Alfred Burke

Pencil Portrait by Antonio Bosano.

Alfred Burke Pencil Portrait
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last update: 30/4/19

I was reminded recently of the late Alfred Burke’s acting credentials when I watched Enemy at the Door on Youtube. I never caught the series when it was originally transmitted between 1978-80 but was nonetheless familair with much of his film and television work.

During a six decade long career. he saw many changes in his chosen profession, being moved to say: “I think nowadays you’re more responsible for yourself as an actor. You are expected to take more responsibility for yourself and you do. And your own opinions for instance, nowadays would be much more important than they were in my time when your own opinion didn’t count for much. You did what you were told or what was suggested to you. The sort of thing you did was imitate older actors actually.”

Alfred Burke’s family originally hailed from Cork, moving to Dublin and finally to Peckham where he was born on 28 February 1918. Unlike most actors he had a working class upbringing in a tough area of South London. Fights between street gangs were common and he took part as well.

He left school at the age of fifteen and got his first job as a clerk. Shortly afterwards he became a steward in a club but left following an argument with a barmaid. He tried his luck in Brighton but it was off-season and he found no success. After a spell working in a warehouse he finally found his niche when he earned a scholarship to RADA in 1937.

His early acting career was interrupted by the war. He was a conscientious objector so served on the land rather than in the armed forces. Thereafter acting work was not always available and at one stage he had to address envelopes at the rate of ten shillings per thousand to make ends meet. Eventually he achieved more regular employment, working extensively in provincial theatre, including spells in Nottingham and Birmingham – the latter he discussed in his interview with ATV (included as an extra on the 1971 DVD set). In the 1950’s he started to make appearances on TV and film. These were generally small parts and guest roles, usually as villains, in shows such as Danger Man, The Saint and The Avengers as well as long-running series such as Z-Cars.

His big breakthrough and his first major starring part came with Public Eye early in 1965. At first sight Alfred seemed an unlikely choice for a show about a private detective – characters normally seen as young, handsome men at ease with violence, womanising and wisecracking. However this show avoided the cliched image and instead opted for a far more realistic picture of the private detective – someone dealing with everyday problems for everyday people. In this respect Alfred Burke was an excellent choice. Young and glamorous he was not but he exuded dignity, wisdom and experience, all ideal qualities for the job.

When co-creator Roger Marshall first wrote the part he thought of Donald Pleasance – another middle-aged character actor who would have suitably departed from the stereotype. However director Don Leaver suggested Alfred and it was an inspired choice. Roger perceptively said that he was just right because “he didn’t look like a private detective” and in a crowd was “just another face”. Alfred could convey the right quality of ordinariness but he also astutely suggested changing the character’s surname from “Marvin” to “Marker”, further distancing it from any “hard man” associations.

For the next ten years he starred in all eighty seven episodes of the show. He still found time for more theatre work and occasional guest appearances in shows such as Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) in 1969 (“All Work And No Pay”) in which he starred as one of two fairly comic con-men alongside Dudley Foster.

After Public Eye concluded in 1975 he had two other major starring parts. The first in 1978 was in the acclaimed Enemy at the Door, a series about the German occupation of the Channel Islands, in which he played a German officer. In the early 1980’s he was a key figure in The Borgias for the BBC. He continued to make guest appearances in shows. In the first series of Minder in 1979 he played the owner of a mini-cab company in the story “Come In T-64, Your Time Is Ticking Away”. The following year saw one of his best-remembered roles in Tales of the Unexpected (“The Flypaper”) as an outwardly friendly but unnerving man who followed a schoolgirl home. Further roles were in Bergerac, Home To Roost (a rare comedy sighting) and, most recently, in Holby City. Other notable film parts in recent times have included the 1996 version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Longitude. Even into his mid-eighties he continued to act, appearing in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

Although Alfred’s work on screen is best known his theatre work over the years was extensive and included a spell with the Royal Shakespeare Company as well as a production of Pirandello’s Henry IV. Less well-known is that he also wrote some plays under the name of Frank Hanna and one of his pieces was broadcast on ATV in 1964. He turned his hand to poetry as well.

Away from acting he married Barbara, a singer-cum-actress who later became a primary school teacher. They had four children – unusually two sets of twins – Jacob and Harriet (born circa 1957) and Kelly (male) and Louisa (born circa 1961). He led a busy family life in a semi-detached home in Barnes on the border between London and Surrey. He said he had little time left for hobbies but still had plenty of interests. He was interested in football and had an interest in all the London teams although early in life he had been a Millwall supporter. He enjoyed touring stately homes, reading and had a liking for food, especially French cuisine. France was one of his favoured holiday destinations, particularly Bordeaux.

Music, particularly classical and opera, were major interests. Interviewed by The Sunday Mirror in 1971 he said he was recording an LP of songs from his childhood – Irving Berlin-type material – and that it was due for release that Christmas. This was an interesting parallel with another Thames leading man of that era who had a singing sideline – Edward Woodward of Callan fame. However it is unknown whether this record ever saw the light of day. It would certainly have been interesting to hear Alfred in singing mode and like many actors such as Edward Woodward he might have been quite adept in the role. He said he had also played piano and violin, and both his wife and children were musical.

Sadly Alfred died of a chest infection on 16th February 2011, twelve days short of his ninety-third birthday.

Recommended viewing

Public Eye (ITV Series) 1965-75

Burke’s weatherbeaten features were perfect for the role of Frank Marker. A tall sinewy man, with a hollow face and small hard eyes which peered suspiciously at a hostile world, there was an undeniably villainous look about him and if the truth be told, by the mid 60’s, the actor had been cast as the third bandit from the right in countless productions.

Intervied by TV Times magazine in April 1965, the series primary writer Roger Marshall was moved to say: “The reason Alfie was chosen for the part is that he doesn’t look like a private detective. If you saw him in a pub or a supermarket, you wouldn’t single him out for attention. He’s just another face in the crowd.”

The character of Marker wasn’t rich — or particularly handsome. His wardrobe was strictly functional. One pair of shoes and if they didn’t get to the cobbler on time, he avoided puddles. A dirty white mac; a couple of pairs of slacks; an old sports jacket, a favourite egg stained tie; sartorially speaking, he was a disaster.

Operating in a knuckle-duster world, his main worry was never where to park his Aston Martin, but like all losers, his ability to meet his income tax demands.

Enemy at the door (ITV Series) 1978-80