh, whose marriage was already in trouble, saw her opportunity to bag a new man. Mary Ure, who played Lucile in the production, said: “PETER was a beautiful boy who all the ladies in the cast wanted to take to bed. Vivien managed to seduce him”.
It wasn’t just the ladies in the cast who were besotted, as lines of woman gathered at the stage door every night just to catch a glimpse of him as he left, and bags of fan mail were delivered to his dressing room every day.
Letters were sent in their droves to both the BBC and ITV from fans demanding to see more of PETER on their screens, but in newspaper and magazines interviews he said that he would deliberately tone down any sex appeal he might have: “I suppose you must call it that – unless it’s needed for the plot. I believe actors should steer away from their natural traits. They’ll still show through in your final performance, but they’ll be much more realistic if you restrain them.”
Finally, PETER was given the opportunity to shine on the big screen when he was asked to play Peter Piatkow in MidCentury’s retelling of ‘The Siege of Sidney Street’ and, again, the papers and magazines were inundated with letters from fans… and references to his sex appeal: “Both as the icy fanatic and the passionate lover, PETER WYNGARDE is utterly convincing. The dark brown voice can also be as warm as a caress; ruthless as a razor slash.”
The trend continued when he was cast as Professor Norman Taylor in ‘Night of the Eagle’ (. “PETER WYNGARDE scores as the dreamiest screen professor since James Mason took up teaching in ‘Marriage-go-Round”), with American fans joining the fray when the film was released in the US under the title of ‘Burn, Witch, Burn’.
It’s a myth, therefore, that PETER had only been considered a “Don Juan-type” AFTER he took on the role of Jason King. Certainly, many of the fans who’d followed his career from the early days in theatre and TV felt aggrieved at the insinuation that he was something of an overnight sensation – as did PETER, who was quick to point out that he’d been gracing our screens for years.
Thank you for adding me to the group. I remember Peter breaking my heart playing Sidney Carton in ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ on television. I also went to see him in ‘Duel of Angels‘ (twice) at the Apollo Theatre when he played Count Marcellus, with Vivien Leigh and Claire Bloom. In those days I was a member of his official fan club. As you can tell – I’ve been a long-time admirer!
But whilst his popularity and heartthrob status had been confined mainly to the UK until then, his role in ‘Department S’ brought him to a new, worldwide audience. The fan mail rolling in for him carried postmarks from every corner of the world – most notably Australia and (West) Germany, where he became a HUGE star, and as far away as Japan and Canada. The office which had been set up at Elstree to deal with fan mail received for both PETER and his Co-star, Joel Fabiani, were unable to cope, and so a separate ‘Club’ formed to deal with enquiries about PETER, whilst Elstree took care of letters concerning the other actors in the series.
PETER tells of how his home in West London was besieged by woman, who took to sleeping outside the entrance. This caused endless problems with his affluent neighbours, who demanded that the girls be removed, and they were not afraid of engaging the police to carry out the job.
“I’d walk naked into my drawing room after taking a bath,” he says, “to find some teenage girl standing on my balcony, or a middle-aged woman peering over the 10ft garden wall! One day I be sitting at a set of traffic lights in an open-top car, when I’d get pairs of knickers thrown at me, or I’d find a hysterical lady suddenly sat in the front seat”.
PETER receiving a pair of knickers from a female fan.
It didn’t get any better when he went abroad. Thousands of women were waiting for him when he arrived in Denmark, Sweden, and Norway in 1971, and in Australia, up to 40,000 woman and girls had stormed Melbourne Airport for his visit there.
“While in Australia, I was put on the fifth floor of a hotel, where I was told I’d be perfectly safe,” he recalls. “But I woke to find one of the maids cutting my chest hair, and half a dozen young women had managed to scale the heights to onto my balcony during the night”.
He was regularly sent the most bizarre requests from fans: “They’d ask me for clippings from my moustache when I shaved, and would send me pairs of pants which they’d ask me to wear and return to them. Some of the message I got were obscene; I couldn’t believe they were from women!”
‘He is just a regular human-being with a difference. Please could you send me some photo’s and details about him, and I will be a fan forever. I love his sideburns and moustache. I will send some weed killer for Christmas.’
