Michael Angelis, who has died aged 76, was a Liverpudlian actor whose lugubrious style proved equally effective in both drama and comedy; he won his greatest acclaim in the 1980s in the searing television drama Boys from the Blackstuff, and later succeeded Ringo Starr as the voice of Thomas the Tank Engine.
Saturnine and curly-haired, Angelis first gained wide recognition in the long-running BBC sitcom The Liver Birds, joining the cast in 1975 as Lucien, the downbeat, philosophising brother of Carol Boswell (Elizabeth Estensen). His most memorable characteristic was his fondness for his pet rabbits, and one episode saw him threatening to jump from the roof of City Pets in Liverpool after they were stolen.
Lucien was promoted to the central character in a spin-off film called Me You and Him (1979), and Angelis returned when The Liver Birds was briefly revived, after a 17-year gap, in 1996. Carla Lane, the writer of the series, called Angelis “my favourite Scouser”, and said of his technique: “He didn’t have to do funny things to make people laugh, he just had to sit there and sing the words to his own tune.”
In 1980 Angelis was cast as Chrissie Todd in Alan Bleasdale’s The Black Stuff, an episode of “Play for Today” focused on a group of men laying tarmac. The actors worked with a real tarmac gang beforehand: “We laid a road,” Angelis recalled, “very badly.”
The characters returned in Bleasdale’s series Boys from the Blackstuff (1982), set in a Liverpool floundering under mass unemployment and apparently forgotten by the government led by Margaret Thatcher.
Bernard Hill gave the most widely discussed performance, as the volatile Yosser Hughes – with his memorable catchphrase “Gizza job!” – but Angelis was also superb in the quieter role of Chrissie, emasculated by unemployment and enduring the deterioration of his marriage to Angie (Julie Walters).
In one episode, after a dressing down from Angie, Chrissie lets his usually stoical mask slip to admit how he feels: “A second-class citizen, a second rate man with no money, no job and no place.” Later on, accused of failing as a provider, he shoots the family’s pet geese.
The epic arguments between husband and wife, which sometimes descended into violence, took an emotional toll on the actors, and even a physical one: Angelis recalled that Julie Walters “left me black and blue”. Perhaps the finest achievement of the two actors was to suggest the strength of the characters’ love, even though it had been curdled by their circumstances.
The series was hailed as a landmark in the portrayal of the reality of working-class life on television, and the cast were treated as heroes in Liverpool: “It was like being a pop star,” Angelis said.
He became a member of Alan Bleasdale’s unofficial repertory company, appearing in his film No Surrender (1985) – Angelis threatened to walk out when the director refused to cast Julie Walters in the film, although by the time the decision was reversed she was engaged on another project – and the television dramas GBH (1991) and Melissa (1997).
Angelis had grown up in the unprepossessing Liverpool neighbourhood of Dingle, a few streets away from Ringo Starr, and in 1991 took over from the former Beatle as the narrator of the animation Thomas and Friends, based on the railway stories of the Reverend W Awdry.
Angelis matched Starr’s deadpan but expressive style perfectly and provided voices for every character from the Fat Controller to Toby the Traction Engine, continuing in the job for more than a quarter of a century.
Michael Angelis was born in Paddington on April 29 1944 (some sources say 1952; Angelis was reticent about the details of his private life). His father, Evangelos Angelis, was a Greek immigrant; his mother Margaret (née McCulla) died when he was small.
Michael’s older brother was the actor and writer Paul Angelis, who became well-known as PC Bruce Bannerman in Z Cars and, by coincidence, was the voice of Ringo Starr in the Beatles animation Yellow Submarine. In 1985 Michael starred in Paul’s radio play Where Are You Now Margaret McCulla?, inspired by their mother.
Michael was brought up in Liverpool and returned there to work at the Everyman Theatre after studying at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow. In 1972 he went to London in search of better opportunities and never returned permanently to Liverpool. For many years he lived in Chelsea, where he was a drinking companion of George Best.
Among dozens of other television appearances, Angelis had guest roles in Coronation Street, Minder, Lovejoy, Auf Wiedersehen, Pet and Midsomer Murders. His stage roles ranged from Willy Russell’s One for the Road with Russ Abbott (Lyric Theatre, 1987) to Brecht’s Mother Courage (Olympia, Dublin, 2001) with Tyne Daly.
After a brief marriage in the 1970s, Michael Angelis’s second marriage was to Helen Worth, famous for her long-running role as Gail Platt in Coronation Street, although as an intensely private man he did not enjoy the tabloid press attention that the relationship brought him. After their divorce he married, in 2001, Jennifer Khalastchi, who survives him.
Michael Angelis, born April 29 1944, died May 30 2020