Sunday, 3 July 2011

In Memoriam ... of a Great Gentleman ... Ian Carmichael

Ian Carmichael
Ian Carmichael, the actor, who died on February 5 aged 89, personified the affable, archetypal silly ass Englishman in scores of revues, light comedies, films and television programmes.
To his wide-eyed boyish grin, bemused courtesy and trusting manner, Carmichael brought an invaluably comic air of innocence to bear on his thousand and one misfortunes. His old-world manners were his technical lifeline, and the lightness of his touch on stage and screen ensured the effect of often-thin material.
He had a particular success in Boulting film comedies of the 1950s. As a conscript in Private's Progress, for example, he immortalised the fears and miseries of a whole generation of National Servicemen.
In Brothers In Law he incarnated another gentle innocent at large in a bewildering institution, the legal profession.
But it is probably his portrayals on television of PG Wodehouse's dithering Bertie Wooster and Dorothy L Sayers's elegant Lord Peter Wimsey which underlined his gifts as an exponent of the light English comedy of manners to greatest effect.
If he eventually resented his having been typecast as “the same old bumbling accident-prone clot,” audiences never seemed to tire of him and he polished this persona with great care.
Ian Gillett Carmichael was born in Hull on June 18 1920. His father was an optician in a family firm of jewellers and silversmiths, and young Ian went to preparatory school at Scarborough and then to Bromsgrove School, Worcestershire.
He was not academically inclined, preferring to lead the local dance band until the stage took his fancy and he studied for a spell at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.
After playing a Robot in Karel and Josef Kapek’s RUR at the People’s Palace, Mile End, in 1939 and Claudius in Julius Caesar (Embassy, Swiss Cottage), he toured in a revue, Nine Sharp, in 1940 before being commissioned for the Army at Sandhurst. During the Second World War he was a major with the 30th Armoured Brigade, was mentioned in dispatches, and afterwards returned to the theatre.
It was during a seven-month tour in a comic double act with the veteran actor Leo Franklyn in The Lilac Domino in 1949 that he believed he received his best grounding as a light comedian.
After playing Otto Bergmann in a London revival of Wild Violets, Carmichael moved into West End revues, then much in fashion. The Lyric Revue (Lyric, Hammersmith, 1951) transferred to the West End to become The Globe Revue (Globe, 1952). He was the dashingly-handsome song-and-dance star of High Spirits (Hippodrome, 1952). Another Hammersmith revue, At The Lyric, moved to the St Martin’s in 1954 under the title of Going To Town.
In these sometimes brilliant shows which satirised the fashions and foibles of the day, Carmichael’s timing and gravely expressive features enriched scores of sketches as a polite and easily embarrassed Englishman, trying to change his clothes discreetly, for example, or to assemble a recalcitrant deck chair.
Few comedians knew how to look more comically, humanly afraid. His apprehensive subaltern — standing rigidly to attention on the parade ground as an offstage sergeant barked a string of commands which he knew he would never be able, as expected, to repeat to his platoon — was a model of silent, facial panic.
Such talent was soon in demand for light comedy, and Carmichael’s harassed television producer in Alan Melville’s Simon and Laura (Strand, 1954), trying to prevent the marital tantrums of a famous acting couple from spilling into the soap opera they were appearing in about their “blissful” marriage, led to other leading West End parts. Tunnel of Love (Her Majesty’s, 1957) and The Love Doctor (Piccadilly, 1959), a musical farce from Molière, were followed by Alec Coppel’s murder-farce The Gazebo (Savoy, 1960), Ira Levin’s satire about theatre reviewers, Critic’s Choice (Vaudeville, 1961), and Melville’s Devil May Care (Strand, 1963).
After Carmichael’s New York debut in the farce Boeing-Boeing in 1965, he was back in London in the Willis Hall-Keith Waterhouse hit, Say Who You Are (Her Majesty’s, 1965) before what seemed like the only serious-minded play of his career, Shaw’s Getting Married (Strand, 1967).
A dullish, two-handed musical comedy in which he played opposite Anne Rogers, I Do! I Do! (Lyric, 1968), was best remembered for a voice crying out from the front stalls when an offstage knocking was heard at a door: “For God’s sake let them in — whoever it is!”
Carmichael also toured Canada and South Africa in light comedies; and in the 1970s was at the Oxford Festival in Springtime for Henry and in the West End comedy Out On A Limb (Vaudeville).
It was the film version of his first straight stage success, Simon and Laura (1955) which established Carmichael on the screen. The following year his portrayal of an artful conscripted dodger in the Boultings’ comedy Private’s Progress endeared him to everyone who had ever been called up; and the character returned, fleetingly, in I’m All Right, Jack (1959). In this picture he had just been demobilised and, in looking for work, became caught in a wrangle between capitalists and trades unionists from which he emerged, inadvertently, triumphant.
Meanwhile there had been the title role in the not-very-successfully filmed Kingsley Amis novel Lucky Jim. Then came Happy Is The Bride, a Boultings’ comedy about rural society weddings, and Left, Right and Centre, in which Carmichael played a television personality who stands for parliament.
In School for Scoundrels (1960) he attended an academy to learn how to shed his gentlemanly inhibitions while competing for a young woman’s hand, and in Heavens Above (1963) he had a guest part as a confused cleric in a Boultings’ satire about the Church.
Other films in which he appeared, with variable success, included Light Up The Sky (1960), The Amorous Prawn (1962), Smashing Time (1967), From Beyond The Grave (1972) and The Lady Vanishes (1978) in which somewhat impertinently Carmichael re-created, with Arthur Lowe, the comic duo of Caldicott and Childers originated by Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne in the Hitchcock original of 1938.
In the late 1960s television saved Carmichael’s career from film roles of increasing predictability; and in The World of Wooster, later known as The World of Wodehouse, for the BBC, he turned with gratitude to Wodehouse’s bemused, stuttering Bertie Wooster.
With Dennis Price as Jeeves, this was something of a triumph. Price may have been the better casting and may have given the better performance, being the better actor, but Carmichael could count on his personal charm to see him safely through the 20 highly-rated episodes in which both actors worked together with great skill. He also earned critical approval for the BBC series Bachelor Father (1970-71).
But Carmichael took a special pride in his portrait of Dorothy L Sayers’s aristocratic detective in the television series Lord Peter Wimsey, in which he appeared between 1972 and 1975, because he himself had worked hard to see the stories screened. To Carmichael, Wimsey had always been a hero, and envied him his aristocratic insouciance, style and intellect.
More recently on television he played Mr Middleditch in The Royal, the 1960s hospital spin-off from Heartbeat, both of which were filmed near his home in North Yorkshire. Carmichael also directed several light entertainment television series such as Mr Pastry’s Progress, It’s A Small World and We Beg To Differ.
A lifelong cricket lover, he was a member of the MCC and chairman of the Lords’ Taverners in 1970. He was appointed OBE in 2003.
Carmichael became a much-loved figure in the Esk valley near Whitby, where he had lived since the 1970s. In old age he retained his good looks and elegant figure, and was a convivial host, with a taste for fine wines.
He remained loyal to his wartime regimental comrades of the 22nd Dragoons, and always turned out (immaculately) for the Remembrance Day service at Helmsley, where the regiment was billeted at Duncombe Park.
Ian Carmichael married Jean Pyman (Pym) Maclean whom he had met at Whitby during the Second World War. She died in 1983. In 1992 he married the novelist Kate Fenton, who survives him with two daughters of his first marriage. ( in The Telegraph 6 Feb 2010 )

