Purser was educated at Birkenhead School and during World War II spent six months at King’s College, Cambridge, on an army short course. In 1944 he joined the Royal Engineers and became a platoon sergeant in a field company at the age of 20. In a way, he regrets not being nominated, but says that by not continuing his officer training, he has at least seen some action in Italy and the north. Western Europe before the end of the war.
After demobilization in 1947, Purser’s request to return to King’s was denied by Noel Annan. He spent a spell in Sheffield as a technical draftsman before going to St Andrew’s University, where he earned his masters in English and medieval history and got a taste for journalism by founding the student newspaper.
In 1950 he joined the Aberdeen Bon-Accord, a pictorial weekly. The following year he moved to the Scottish Daily Mail and had such a turbulent professional and social life that he once fell asleep interviewing Noel Coward.
In 1955, he returned home unannounced to find his housemate in bed with his girlfriend and fled heartbroken to London – the traitorous couple sent him a piece of their wedding cake which he “sentimentally supported on the fireplace” from his bed in Chelsea, until “I came home one night so late and hungry that I ate it”. He was appointed assistant to Daily Mail television critic Peter Black, who became his mentor.
Occasionally allowed to fill in for Black – prompting a reader to send a postcard saying “Dear Mr. Black / Glad you’re back / Nothing could be worse / Than Philip Purser” – he eventually graduated in his own column by reviewing the new commercial television channel, while Black stuck to the BBC production. Purser then defected to become TV critic for The News Chronicle and was unwelcome when that newspaper was taken over by the Mail in 1960.
He was canvassed for a job at the BBC, but feared being institutionalized and was delighted to be offered the post of freelance television critic at the Sunday Telegraph. He remained with the newspaper for 26 years, contributing hundreds of stories and interviews as well as its reviews, until in 1987 new editor Peregrine Worsthorne sacked him – Purser did not. never forgave. He then returned to criticizing for the Daily Mail and also took on co-editing, with Leslie Halliwell, of Halliwell’s Television Companion.
Purser’s other books included a biography of stripper artist Phyllis Dixey, based on a dramatic documentary he had written for Thames Television, and Done Viewing (1992), a memoir of his years as a critic.
He has recently written numerous obituaries – unsigned for the Daily Telegraph and signed for the Guardian. His Guardian obituary of his former Sunday Telegraph colleague Desmond Albrow in 1998 ended: ‘He is the author, I believe, of my obituary preserved in the Telegraph. I wonder what he says.
Philip Purser is survived by his wife, crime novelist Ann Purser (née Goodman), whom he married in 1957, and their son and two daughters.
Philip Purser, born August 28, 1925, died August 1, 2022