Frank Middlemass

© Don McPhee

© Don McPhee

The acting persona of Frank Middlemass, who has died aged 87, epitomised everyone’s favourite uncle – avuncular, sometimes a little dotty, but essentially decent. With him around, you had the impression that humanity had not entirely given up on benevolence. It ensured him a place as one of our most popular character actors on radio, stage, television and film for more than half a century, as well as acting companion to some illustrious playing partners. He was Toby Belch to Vivien Leigh’s Viola in Twelfth Night for the Old Vic company which toured Australia, New Zealand and South America in 1961; on screen he appeared with Bette Davis in Madame Sin (1972) and alongside Ryan O’Neal in Barry Lyndon (1975), playing Sir Charles Lyndon.But it was as the fruity-voiced, bumbling headmaster Algy Herries, in Andrew Davies’ television adapatation of RF Delderfield’s novel To Serve Them All Our Days (1980), that Middlemass will probably be best remembered – that and his subsequent stint as Dan Archer in the long-running radio saga, The Archers. His Fool to Michael Hordern’s Lear at the Nottingham Playhouse, later televised (1975), was regarded by many as definitive, and he was a brilliant General Kutuzov in BBC television’s War and Peace (1973) – because, says a friend, he was able to show “both the power and the vulnerability behind the power”.

As with so many made famous by television, Middlemass’s skills were grounded in the long apprenticeship of theatre. He could evoke sympathy like no other, showing this to unforgettable effect as the old paterfamilias Martin Vanderhof in the Islington King’s Head’s wonderful 1993 revival of the Kaufman and Hart classic, You Can’t Take It With You. As he got older, he got better. And with Vanderhof, his line in affable eccentricity perfectly expressed not only the anarchic anti-materialism of the Grandpa who could not bother to get rich “because it took too much time”, but added to it a deep and matchless vein of old-worldly charm and warmth.

Middlemass was born in Eaglecliffe, on the Yorkshire-Durham border, and educated at Stockton-on-Tees. The youngest child of a Liverpool shipping company director (he had three sisters, all of whom predeceased him), he began acting in 1949 after a short but distinguished army career, during which he was wounded at Dunkirk and rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel. He was starstruck from an early age, and since he was also a talented artist, his portraits of leading ladies staying at the Station hotel, Newcastle, regularly found their way into the local newspaper.

Eventually, Middlemass ran off to join a theatre company in Penzance, and through the 1950s honed his skills in the gruelling demands of weekly rep. Seasons with the Old Vic in London and Bristol followed. In 1984, he joined the Royal Shakespeare Company, where he played Friar Laurence, a “beamingly paternal” Quince in Sheila Hancock’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Holofernes in Love’s Labour’s Lost and a notable Polonius to Roger Rees’s Hamlet in the Ron Daniels production, in which he brought a hint of meddling danger to the usual comedy of the bumbling courtier.

Other West End appearances included Little Boxes (Duchess theatre, 1968), Rosmerholm (1977), Heartbreak House (1983) and You Never Can Tell (1987, all Theatre Royal, Haymarket) and The Entertainer (Shaftesbury, 1986). In 1988 he was in the world premiere of Tom Stoppard’s Artist Descending a Staircase (King’s Head) and later appeared in the British premieres of Neil Simon’s Broadway Bound (Greenwich, 1991) and Tina Howe’s Painting Churches (Southampton, 1991) with Anna Massey and Rosemary Harris respectively. He also played the Director in Vaclav Havel’s Temptation (Westminster, 1990) and in 1992 was George Booth in the Edinburgh festival production of Harley Granville-Barker’s The Voysey Inheritance (Royal Lyceum and on tour).

In 1982, when he was already 63, Middlemass provided Radio 4 with its fourth and final Dan Archer, humorously likening his debut to that of a heart transplant: in danger of being rejected either by a venerable cast or loyal audience. But as a regular face over four decades of classic British television comedy and drama – The Avengers, Dr Finlay, Soldier Soldier, Miss Marple, Yes, Minister, to name but a few – there was little danger of that, and the paternalistic farmer flourished for a further four years. In 1992, Middlemass was one of the original members of the north country police series Heartbeat, in which he played Dr Alex Ferrenby, staying through its first 21 episodes until he was killed off at the age of 73.

A new lease of life almost immediately came his way when he teamed up with Judi Dench and Geoffrey Palmer in the long-running romantic comedy As Time Goes By (1993-2005), playing Lionel’s zanily unpredictable father, Rocky. Such was his amazing longevity that in the 1990s he was still in demand, appearing the length and breadth of the country. He was a kindly Lord Augustus to Francesca Annis’s Mrs Erlynne in Birmingham Rep’s production of Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan (1994), which transferred to the West End, and in 1996 Uncle Willie in the 1930s classic, The Philadelphia Story (immortalised on screen as High Society), in Manchester Royal Exchange’s inaugural production after the IRA bomb attack that all but destroyed the theatre. In the Chichester Theatre’s revival of Pinero’s farce The Magistrate (1998), starring Ian Richardson, he was a typically enjoyable and wayward old buffer; it later transferred to the Savoy.

That same year he appeared as the Narrator in John Crowley’s revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods at the Donmar, and two years later he was a heartbreaking old retainer, Firs, forgotten and left to die in the English Touring Theatre’s production of The Cherry Orchard with Prunella Scales.

Age refused to diminish him. At 84, he was still touring, playing Canon Chasuble in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest – a role, observed its director, Christopher Luscombe, that might have been written for him.

Popular and gregarious, Middlemass never married. Offstage, he was extremely generous, and according to his close friend Gareth Armstrong, “as funny as he was on-stage. The two values Frank rated most highly were loyalty and silliness.” Loyal he certainly was. Needing somewhere to stay in London in the mid-60s, he asked the actor Geoffrey Toone (obituary, June 3 2005) if he could borrow his spare room for a couple of weeks. Forty years later, he was still there and to their general amusement they were often mistaken for “an item”. They never were.

· Frank Middlemass, actor, born May 28 1919; died September 8 2006

First published in The Guardian, Sept 11, 2006