Born on 18 April 1944, Francis Bell began singing and performing on stage from an early age; as a nine-year-old he acted for radio. At Auckland University he ran the uni theatre company then trained at Mercury Theatre, before undertaking a cadetship at the NZBC as a radio producer and performer.
An OE in England included a stint teaching acting and directing at Bretton Hall College (Leeds University), time at the National Theatre, and the penning of a sci-fi rock opera play (Illuminatus). Initially he acted under the name Wayne Bell.
After returning to NZ, Bell went to Australia where he became a popular and sought-after actor in the 70s and 80s. On stage he gained praise for his work in Bodies ("towering ... sustained energy and technical skill", wrote Theatre Australian) plus title roles in King Lear for The Stage Company, and as Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady for the Melbourne Arts Theatre. He was noted for his versatility. Lear director Brian Debnam praised Bell as “an astounding comedian, and at the same time an actor who can really find his guts.”
Bell was a recognised face on numerous Australian TV staples (The Sullivans, Carson’s Law, Cop Shop, Special Squad). He played Major-General Howard ‘Pompey’ Elliot in the acclaimed Anzacs mini-series, alongside Paul Hogan and a bevy of Australasian acting talent (including Ilona Rodgers). On the big screen he was Lieutenant Reed in Breaker Morant, the film at the spearhead of Australian cinema’s ‘new wave’.
But it was Max Ramsey in Neighbours that would elevate Bell from character actor to Ocker icon. Filming began on the show in January 1985. As Erinsborough's fiery and opinionated plumber patriarch, he was arguably the show’s main character. In early 1986 The Sun critic David Baird wrote, this “small screen Mad Max is a rough as guts, and very proud of Ramsay St which was named after his granddad.” Max’s stoushes with his hoity-toity sister Madge (played by Anne Charleston) provided the culture clashes that drove the show’s early days.
Baird felt that “it might just happen that Ramsay St will become as famous as Coronation Street.” When Neighbours was well on the way to realising Baird’s prophesy — both in Australia and internationally — Bell unexpectedly left the show.
According to James Oram's 1988 book Neighbours: Behind the Scenes, Bell had gripes about the amount he was paid, but the official line from the producers was that Bell was on ‘sick leave’ following a chronic back injury. Either way, in 1986 Bell’s contract expired and he never returned to the show, leaving Max stranded without a farewell episode.
The character’s popularity was such that ‘Bring Back Max Ramsay’ fan clubs were formed and ran for years. In 1989 Bell attended the televised gala to celebrate Neighbours’ 1000th episode.
Bell’s first post-Neighbours TV role was doing voiceovers for satirical TV series Rubbery Figures. In 1987 telemovie Bushfire Moon he played the bushman Sharkey. Offscreen, the breakup of a short-lived marriage preceded a return to New Zealand. He won regular work in TV, commercials and film.
In Homeward Bound, the banner soap for new local channel TV3, Bell was Dad to a young Karl Urban. He acted in feature film The End of the Golden Weather, cross-cultural love story Mother Tongue and played Paddy in wartime romance Absent Without Leave. AWOL saw Bell reunited with Craig McLachlan, the actor who'd played his nephew in Neighbours. His last role was in Shelley Duvall children’s series Mrs Piggle-Wiggle, which was filmed in NZ.
In May 1994, aged 50, he fell from an Auckland building to his death. According to his NZ agent Graham Dunster, he'd been recently hospitalised after battles with depression.
His death came as a shock to the entertainment fraternity on both sides of the ditch. Dasha Biahova, who played his onscreen wife in Neighbours, recalled his devotion to his craft: “Francis was not a person who would say yes. He would always try to make something better. He would discover mistakes in a script and want them fixed. Maybe that’s called difficult, but he brought a special quality to his work.” Actor Peter O’Brien, who played Max Ramsey’s son in Neighbours, lamented: “He had real personality and presence and loved people and life. That’s why this is all a bit difficult to understand… it’s really sad that he’s gone.”
In a 1994 memorial article in New Idea magazine, Dunster said: “Francis was an eccentric genius who didn’t always fit in, but I think he was the most talented male actor this country has ever produced. He could get into a role at the drop of a hat.”
David Baird, ‘Neighbours settles in to new address’ - The Sun, 20 January 1986, Page 37
Patrice Fidgeon and Brenda Ward, 'Neighbours' Star's Tortured Life' - New Idea, 14 May 1994
Review of Bodies - Theatre Australian, June 1980
'Francis Bell', IMDB website. Accessed 30 January 2015
‘Francis Bell’, Neighbours Soap Opera Wiki. Accessed 30 January 2015