THE NETWORK ON AIR site has published a well-crafted appreciation of the screen career of Sydney Tafler, an actor who memorably appeared as Manny, the morally-dubious settlement leader, in the well-regarded two-part series two Survivors story Lights of London.
In the modern world of drama production, it is commonplace for actors to move back and forward between cinema and TV work in a ‘blended’ screen career. But in the 1970s, fewer British actors regularly traversed the demarcation separating a film from a television identity. Some actors known mainly for television (including the series’ leads of Survivors) made irregular film appearances, but far fewer flitted seamlessly between the two screen worlds.
For an actor with big-screen credentials like Tafler’s to be contracted for a guest role in a BBC serial like Survivors was not something that all of his contemporaries would have thanked their agents for arranging.
Tafler however had bridged the large-and-small screen divide from the earliest days of his career, which began with stage appearances in the 1930s after he graduated from RADA. As he established himself over the following years, he would mix appearances in TV shows such as Dixon of Dock Green, Hadleigh and The Gentle Killers with roles in movies such as The Counterfeit Plan, The Bulldog Breed and Sink the Bismarck! amongst numerous others.
He was a prolific performer, although he was usually rewarded with relatively minor or supporting roles. Film historian Andrew Roberts revisits Tafler’s winning performances in classic films such as The Lavender Hill Mob, It Always Rains on Sunday, Too Many Crooks and Mystery Junction, celebrating his talents as the consumate character actor.
Roberts notes how Tafler frequently outshone the quality of the screenplays he was given and how he was able to “save films that could be fairly described as ‘Worst of British’.” Regardless of the source material, Tafler could be relied upon to delivered performances that were committed, believable and layered.
Tafler’s portrayal of the chancer Manny in Lights of London reveals just that sort of approach to a role, which sees him becoming a commanding on-screen presence, and a credible and unnerving villain, without overshadowing the series’ regulars with whom he shares the story.
Inhabiting the role of Manny was not a particular stretch for Tafler. The character of the “Cockney spiv who comes to a bad end” was one that he had played, in different variants, several times in his career – although the stakes in Lights of London (which the characters believe could be the fate of the human race itself) are significantly higher than in most of Tafler’s earlier crime capers, comedies and thrillers.
In fact, when Lights of London I director Terence Williams first read Jack Ronder’s script for the episode and considered who he might recruit to play the pivotal character of Manny, he might well have thought – “We need someone like Sydney Tafler for this role.”
His appearance in Survivors in 1976 turned out to be one of the last of Tafler’s long and creditable career. The following year, he returned to the big screen to play the role of the captain of supertanker The Liparus in the James Bond caper The Spy Who Loved Me. Tafler died on 8 November 1979.
- Andrew Roberts. 2019. ‘Men of Character – Sydney Tafler’, Network on Air,
24 May 24. https://networkonair.com/features/2019/05/24/men-of-character-sydney-tafler/