Bond Street (1948)
Trottie True (1949)
Dear Mr. Prohack (1949)
Ghost Ship (1952)
Time Gentlemen, Please! (1952)
Miss Robin Hood (1952)
Meet Mr. Lucifer (1953)
Betrayed (1954)
The Colditz Story (1955)
Storm Over the Nile (1955)
Simon and Laura (1955)
Private's Progress (1956)
Lucky Jim (1957)
Brothers in Law (1957)
Happy is the Bride (1958)
The Big Money (1958)
Left Right and Centre (1959)
I'm All Right Jack (1959)
School for Scoundrels (1960)
Light Up the Sky! (1960)
Double Bunk (1961)
The Amorous Prawn (1962)
Heavens Above! (1963)
Hide and Seek (1964)
Ih, du forbarmende (1965)
Smashing Time (1967)
The Magnificent Seven Deadly Sins (1971)
From Beyond the Grave (1973)
The Nine Tailors (1973)
The Lady Vanishes (1979)
The Wind in the Willows (1983) (voice)
Diamond Skulls (1989)

Carmichael, seen here in 1975, conveyed a sense of dignity not only in aristocratic roles, but also as the buffoon and as a national symbol of the muddling-through Englishman. Photograph: Duffy/Getty Images
Playing the archetypal silly ass was the sometimes reluctant business of the stage, film and television actor Ian Carmichael, who has died aged 89. In the public mind he became the best-known postwar example of a characteristic British type - the personally appealing blithering idiot who somehow survives, and sometimes even gets the girl. One of his most characteristic and memorable sorties in this field was his portrayal of Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim – the anti-hero James Dixon, who savaged the pretensions of academia, as Amis had himself sometimes clashed with academia when he was a lecturer at Swansea. Appearing in John and Roy Boulting's 1957 film, he was able to suggest an unruly but amiable spirit at the end of its tether, his great horsey teeth exposed in the strained grimace that often greeted disaster.

