Frank Windsor: Actor whose gentle detective in ‘Z Cars’ entertained audiences for two decades

Anthony Hayward
·4-min read
Windsor (right) and Johns on set during filming of ‘Jack the Ripper’ in 1973 (Getty)
Windsor (right) and Johns on set during filming of ‘Jack the Ripper’ in 1973 (Getty)

Frank Windsor’s television career was defined by one role he acted over two decades in three hugely popular series. As Detective Sergeant John Watt alongside Stratford Johns’ bullying Detective Inspector Charlie Barlow, he played the gentler half of the duo heading the north of England police force depicted warts and all in the ground-breaking Z Cars. Barlow would rough up suspects before they spilt the beans to the “kindly” Watt.

Launched in 1962, Troy Kennedy Martin’s creation was intended to portray the gritty reality a world away from the homely world of Dixon of Dock Green – and some of the upholders of the law were themselves deeply flawed.

Watt and Barlow were chosen to head a new crime division in the fictional Liverpool suburb of Newtown with mobile police officers in patrol cars nicknamed Z Victor One and Z Victor Two. In the programme’s first scene, the pair were seen at the grave of a fallen colleague, smoking and talking cynically about the chances of the murderer hanging for his crime. Watt referred to the police psychiatrist as “the trick cyclist”.

Within weeks, Z Cars had 15 million viewers. It continued until 1978, but Windsor and Johns’ nice-and-nasty detectives were transplanted to a spin-off series, Softly Softly (1966-9), to join Wyvern, a fictional regional crime squad near Bristol, as detective chief inspector and detective chief superintendent respectively. When the pair were switched to the fictional Thamesford, in the southeast of England, for the sequel, Softly Softly: Task Force (1969-76), Watt had two further promotions – gaining overall charge as detective chief superintendent when Johns left for his own spin-off series, Barlow at Large.

Slightly bizarrely – but proving how deeply their characters were etched in the public psyche – Windsor and Johns were reunited as Watt and Barlow reinvestigating famous historical crimes in two dramatised documentary series, Jack the Ripper (1973) and Second Verdict (1976).

In 1978, Windsor returned to Z Cars for its final episode, a touching finale featuring many of the original cast.

The actor was born Frank Windsor Higgins in Walsall, Staffordshire, in 1928, to Frank, a local government official, and Frances (nee Sharratt), and attended Queen Mary’s grammar school, Walsall.

He made his debut on radio in 1946, then performed in RAF shows during national service. As Frank Windsor, he went into repertory theatre and, in 1952, was a founding member of the Oxford and Cambridge Players, which became the Elizabethan Theatre Company.

This classical experience led to one of Windsor’s first television appearances, as the Duke of Norfolk in a 1957 BBC production of A Man for All Seasons.

His breakthrough on the small screen came three years later in the Shakespeare anthology series An Age of Kings, taking seven roles – the Bishop of Carlisle, Sir Walter Blunt, Bullcalf, the Earl of Cambridge, Williams, the Earl of Warwick and Sir Robert Brackenbury.

Windsor followed it in a modern – indeed, futuristic – drama serial, A for Andromeda (1961), set in 1970, as scientist Dennis Bridger meeting an untimely end.

During his long run on screen as John Watt, Windsor took guest roles in other popular series. An actor who declared himself to have a huge fear of unemployment, he continued to take many such parts afterwards.

He also starred in the BBC Play for Today Headmaster (1974) as Tom Fisher, a disillusioned secondary school head failing to re-secure his job when it merges with a grammar school to become a comprehensive. Three years later, it became a series, with Fisher as head of the lower school.

Windsor also starred in both series of the writer Brian Finch's gentle comedy-drama Flying Lady (1987, 1989) as Harry Bradley, who loses his lifelong job in a Yorkshire mill and blows his redundancy money on a Rolls-Royce, to the disgruntlement of his wife, Jean (Anne Stallybrass).

In the four-part thriller The Real Eddy English (1989), he played Uncle Eddy, a cinema manager idolised by his nephew, the chatline monitor of the title. There were also roles as Peter Fitchford in the first series (1990) of Chancer and Cyril Wendage in the third run (1995) of September Song.

Windsor said he found it therapeutic to play a father grieving for his dead son in the television film Anchor Me (2000) just three years after the death of his own son, David, in a car crash, aged 29. “There was no guilt in drawing on my personal experience – playing the part was probably helping me along the way,” he explained.

His last television role was in Casualty as Kenneth Samuels (2004), the father-in-law of Charlie Fairhead (Derek Thompson) dying from lung cancer. The actor’s rare film parts included a dentist in This Sporting Life (1963) and George Washington in Revolution (1985).

On stage, he played Lenin in a Royal Shakespeare Company production of Tom Stoppard’s play Travesties (Aldwych Theatre, 1974) and Long John Silver in Treasure Island (Mermaid Theatre, 1989).

Windsor is survived by his wife, Mary (nee Corbett), a former dancer whom he married in 1959, and their daughter, Amanda.

Frank Windsor, actor, born 12 July 1928, died 30 September 2020

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