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Chariots of Fire writer Colin Welland dies at 81

Published 03/11/2015

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Oscar-winning writer and actor Colin Welland has died from Alzheimer's disease at the age of 81, his family has announced.

Welland, a Lancashire-born father-of-four who acted in everything from Kes to Z Cars, won his Academy Award for the screenplay of Chariots of Fire in 1981, famously waving his statue and announcing in his acceptance speech: "The British are coming!"

Chariots of Fire star Nigel Havers paid tribute, saying: "He was totally down to earth and unpretentious, a fine actor as well as a wonderful writer - many of his screenplays never made the screen but each was wonderfully well researched and written with skill and love.

"When he said 'The British Are Coming' at the Oscars, he really said it as a joke, but it has become the thing he is best known for! Certainly that film stands as a wonderful testament to his talent and ability. He will be greatly missed by all who knew him."

His family said in a statement that he had suffered from Alzheimer's disease for several years but died peacefully in his sleep.

In a statement released via his literary agent Anthony Jones, his family said: "Colin will be desperately missed by his family and friends.

"Alzheimer's is a cruel illness and there have been difficult times but in the end Colin died peacefully in his sleep.

"We are proud of Colin's many achievements during his life but most of all he will be missed as a loving and generous friend, husband, father and granddad."

Welland, who died last night, is survived by his wife Patricia, four children and six grandchildren.

The British Academy of Film and Television Arts tweeted: "We're deeply saddened to learn that the BAFTA-winning writer and actor Colin Welland has passed away."

Former Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock said in a statement: " Colin was a bold and brilliant actor and writer who gave authenticity to everything that he did and produced beauty out of the ugliness of life. He'd also want to be recalled as a fine rugby league player and a true devotee of the game."

Actor and director David Morrissey tweeted: "Colin Welland RIP. Such a great actor and writer. Kes is my all-time favourite film and he was so wonderful in it. So sad."

Welland's most famous film, Chariots of Fire, told the story of two athletes in the 1924 Olympics: a devout Scottish Christian who runs for the glory of God, and an English Jew who runs to overcome prejudice.

On winning the award for Best Original Screenplay for the film at the Academy Awards in 1982, he warned the American audience: "The British are coming!" - a famous quotation attributed to US revolutionary war hero Paul Revere.

His writing credits also include Yanks (1979), which starred Vanessa Redgrave and Richard Gere, and the screenplay for Twice in a Lifetime (1985).

As well as screenwriting, Welland had an acting career, appearing as Pc David Graham in BBC series Z-Cars and as a villain in The Sweeney. He starred in the films Kes in 1969 - as English teacher Mr Farthing - and Sweeney! in 1977.

Born Colin Williams in Lancashire, he considered Liverpool his home town.

In a 1973 interview with Roy Plomley on Desert Island Discs, Welland - who was then established as an actor and a playwright - discussed his early career.

On his father's advice, Welland first became an art teacher, despite his acting ambitions and recalled: "I wanted to go on the stage, you see, but my dad had his feet firmly on the ground. He said 'Be an art teacher first, you can paint and draw, be an art teacher first, and if you don't like that, then go on to the stage'. So that's what I did."

He studied art in Yorkshire, before attending Goldsmiths college in London, returning to Lancashire to become an art teacher, before his impending marriage motivated him to try his hand at acting.

He said: "I was 26, I was going to get married, and I thought 'If I get married I will lose my opportunity, because responsibilities naturally follow marriage'."

After an audition at Manchester's Library Theatre, he made his stage debut as the lead in Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party.

In between jobs, he turned his hand to BBC newsreading, but only lasted three weeks.

He said: "We decided, the producer and I, to introduce a new element into BBC newsreading. Use a Lancashire accent, use colloquialisms. The whole of Cheshire rose in revolt, and I was out."

He went on to write a number of plays, including Say Goodnight To Grandma and Roll On Four O'Clock.

Explaining the use of northern characters in his plays, he said: "I find northern people wear their hearts on their sleeve, are far more communicative, are far more honest, and they stimulate me far more."

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