Alfred Burke was a wonderful actor, and by all accounts a very fine human being. Now he’s left us. I’m deeply saddened tonight.
His performance in “Public Eye” is a towering achievement, lifting that show into the ranks of the finest that ITV ever produced. Frank Marker is one of television’s truly great characters – it’s a shame that it has slipped into relatively shadowy obscurity. Those of us who do know it eulogise it, and much of that’s down to Burke’s endlessly fascinating work.
Stalking the streets of London, Birmingham, Brighton and Windsor, Marker eked out a painful existence as a private investigator. Things very rarely ended well for him – more often than not he ended an episode brutalised, beaten and dejected. But still going, still plugging away at the life he’d chosen for himself. Because that was all he knew. There’s barely a duffer in any of the surviving episodes but I have to single out “The Man Who Said Sorry” as a major peak – a two-hander with Burke and Paul Rogers. It takes place almost entirely in Marker’s office, it’s fifty minutes, it flashes past because you’re so totally swept up in it, and it has an ending that kicks you right in the guts.
Were I to do something so foolish as to compile a list of all-time greatest television episodes, that would be in there for sure. It wouldn’t be alone. I could populate it almost entirely with “Public Eye” episodes. It – and Burke – really was that good.
In a career that spanned nearly sixty years he was always there. A stalwart on screen in the sixties, that rumpled face was a welcome sight in episodes of “The Avengers”, “Randall and Hopkirk”, “No Hiding Place”, “Maigret”,”Z Cars”…
He continued his great work on through the years. He was even in “The Borgias”, although he probably wouldn’t want us to remember him for that. In 1986 he pitched up in Nigel Kneale’s highly odd murder-farce-battle-of-the-sexes episode of “Unnatural Causes”. The script is – to be generous – one in which everything is heightened and played at an exaggerated pitch, and Burke tapped into that, delivering a blustering Colonel that somehow manages to go so over the top he’s back down the other side and yet remains totally believable at all times. That’s a neat trick if you can do it. Not everybody could.
He kept on going, tumbling into old age with a mixture of one-off appearances on television, theatre work and an occasional film. He cameos in “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets”, as Professor Armando Dippet. When he turned up, I swear to god I had a little lump in my throat. I never met him, but there was my old friend who’d contributed so much to my – and your – viewing pleasure over the years. Still plugging away. Still delivering quality.
Not too long ago I heard that he was going out on another theatre tour. On the cusp of his nineties, he signed up for six months of gruelling stage work. “Reckon that should see me out”, he chuckled gleefully. It didn’t. He saw it off instead, and carried on living. I rather hoped he’d live forever.
I’ll miss him. He was one of the greats. Thank you, Alfred. Goodnight.