Ben Roberts obituary

Stage and screen actor admired for his gruff, world-weary portrayal of Chief Inspector Derek Conway in The Bill

The actor Ben Roberts, who has died aged 70, was best known for playing the dour but dogged old-school police officer Chief Inspector Derek Conway in the early days of The Bill, ITV’s long-running crime drama set on the streets of London.

The gruff, world-weary character sneered at modern policing methods, believing that pounding the streets was more productive than sitting behind a desk. He showed this to best effect when his training as a hostage negotiator was called upon.

The Bill began in 1984 – after a pilot titled Woodentop the previous year – and Roberts was first seen, uncredited, in the background of a scene in 1987. On his arrival as a regular cast member in 1988, he ensured the character quickly made his mark as Sun Hill police station’s chief inspector of operations and assistant to Chief Superintendent Charles Brownlow (Peter Ellis). Officers breaking the rules or falling short of Conway’s “by the book” standards were on the receiving end of his no-nonsense language and dressings-down.

Nevertheless, Conway’s career ambitions were constantly thwarted. He sought a route to promotion by becoming a masonic lodge member, like Brownlow, and taking the role of community liaison officer in 1993. It appeared to work when, to the surprise of his colleagues the following year, he was appointed acting superintendent during his superior’s secondment to Scotland Yard. However, he was returned to his original rank in 1996.

Roberts is remembered by other Bill actors for his humour and funny stories – and creating a “Chuckle Brothers” partnership with Ellis between takes when they could let their “bosses” personas slip.

The Bill’s writers brought humour to Roberts’s character when Conway discovered alcohol at the station, searched officers’ lockers to ensure no more was stashed away – and was caught red-handed with a female officer’s knickers.

Ben Roberts, right, as Chief Inspector Conway, Jane Wall as PC Di Worrell and Colin Tarrant as Inspector Andrew Monroe, left, in The Bill.
Ben Roberts, right, as Chief Inspector Conway, Jane Wall as PC Di Worrell and Colin Tarrant as Inspector Andrew Monroe, left, in The Bill. Photograph: Fremantle Media/Rex/Shutterstock

In contrast, there was high drama when the actor was written out in 2002 – after appearing in almost 500 episodes – as a new producer arrived to revamp the series. Conway’s explosive ending came when he was ambushed by a biker whose pillion passenger threw a petrol bomb into his panda car. The programme itself finally bit the dust eight years later.

Ben (Bennett) was born in Bangor, Caernarfonshire (now in Gwynedd), to Mona (nee Templer), a school meals supervisor, and Bennett Roberts, an electrician. On leaving Friars comprehensive school, Bangor, he moved at the age of 17 to London, where he worked as a waiter and trained as a chef.

Then, on being accepted by the Heinz apprentice scheme as an “instrument technician” – learning the secret of making the baked-bean sauce – he rented a room with a couple who performed with an amateur actors’ group, the Hurlingham Players. As a result, he watched a theatre performance for the first time and then joined the company, making his debut as Tony Lumpkin in She Stoops to Conquer.

Bitten by the acting bug, Roberts then trained at the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art in London, graduating in 1978, when he landed his first work, at the Pitlochry Festival theatre.

He moved on to the Nuffield theatre in Southampton to play Caliban in The Tempest (1980), then had a starring role as Jimmy Porter in the John Osborne classic Look Back in Anger at the Lyceum theatre, Crewe (1980).

During a particularly happy time at the Derby Playhouse, he played the title character in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (1983), moving The Stage’s critic to write: “The chief memory of the production must be Roberts’ development of the almost insignificant gangster Ui into the arrogant, strutting, air-beating manipulator.”

Later, at Nottingham Playhouse (1985), he acted the screeching Sergeant Bell in Colin Morris’s national service farce Reluctant Heroes. Then, shortly before joining The Bill, he starred as Nelson in Ron Hutchinson’s IRA drama Rat in the Skull at the Liverpool Playhouse’s studio (1987).

Ben Roberts, left, in a Derby Playhouse production of Treasure Island, 2007.
Ben Roberts, left, in a Derby Playhouse production of Treasure Island, 2007. Photograph: Keith Pattison

He deliberately started turning down theatre roles in the hope of getting more work in television, where he had already appeared as a CI5 agent in a 1980 episode of The Professionals, a racist and sexist social club bartender in that year’s series of the nurses drama Angels, and an ex-con in Hard Cases (1988). He was also seen as a villain in Tales of Sherwood (1989), but frequently had to convince Doctor Who fans that he was not the Ben Roberts who reportedly appeared uncredited as a Dalek trooper in the 1984 story Resurrection of the Daleks.

Roberts took Conway to children’s television for a 2000 episode of Sooty Heights. His later screen appearances were mostly in films, playing the lawyer Mr Briggs in Jane Eyre (2011) and working with the directors Mike Leigh on Another Year (2010), Alan Rickman on A Little Chaos (2014) and Tim Burton on Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016).

Off screen, proving he was nothing like his Bill character, he was known for having a wicked sense of humour and being a collector of clocks (for mending) and miniature steam engines (for renovating). He was also the holder of a pilot’s licence, building a two-seater biplane in his garage.

He married Helen Lloyd, a narrator of audiobooks and a former actor, producer and television presenter, in 1981. She survives him, as do their son, Joe, a granddaughter, Elsie, and his sisters, Monica and Ann.

• Ben (Bennett) Roberts, actor, born 1 July 1950; died 7 June 2021


Anthony Hayward

The GuardianTramp

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