‘Hardened’, ‘craggy’, ‘sinister’, ‘sand-blasted’. Just a few of the descriptions of George Sewell’s features, the actor known to all UFO fans as Colonel Alec Freeman. It was those ‘lived-in’ looks that contrasted so perfectly with Ed Bishop’s angelic and androgynous appearance and helped to make the partnership of Straker/Freeman a pivotal part of UFO.
But for all his ‘shifty’ looks, George Sewell, although never attaining first-rank fame, was a prolific and popular actor who appeared in many television series as well as films and theatre productions.
George Sewell was born in London on 31st August, 1924. His mother was from a family of florists and it is said that George’s maternal grandmother had sold flowers and bird seed on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral. His father was a printer and George left school aged 14, as was usual at that time, to learn the trade. However, after the start of WWII, with the restrictions on printing due to paper shortages, Sewell went to work instead on helping to repair houses damaged by bombs. In 1943 he joined the Royal Air Force, but the war ended before he could complete his training and he was demobbed almost immediately.
Of his time after the war, Sewell recalled in an interview: ‘I went into the Air Force and afterwards did all kinds of jobs… anything that came along.’ The ‘anything that came along’ included street photographer, carpenter, and assistant road manager and drummer in a small rumba band, before he joined the Merchant Navy as a steward for the Cunard Line on the Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth liners.
He stayed in the Merchant Navy for eight years and then became a motor-coach courier for a travel company, using his knowledge of French and German.
Unlike a lot of his contemporaries, Sewell had no aspirations to a career as an actor, and it was not until 1959, at the age of 35 that a chance meeting with the actor Dudley Sutton led to Sewell auditioning for Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop production of ‘Fing’s Ain’t Wot they Used T’Be’ at the Theatre Royal Stratford East, in 1959. Sutton told Sewell that Joan Littlewood was searching for a character with his looks to appear in her new production and assured Sewell that Littlewood didn’t like using actors.
Sewell was given the part of a policeman in the play, a Cockney comedy with songs by Lionel Bart, which later transferred to The Garrick Theatre in the West End. This was followed by another Littlewood-cast role in the comedy, ‘Sparrers Can’t Sing’ in 1960. (Sparrows Can’t Sing – U.S.)
He then went on to play Field Marshall Haig in the Theatre Workshops musical ‘Oh! What Lovely War’ which transferred to Paris and Broadway in 1964 – 65 with Sewell also taking on the role of the Kaiser. Film work followed, with roles in This Sporting Life (1963) and the film version of ‘Sparrer’s Can’t Sing’ (1963)
Television and Film career
Granada television producers were quick to notice his potential and he was soon appearing in tough character roles in many popular series of the 60’s such as Gideon’s Way, Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), Softly Softly, and Man in a Suitcase as well as a appearing as Detective Inspector Brogan in nine episodes of the popular Z-Cars police drama series, followed by six episodes of The Wednesday Play from 1965 to 1967. He played Frank Hagaden in ten episodes of ‘The Power Game’ 1965 to 1966 and numerous other roles in a wide range of programmes. In 1970 Sewell played Sammy Carson in ‘Paul Temple’.
His next television appearance would be as Colonel Alec Freeman.
In 1968 Sewell was cast by Gerry Anderson as EUROSEC Security Chief Mark Neuman in the futuristic sci-fi film Doppelganger. There, Sewell was reacquainted with Ed Bishop whom he had come to know through Joan Littlewood’s theatre group, although the two men had not worked together. The film was not a financial success, but the Andersons had already cast Ed Bishop as the Commander of what was to become SHADO in their next television series, UFO, and the rapport between Bishop and Sewell, during the filming of Doppelganger, made Sewell the Anderson’s first choice for the part of Alec Freeman what was their first live action series for television.
Recalling his role as Colonel Alec Freeman, Sewell said recalled that he and Ed Bishop had worked together in Portugal on the Doppelganger film and had ‘just hit it off’. The Andersons, Gerry and Sylvia, had been impressed with the way the two worked and decided to use Sewell to develop the relationship between Straker and Freeman.
