The perfect butler: a tribute to Gordon Jackson

Prompted by the recent showing of ‘The Unforgettable Gordon Jackson’ on ITV1, this time we’re taking a look at this incomparable Scottish actor (1923-1990). Best known for his television roles as the pious butler Angus Hudson in the long-running series ‘Upstairs Downstairs’, and CI5 head George Cowley in ‘The Professionals’, Gordon Cameron Jackson had achieved prominence as something of a sensitive character in a range of war films (a good example being ‘Millions Like Us’, in 1943), plus typical Scots parts in films like ‘Whisky Galore!’ in 1949.

Never a showy lead or a romantic face, Gordon Jackson was seen as a professional actor, modest and level-headed, which kept him in constant work in the films. He might have appeared in small character parts, but he was always memorable, and classy. In ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’ (1962) and ‘The Great Escape’ (1963) he contributed memorable performances to major draw movies. By 1965 he was starring opposite Michael Caine in ‘The Ipcress File’, and followed this by stage roles including Horatio to Nicol Williamson’s Hamlet at the Roundhouse Theatre (later filmed).

The role of Edwardian butler Hudson, however, made Gordon a household name and a most recognisable face. In the stiffly proper and religious persona of the Scottish head of the Bellamy staff, he became the quintessential butler. It’s a marvellous performance, full of nuances – we even see him having something of a breakdown during the Great War (in the episode ‘The Beastly Hun’), and falling in love with a young housemaid (in ‘Disillusion’). Without this actor in the cast, ‘Upstairs Downstairs’ would still have been a great series, but he certainly helps to make it rather more.

By ‘The Professionals’ Gordon was ready for a change of scene, and if anyone worried about his typecasting as Hudson their fears were allayed once he took on the mantle of Cowley, the tough professional taking charge of the young agents Bodie and Doyle. The series ran from 1977 to 1983, and was another great success for the unassuming actor.

Following his award of OBE in 1979, he went into his final years still appearing in memorable dramas – he was a police detective in the film of Holmes and Watson’s later years, ‘The Masks of Death’ (1984); and one of his final roles was as the father of ‘The Winslow Boy’ in 1990. This popular and mischevious actor died at the age of 66 later that year, of bone cancer. He would be greatly missed by television viewers and friends alike, and left behind his actress wife of forty years, Rona Anderson, and their family.