Carmichael made several more hugely popular comedy films with the Boultings in the second half of the 1950s, including Private's Progress, Brothers In Law and I'm All Right Jack, but always wanted to do more straight roles. The nearest he came to it was his Lord Peter Wimsey in the television series based on Dorothy L Sayers's amateur detective (1972-75), a role he felt very happy in. Laurence Olivier once offered him a part in a Graham Greene play that he had in mind for television, but, like other possible projects, it came to nothing.

Late in Carmichael's career, when he had semi-retired back to his native Yorkshire, the Boultings told him that they wondered if they had done their best for his talents in the five-film deal they made with him near the start of his film career: perhaps they should not virtually have confined him to the playing of twerps. The light comedy producer Michael Mills used him early in his career, and years later made The World of Wooster (1965-67) with him. As PG Wodehouse's silly ass Bertie Wooster, Carmichael was constantly saved from disaster by his manservant Jeeves, played by Dennis Price, a formula so effective that Mills doubted whether Carmichael could have played straight parts without provoking laughs.
What made Carmichael notable was that he could play fool parts in a way that did not cut the characters completely off from human sympathy: a certain dignity was always maintained, so that any pathos did not become bathos. He was at the opposite pole to Norman Wisdom, whose conscious pathos irritated some people. Carmichael once said waspishly of Wisdom's ragged-urchin persona that any character he played was unbelievable because no girl, except a film starlet under orders, would ever settle for him. It was not a limitation from which the handsome, cricket-loving Carmichael suffered.
He was born in Hull, the son of an optician in the family's smart silversmith's and jeweller's shop in the centre of the city. His mother's father was a lay preacher who had wanted to become an actor, but neither parent had stage ambitions. His father was disappointed when the boy hated school at Scarborough college (so much so that he vowed never to set foot in the place again) and hated it a little less at Bromsgrove school, Worcestershire, where he distinguished himself by hitting his own wicket during a cricket match so that he could get back to two girls he was entertaining in the bushes.
However, his father swallowed his disappointment and financed him to go to Rada, in London. In his first year he played the robot in Karel and Joseph Capek's surreal play, RUR, at the People's Palace, Stepney, east London, and, more significantly, toured the regions for a few weeks in a tour of a Herbert Farjeon revue, Nine Sharp. Then war broke out and Carmichael joined the 22nd Dragoons, a recently formed tank regiment at Whitby. There he met Jean Pyman (Pym) Maclean: they married in 1943 and had two daughters. Nine years after Pym's death in 1983, he married the novelist Kate Fenton.

Carmichael was mentioned in despatches, but his war was distinguished chiefly by a staff job behind a desk, arranging entertainment, in the course of which he found he was good at the detail of administration. He admitted in a BFI interview at the National Film Theatre in 2002 that he had always had to bear the cross of initially finding Frankie Howerd "death-defyingly unfunny" when auditioning him in Germany, though had the sense to defer to a colleague's better judgment. However, he recognised the talent of the comic magician Tommy Cooper and helped him get a break.

