Edward Kelsey obituary

Toby Hadoke

The actor Edward Kelsey, who has died aged 88, was known to millions of listeners as Joe Grundy, the patriarch of the lovable but roguish farming clan the Grundys, in the long-running Radio 4 soap opera The Archers.

Taking over the part in 1985 on the death of the actor Haydn Jones, Kelsey’s precise, measured diction in real life was nothing like the rich, buttery tones of Joe – farmer, poacher, brewer of illicit cider and malingerer (his often invoked complaint of “farmer’s lung” was possibly a mythical affliction to get him out of hard work) – without whose escapades the “everyday story of country folk” would have been much less colourful.

His rumbling burr, seemingly marinaded in rural earth, could transform into a chirpy, sing-song lilt should a twinkly aside be required, for, as Kelsey observed of his fictional family: “We are the rude mechanicals – when there’s a very heavy storyline we lighten things up a bit.” That said, when the family were forced by spiralling debts to leave their beloved Grange Farm in 2000, the actors proved equally effective at pathos. So devastated was Joe that he bludgeoned his beloved ferrets to death in a memorably emotional instalment.

It was his voice, again, that gave Kelsey immortality on television in the original series of the children’s cartoon Danger Mouse (1981-92). He displayed his vocal dexterity in equally memorable turns as the rasping villain Baron Greenback and as the blimpish Colonel K, issuing orders to the incompetent spy played by David Jason.

The actor was admired by and popular with his colleagues, and was commissioned to write The Ambridge Pageant, a 1991 stage show celebrating the series’ 40th anniversary, which had a successful nationwide tour. Although recently frail, he was nevertheless determined to keep playing Joe, and was driven to recording sessions from his nursing home.

Born in Petersfield, Hampshire, Edward was the son of Archie, an administrator at a local brewery, and his wife, Freda (nee Moseley), a seamstress and dressmaker whose talents enabled her son to take part in fancy-dress carnivals at a young age, and to indulge his penchant for theatricals at school.

Edward Kelsey voiced Baron Greenback in the original series of Danger Mouse.

Edward Kelsey voiced Baron Greenback in the original series of Danger Mouse. Photograph: Fremantle Media/Rex/Shutterstock

Educated at Churcher’s college in Petersfield during the war, Kelsey went on to the University of London to study medicine at his parents’ behest, but dropped out after two years. During national service with the Royal Air Force he took part in amateur dramatics and subsequently won a place at the Royal Academy of Music to study speech and drama teaching. He won the acting gold medal and the Carleton Hobbs award in 1954 (a bursary and six-month contract with BBC radio given to the most promising graduating student from an accredited drama school). From there his radio career blossomed and he made hundreds of recordings.

His stage career began – as soon as he had finished his first BBC radio contract – with a tour of Reluctant Heroes in 1954, before joining the repertory theatre at Guildford for a long stint, appearing in many plays including The Iron Harp (1955), as the lead in his own farce Two’s A Crowd (1959), and as Polonius in Hamlet (1960). Later appearances included a national tour and West End run of They Don’t Grow on Trees with Dora Bryan (Prince of Wales theatre, 1968) and Busman’s Honeymoon (Lyric, Hammersmith, 1988).

He was no stranger to television either: with thin lips, a prominent nose, striking arched eyebrows and hawk-like features, he was a useful character player. His hefty raft of credits includes Solo for Canary (1958), The Avengers (1962), The Plane Makers (1963), several Z Cars episodes (1964-70), Doctor Who (three roles opposite three Doctors between 1965 and 1979), Softly, Softly (1967), The Saint (1968), Colditz (1972), Suez 1956 (as Mahmoud Fawzi, 1979), Juliet Bravo (three roles, 1981-84), A Perfect Spy (1987), The Vicar of Dibley (1994) and Henry VIII (2003).

His voice joined Jason’s again for the model-action TV version of The Wind in the Willows (1984), and he was also Mr Growbag in Aardman Animations’ The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005).

He sat on the examining board of the Royal Academy of Music and was elected an associate member in 1992. He was also a long-serving and dedicated member of the audio committee of the actors’ union, Equity, and recorded the descriptive commentary for blind visitors to the Palace of Westminster.

He met Birgit Johansson, a Swedish actor and dancer, during his national service in 1951 and they married in 1955. She died last year and he is survived by a son, Christopher, and a daughter, Lisbet, from that marriage. Their middle son, Peter, died in 2006.

• Edward Harry Kelsey, actor, born 4 June 1930; died 23 April 2019