Ann from Rushdean, 1971
Rather alarmingly, in the 1970’s, ‘Valentine’ – a magazine aimed at teenager girls, one 13-year-old wrote an open letter to PETER saying:
‘I’m 5ft tall and weigh 6 stone and will do anything (within reason) for/to/with you (cross out the ones that do not apply). Could you send a lock of hair, left-overs from dinner, nail clippings, old toothbrushes, hairy boiled sweets – anything of yours.’ From ‘A Fanatic’ – Heather of Preston, 1971.
In Sydney, Australia, he spent three days in hospital with concussion after being mobbed by a 35,000-strong swarm of women aged from 12 to 65: “They took EVERYTHING; my trousers and boxer shorts. I was terrified!”
At the time, PETER was regularly voted the ‘Sexiest Man in the Universe’ or some such, by infatuated fans, and can lay claim to some of the most bizarre titles known to man:
- 1971: ‘The Man We Would Most Like To Lose Our Virginity To’ (Australia)
- 1971: ‘The Man We Would Most Like To Be Lost In Space With’ by a survey of Texan schoolgirls.
- 1972: ‘The Man with the Sexiest Voice on TV’ (Sun newspaper).
- 1972: ‘Most Compulsive Male TV Character’. (TV Times).
- 1972: ‘Sex of the Best’ (‘She’ magazine).
- 1973:’The “Unofficial” Mister World’ by readers of ‘The Daily Mail’.
1973: ‘The Most Kissable Man In Britain’ by readers of ‘Petticoat’ magazine.
In 1971, poster manufacturer, Pace International, announced that PETER’s image had outsold those of Hollywood giants, Paul Newman and Robert Redford by FIVE to ONE.
In 1973, it was reported that the husband of 29-year-old Anne Howard, had walked out on his wife of ten years after she and her friend, Joan Whipp, 38 – both members of the Women’s Circle, went to see PETER on every night of his run in ‘Mother Adam’ at the Grand Theatre, Leeds.
PETER with one of his fans at an Official Fan Club meeting
In addition to being popular with the ladies, PETER had quite a following amongst gay men, although their devotions weren’t quite so obvious. Indeed, a VERY famous male pop singer penned an incredibly intimate song for him, which was never recorded: “I found the whole thing rather peculiar,” he exclaims. “I never really understood why one man would send that sort of thing to another. I really just wanted to distance myself from it!”
He was also perused by a member of the backroom staff whilst working at The English Theatre in Vienna during mid-1970’s: “I don’t even remember his name, as I really wasn’t interested,” PETER reveals. “I ended up kicking him in the balls when he wouldn’t take ‘No’ for an answer!”
Nevertheless, PETER’s relationship with his fans – even the crazy and pushy ones, has always been good. He tries to answer all the mail that’s sent to him by his admirers, and has never knowingly refused to sign an autograph. During the tenure of his original Fan Club, he’d endeavour to attend every Club convention, and to meet up with Members after organised trips to see him on stage.
When I formed The Hellfire Club in the early-1990’s, one of the first things he said to me was that he’d do all he could to help and support me. He was always there to answer fans questions and often contributed to the quarterly Club magazine in the form of Q&A’s, and would regularly write articles. He did the same when we moved onto our own Website, and latterly the Facebook incarnation.
Above: Two of PETER’s handwritten notes to the members of The Hellfire Club.
We did, however, have one particular individual who, for reasons known only to himself, would cock-a-snoop at the idea that PETER took an active role with his Appreciation Society. Whenever I’d tell someone that his or her post had been read by PETER, or that he’d personally responded to a fan via our F.B. Page, this individual would instantly post a snide remark, followed by an Emocion showing a knowing wink, as if to say, “Yeah – right!” As I quickly pointed out to this person, there was his ‘belief’… and then there was FACT! Certainly, those who’d been with us right from the earliest days of our Society knew how much input PETER had then, and continues to have right up to today.