After demobilisation, Carmichael did a lot of work for the revived BBC television service at Alexandra Palace, north London – directing and producing as well as performing. A tour of the operetta The Lilac Domino in 1949 brought him into contact with the comedian Leo Franklyn, from whom he learnt the "ABC of comedy... all the tricks of the trade". Carmichael then made his name in The Lyric Revue (1951-52) and The Globe Revue (1952-53) in the West End. For the latter he devised the comic business for a sketch in which, as an ultra-respectable little man, he had to undress on a beach and get into his swimming costume, protected from exposing himself only by panicky use of his raincoat and bowler hat. When the Boulting Brothers saw this sketch, it set them thinking. When they got round to seeing Simon and Laura, Alan Melville's play about the tensions and sentimentalities of a marriage of actors, in which Carmichael played a frantic TV producer trying to prevent the combative pair from ruining his show, they insisted he play the same part in the film version they were planning at the time. Later they told his agent they wanted to make him a film star and offered him the five-film deal. To sweeten the prospect, they sent him two comic novels, Alan Hackney's Private's Progress (the film of which followed in 1956) and Henry Cecil's Brothers in Law (1957).
Out of this deal came the films that made Carmichael a national symbol of the muddling-through Englishman. In I'm All Right Jack (1959), he played the decent but slightly daft young executive, Stanley Windrush, while Peter Sellers appeared as the pompous shop steward – an even-handed cinematic satire on both management and trade unions. Later he even portrayed one of the cricket-mad buffoons fighting back against Balkans devilry (originally made famous by Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne) in the 1979 remake of Alfred Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes.
By then, Carmichael had admitted to being a would-be Peter Pan who hated the thought of ageing, and said he was growing too old to go on playing the sort of parts that had made him famous. He had always expressed a dislike of London. Some friends took this with a pinch of salt in view of his handsome house in Hampstead but, with his two daughters now grown up, he bought a house on the North Yorkshire moors, which he remembered visiting on day trips as a boy. It was also near Whitby, where he had met his first wife.
Such sentiment was part of his character and appeal. He continued to be available for work that took his fancy, such as narrating the television series The Wind in the Willows (1984-88), but was the victim of ill-health, and appeared ever more rarely as the portrayer of an English type now likely to provoke more irritation than laughter. Nonetheless, there were still roles for him in the nostalgic drama series always in demand for Sunday-evening television: the 1950s Scottish laird Sir James Menzies in Strathblair (1992-93), Lord Cumnor in Elizabeth Gaskell's Wives and Daughters (1999), and the hospital secretary TJ Middleditch in The Royal, from 2003 onwards. The last two episodes in which he appeared are due to be screened later this year.
He was appointed OBE in 2003, and is survived by Kate and his daughters.
• Ian Gillett Carmichael, actor, born 18 June 1920; died 5 February 2010
Dennis Barker
guardian, Saturday 6 February 2010

