Nicholas Ball, hard-boiled actor known for his 1970s Cockney private eye in ITV’s Hazell – obituary

Nicholas Ball as the East End private eye James 'Jim' Hazell
Nicholas Ball as the East End private eye James 'Jim' Hazell - Fremantle Media/Shutterstock

Nicholas Ball, who has died aged 78, was best known as the seedy East End private detective James Hazell, a former police officer who has been battered by life, other people and the contents of too many gin bottles, in the 1970s ITV drama Hazell which attracted audiences of 20 million.

Ball then spent three decades in relative obscurity but made a noisy comeback as the murderous Garry Ryan, a former rock star and chairman of Earls Park FC, in Footballers’ Wives (2006), which led to the role of the vicious gang lord Terry Bates in EastEnders (2007-09), attacking Peggy Mitchell (Barbara Windsor) while smashing up the Queen Victoria pub.

The character of Hazell first appeared as “the biggest bastard who ever pushed your bell-button” in a 1974 novel, the first in a series written jointly under the name PB Yuill by the Scottish journalist Gordon Williams and the England footballer Terry Venables, who lent Hazell his Cockney grit.

In a 1979 episode of Hazell
In a 1979 episode of Hazell - Fremantle Media/Shutterstock

When the idea was adapted for the small screen, the then-unknown Ball beat John Nettles to the part, and went on to play Hazell with tongue-in-cheek humour and a cutting condescension that often earned him a smack in the mouth from those who did not always see the funny side of things. The wise-cracking voiceover narration was an hommage to the classic American noirs of Raymond Chandler.

Hazell ran to 22 hour-long episodes, shown between 1978 and 1979. In one, his character, who drives a Triumph Stag, is hired by a newspaper to secure a murder confession from a gangster and almost becomes a victim himself. In another he has several dead bodies to contend with – though these are animals rather than people, after his character becomes involved with an attractive taxidermist whose shop has been vandalised. The show also featured one of the first regular gay characters in British series television, in the form of Hazell’s office landlady (played by Barbara Young).

After 18 months Ball quit the show, claiming that Hazell was becoming too politically correct. “People were beginning to tinker with it, saying there was too much sex, violence and smoking,” he said. He also found the production too studio-bound, saying that the cameras should be out and about in London. “You can’t go down dark alleys in studios, you find the studio wall,” he explained.

While Ball’s departure marked him out as difficult, the actor himself insisted that the move showed just how much he cared. “I just decided not to do any more,” he said. “Now, when I hear that some actor is difficult to work with, I know it probably means that they care about what they do.”

In 1980 with his wife Pamela Stephenson, who left him shortly afterwards for Billy Connolly
In 1980 with his wife Pamela Stephenson, who left him shortly afterwards for Billy Connolly - Trinity Mirror / Mirrorpix / Alamy

John Nicholas Ball was born in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, on April 11 1946. The family soon moved to Bow, east London, where he picked up his cockney twang, and then to Hastings.

He trained at the Old Vic in Bristol and found early work in radio and television, including BBC One’s Elizabethan-era whodunnit The Queen’s Traitor (1967) and Terry Craddock in the television series The Gold Robbers (1969), before returning to the theatre in the West End musical Isabel’s a Jezebel (1970), Galt MacDermot’s much-hyped follow-up to Hair, but it was a turkey that closed after only 61 performances. Ball was also a founding member of David Hare’s Portable Theatre Workshop Company, staying with them until 1974.

Ball made his big-screen debut as Arthur in Stuart Cooper’s D-Day film Overlord (1975). Word then reached him of plans for a new detective series called Hazell. “So I said, ‘Well, why aren’t I up for it?’ to the producer. She said: ‘You are!’” he recalled.

Thereafter his career floundered and eventually he took off to the US, working in fringe theatre including getting the gigs, employing the director and the writer, and bringing everything together. “I actually went for a month, but I kept falling in love over there,” he recalled. “Sitting in LA, I thought, ‘I could go back home, it’s November, go down the old Kent Road on a cold and miserable day. Or I could go for lunch in Malibu.’ No contest!”

Nicholas Ball appeared in the third series of Thief Takers (1997)
Nicholas Ball appeared in the third series of Thief Takers (1997) - ITV/Shutterstock

Even in these “lost” years Ball never considered abandoning acting. “I’ve always loved it and still do,” he told the Liverpool Daily Post in 1997, when relaunching his career in Thief Takers as DC Nick Hall, an old-style copper who returns to head the armed robbery squad after a mysterious posting in Hong Kong. To prepare for the part he trained with the rest of the cast at a shooting range. “I blew the hell out of the centre target – I’ve still got the target to prove it,” he boasted.

Elsewhere he was seen in episodes of Coronation Street, Hammer House of Horror, The Young Ones, Red Dwarf, Cold Feet and Holby City. In 2019 he played Lenny Henry’s manager in a television advert for Premier Inn.

In 1978 Ball married the comedienne and psychologist Pamela Stephenson; they had met on the set of Not the Nine O’Clock News. She left him a year later for Billy Connolly. He is survived by his second wife, Ayda.

Nicholas Ball, born April 11 1946, died June 6 2024