Sewell believed that the part of Alec Freeman, an ex-RAF man, was written specifically for him and expressed his surprise that Freeman had been described as an Australian in the first script as he did not play him as such.
In the Sub-Smash commentary, on the Carlton dvd UK edition, Ed Bishop stated; ‘I think he and I played together very well because our timings were very different. He had that quick London way of speaking and I had a slower kinder of American delivery. We always seemed to complement each other and the scenes together were a lot of exploration.. exposition really. He was a joy to work with too.’
Sewell played Colonel Alec Freeman in the first seventeen episodes of the series, leaving when the closure of the MGM Studios in November 1969 brought the actors’ contracts to a close as well as forcing a break in filming until April 1970. Sewell recalled that he had been doing a ‘fair amount of stuff’ at that time. With the long gap in filming he had other commitments to fulfil and moved on to another job.
In 1973 Sewell was cast in the third and fourth series of television’s Special Branch, (a role he was later to parody in the Jasper Carrot/Robert Powell comedy, The Detectives.)
Special Branch, a gritty ITV drama set in unglamorous locations, had originally been shot in video for the first two series but was re-vamped for the third and fourth and attracted up to 20 million viewers. Sewell was in twenty-five episodes of this programme, which portrayed the anti-espionage and anti-terrorist department of the London Metropolitan Police.
Sewell’s character, Detective Chief Inspector Alan Craven was a man trying to retain his morality whilst dealing with high-level criminal activity. Special Branch led the way for other hard-hitting and realistic police series, such as The Sweeney (in which Sewell had a role as a criminal in the series 4 episode titled ‘Bait’ which was broadcast in October 1978 ) and Minder.
During this time his film career continued to prosper, with roles in the gangster movie ‘Get Carter’ in 1971 which starred Michael Caine, and Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Barry Lyndon’ in 1975. In 1979 he played Inspector Mendel in the much-acclaimed television spy thriller series ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’ with Sir Alec Guinness.
In an interview in 1985 George Sewell talked about Sci-Fi Conventions and UFO where he spoke about Colonel Freeman being just a part that he played and that Conventions were more about the programmes than about the actors. His role as Alec Freeman had been a very good job, and one that he had enjoyed, but it was over. However, he did attend the UFORIA convention in 1988 that was held in London, as well as Fanderson 1991 in Leeds and Fanderson Gold in 1996.
George Sewell’s career continued to broaden with roles in Doctor Who in 1988 and a parody of his Special Branch role as Superintendent Cottam in twenty eight episodes of The Detectives broadcast in 1993. He continued to be a popular actor and had roles in many other television programmes such as Paul Temple, Callan, Minder, Heartbeat and Doctors and in 1998 he was in a revival of the classic Dial M for Murder.
Sewell enjoyed a busy career and was hardly ever out of work, either in films, television or the theatre. His work included musicals such as Oliver! in 1983 and The Wizard of Oz. In 2002 he toured with Lionel Blair in ‘Who Killed Agatha Christie?’ and, looking back, considered himself lucky to have worked so much. Talking about the stage, he declared that he simply went along and worked for two hours and it was the easiest job he had ever had.
He was still appearing on television in programmes such as The Bill in 2005 and Casualty in 2006. George Sewell died on April 2nd 2007 aged 82, leaving his wife Helen and daughter Elizabeth as well as a stepson and two granddaughters. His daughter described him as a wonderful father and grandfather and Sewell’s agent said that one could not have met a nicer or more generous actor.
He was a gifted and versatile actor who brought considerable depth to the character of Alec Freeman. His loss to the series after the seventeenth episode was keenly felt by viewers, who had appreciated the warmth and humanity that he so openly displayed but George Sewell was an accomplished and instantly recognisable actor who could play a comedy role, as in ‘Home James’, with the same ease as he portrayed tough D.C.I. Alan Craven.
(Previously posted in The Ed Straker Herald: August 2011 by LtCdr)