Ian Carmichael’s amiable idiocy on stage and screen was supreme but his talent went deeper than that. In there somewhere was also a gentle but well defined sexual charm that women adored; at his peak in films such as Private’s Progress, I’m All Right Jack, Brothers-in-Law and Lucky Jim they were writing him up to 600 fan letters a week.
Slightly built with nervous blue eyes, he hardly measured up to the accepted screen hero on any Hollywood scale. Yet at the height of his 15-year run as a guaranteed box-office draw at the cinema, he became the best known British comedy actor abroad after Alec Guinness. He once beat the pelvic Elvis Presley in an international popularity poll.
The film-making twins Roy and John Boulting, who established Carmichael’s film career in the 1950s with six successive hits when Britain still possessed a film industry, were forced to introduce a stronger love interest for the characters he played. They cast him because they wanted a non- heroic leading man who was instinctively and humorously inept at whatever he tackled; but they hadn’t bargained for the added bonus of the actor’s erotic appeal to women.
This same dithering sexual attraction was carried over into his repeated successes on stage. He achieved long West End runs in romantic comedies such as The Gazebo, Tunnel of Love, Simon and Laura and the celebrated Lyric Review, later the Globe Review of 1951-52, which first made him a star.
His popularity was sustained because, although women yearned to mother this helpless charmer, men liked him too. They readily sympathised with his blundering reactions to life’s difficulties and did not see him as a threat to their wives and girlfriends.
As with other stage and film actors in the postwar years, Carmichael was initially wary of television, then still finding its way. However, he was to change his mind as the content and production techniques improved and film offers became less frequent. In fact, television was to give his career a fresh and timely impetus with two memorable roles tailor-made for his gossamer style of comic acting. One was P. G. Wodehouse’s monocled man-about-town Bertie Wooster; the other Dorothy L. Sayers’s urbane amateur sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey.
For an entertainer, especially for such a successful one, Carmichael was remarkably self-effacing. He often expressed, in press interviews, candid astonishment at his continued run at the top of an insecure profession. A lover of the country, he preferred serene pursuits like reading, wandering about his garden and his beloved cricket — he played for the Lord’s Taverners. He loathed the West End. He hated New York even more.
When his first Broadway venture in the mid-1960s, starring in the comedy Boeing Boeing, survived only three weeks after a critical savaging, he was blandly philosophical, calling it a “nice little flop”. He remarked that he hadn’t relished living in Manhattan for a year anyway; and it was not a case of sour grapes, the homesick actor meant it.
Even Paris failed to appeal, particularly after an experience that could have come from one of his films.
On a rare visit for the premiere of Private’s Progress, he drank too many unaccustomed dry Martinis and ended up at the top of the Eiffel Tower demanding to know why no one had introduced him to the then celebrated Lady Docker. “Made a bit of an ass of myself, old chap,” he later confided in an interview. Another episode, a more serious one, yet it bore the unmistakable comic familarity of his Boulting scripts, happened during the Second World War when he was serving in the Royal Armoured Corps as a tank officer. In clambering from the turret of a Valentine tank he inadvertently slammed the lid down on his left hand leaving him minus the top joint of the longest finger. “Dashed unfortunate” was his summing up of that incident.
Ian Carmichael was the only son of Arthur Carmichael, a prosperous Hull jeweller and silversmith. Carmichael Sr had expected that his son would take over the running of the business. Instead, after attending prep school in Scarborough and going on to Bromsgrove in Worcestershire, the young Carmichael made it plain that his ambition was to enter show business — either acting or in music.
He ran his own band during school holidays, playing the alto saxophone and the drums at local dances. However, acting was to be his eventual preference when he won a place at RADA. In his second term he made his first professional stage appearance, playing a robot in a play called RUR (Rossum’s Universal Robots) at the People’s Palace in the Mile End Road, Stepney, East London.
His first wage-earning tour after graduation was 10 weeks with the Herbert Farjeon Revue in which his emerging comedy talents were given their first real polish. In September 1940 his call-up papers arrived and he enlisted with the RAC and was eventually commissioned at Sandhurst.
Early in the war, while stationed at Whitby, he met his wife-to-be, Yorkshire girl Pym Mclean, at a dance. He wrote later in his autobiography Will the Real Ian Carmichael... that he knew she was the one for him because “she never once yawned during my incessant chatter about the theatre and its personalities”.
They were married in 1943 and were to have two daughters. His war service included landing with his regiment, the 22nd Dragoons, on the Normandy beaches on D-Day Plus Three and campaigning through France and into Germany. No longer a regimental officer after the amputation mishap, he proved to be a brilliant administrator in a staff capacity. In the last year of the war he was seconded to troop entertainment and with Major Richard Stone, who was subsequently to become his agent, produced 20 shows; he was demobilised in 1947 with the rank of major.
He resumed his stage career with a nine-month West End run in the play She Wanted a Cream Front Door. There followed roles in some of London’s fringe theatres and his first stab at television in early musical and comedy shows at the BBC’s Alexandra Palace. He appeared alongside Desmond Walter-Ellis, Lois Green, Diana Decker, Charles Hawtrey and Edward Rigby in programmes with titles such as Give My Regards to Leicester Square and Tell Her the Truth. The BBC, aware of his wartime experience in producing shows for the troops, persuaded a nervous Carmichael to become a freelance director of some of its revue programmes.
His growing comedy prowess received an added boost from a master when he toured with the Whitehall farce veteran Leo Franklyn in The Lilac Domino. He toured for the impresario Prince Littler in a revival of the prewar musical Wild Violets in spite of reservations because of “an insipid script”. He was won round by Littler increasing his salary a fiver at a time until finally he could no longer afford to refuse. He was saddened, though, to realise that he was living proof that “everyone has his price”.
Stardom came with the Lyric and Globe Reviews but he was to make his real mark in 1954 with the new Alan Melville runaway hit Simon and Laura produced by Hugh “Binkie” Beaumont, and which was later filmed with Carmichael the only member of the stage cast to be signed. In Simon and Laura he played a wildly enthusiastic television producer trying to grapple with a daily soap opera about an ideal marriage involving the fiery and constantly rowing couple Simon (Roland Culver) and Laura (Coral Browne). In the film they were played by Peter Finch and Kay Kendall.
Carmichael’s film career took off over the next decade with the long run of Boulting Brothers comedies, although he was also seen in serious roles, including playing a guards officer in The Colditz Story and Tom Willoughby in Storm over the Nile, a remake of the A. E. W. Mason novel The Four Feathers. As the film industry foundered and the roles began to dry up, he moved smoothly back to television and won large audiences with his Bertie Wooster and Lord Peter Wimsey series before semi-retiring to the North Yorkshire moors. He returned to television as recently as 1992 when, at 71, he played a Scottish laird in the BBC series Strathblair. In 1999 he played Lord Cumnor in the BBC adaptation of Mrs Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters. He was working up until last year, with a part in ITV’s long-running medical drama The Royal.
He had, possibly, one professional regret. He once remarked: “My ambition is to become a romantic leading man (his role model was Rex Harrison) but it is hard to achieve when the public wants you to be funny all the time.”
He was appointed OBE in 2003. His wife Pym died of cancer after 40 years of marriage. He is survived by his second wife, the novelist Kate Fenton, whom he married in 1992, and by his two daughters.
Ian Carmichael, OBE, actor, was born on June 18, 1920. He died on February 5, 2010, aged 89 ( From The Times. February 8, 2010 )

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