Sadly, with this courtesy comes an air of expectancy on the part of certain individuals. Whilst we’ve never pledged that every question or enquiry forwarded to us will receive a personal response from PETER, some people still believe that it’s their right. Indeed, whilst working on this article, one of our Members posted a number of questions on our Facebook Page concerning PETER’s involvement in ‘The Innocents’. Given the fact that we have several detailed articles on this Blog in which PETER has participated, I pointed him to the appropriate sections. It transpired, however, that this wasn’t enough for him, as I received the following message the very next day (said message is printed, verbatim):
“That wasn’t what I was hoping for after all Mr. Wyngarde has posted personal replies on this fan group before I am very disappointed by not having a proper reply. It was rather lazy on your part. therefore I am leaving your group’”
Even though we don’t charge a fee to join our Society, nor expect payment to view the Blog, this character still managed to convince himself that he’d somehow been short changed and, predictably, ended up throwing his toys out of the pram when he felt he wasn’t given preferential treatment. He obviously expected PETER to be there at his beckon call, with scant regard for anything more significant that might be happening in his personal life other than to answer his questions. This kind of behaviour seems to be indicative of the culture of entitlement pervading society today. All I can say is that, if this particular individual considers himself more eligible than the rest of our Members, then he’s did us all a huge favour in leaving!
I recently asked PETER what he thought of all the adulation he’s received over the years and still, to a great extent, continues to receive: “I really don’t understand it all,” he said. “I went into acting because that’s what I loved. While I wanted an audience to enjoy a performance on the night, it never occurred to me that anyone would take it any further. I certainly didn’t envisage my having a fan club, or that people might plaster the walls of their bedroom with posters. No, that was never in my mind”.
PETER signing autographs for a line of fans (2016)
PETER’s fans are nothing if not faithful. In 1980, a Bradford housewife named Dorothy Szekely, set up a ‘Bring Back Peter Campaign’, in an attempt to restore her favourite actor to British TV screens. Dorothy, a life-long fan, says of her crusade: “We have missed him on our televisions and from the stage. He’s best remembered as the hero, Jason King, but he’s one of our best actors and we can’t afford to lose him”. On hearing that a petition boasting over 20,000 had been sent to both the BBC and ITV companies, the ever-modest actor was said to be “Flattered”.
When the Hellfire Club magazine inevitably moved from the printed page to the Internet in 1999, PETER wrote the following for our members:
I have thought about writing something for the Club, but as yet am hoping against hope that a miracle will wash aside sad thoughts.
It’s somehow so final thinking of an obituary. Maybe that’s what should have been my first line. Because I can’t believe after all these years of triumph and such a marvelous magazine we won’t be getting any more. But then that’s how we thought after the first batch of Department S and a miracle did come along, and we made another 13 episodes. Then, of course, came Jason King. So maybe that’s how we should be looking at the closure of this chapter of the Club – just a breather.
What is important is to thank Tina for her unprecedented and fantastic captainship of a wonderful vessel of joy and fun, and the devoted love that was all rolled into what became known worldwide as The Hellfire Club. She steered us through every storm and muddy water, and we should all drop her a line to tell her how her brilliant and clever contributions made us wonder, laugh, and sometime shed a few tears mixed with the crocodile ones.
Thank her too for all the variety and colour she brought to her articles, and we shouldn’t forget her unquestionable spirit either, which was unswerving even when the dice had been thrown against her, proving her complete and total unselfishness. These are all qualities which the old press barons would’ve admired – if only the present tabloids had her dedication and love we’d have papers we could be proud of instead of the garbage collectors which make us so ashamed.
But then there is NO love in Fleet Street, only hatred and petty larceny of souls. They’d hate The Hellfire Club because it was built for and around love of the highest quality. It built up a star and gave him confidence and courage when the chips were down. I shall be eternally grateful.
Every good wish to you all, and a personal “Thank You” for being so brilliantly faithful.
Sadly, but with unbridled optimism… Yours with much love,
And so to the individual who’d convinced himself that PETER had no interest in his Appreciation Society; that he never bothered to read the magazines or, latterly, the posts on the Club’s Facebook?
Sorry, old bean – YOU WERE DEAD WRONG!
The Hellfire Club: The OFFICIAL PETER WYNGARDE Appreciation Society: https://www.facebook.com/groups/813997125389790/