Ewen MacIntosh, actor who showed a mastery of deadpan comedy as Keith in The Office – obituary

MacIntosh as ‘Big Keith’
MacIntosh as ‘Big Keith’ - Television Stills/JACK BARNES

Ewen MacIntosh, who has died aged 50, stole several of the classic scenes in the BBC television comedy The Office, as the roly-poly, socially inept accountant Keith.

Speaking in an undeviating monotone, when not emitting disturbing snuffles or breathing heavily, Keith reminded millions of viewers of exactly the sort of awkward co-worker they were doomed to spend their waking lives alongside. Brilliantly underplayed by MacIntosh, the character – like that of the appalling manager David Brent, played by the show’s co-creator Ricky Gervais – seemed at times almost too painfully real to be funny.

In one sequence that entered the sitcom pantheon, he even managed to make viewers feel some sympathy for Brent, who is tasked with undertaking “Big Keith’s” appraisal. MacIntosh gave a monosyllabic masterclass as a man who cannot be bothered to pretend that he has any interest in his job and answers “Don’t know” to all questions.

“Under ‘Strengths’ you’ve just put ‘Accounts’. That’s your job … Is there anything else you could have put there?” asks the increasingly exasperated Brent, to be met by a shrug. “Under ‘Weaknesses’ you’ve put: ‘Eczema.’ ”

In the first episode of The Office, broadcast in July 2001, MacIntosh was just one of several background workers in the Slough branch of the paper manufacturer Wernham Hogg; his character had no name in the credits (and his own name was misspelled as “Ewan”).

In an episode of Murder in Suburbia with Lisa Faulkner, left, and Caroline Catz
In an episode of Murder in Suburbia with Lisa Faulkner, left, and Caroline Catz - Television Stills

At 20 stone, the actor already stood out, however, and he was determined to make the most of his limited opportunities to impress Gervais. “One of the first things I did was a scene where Ricky was introducing the new guy to everyone and I basically just stared him down,” he recalled in The Independent in 2021. “Ricky couldn’t stop laughing and I think at that point he thought: ‘This guy’s a great foil.’”

In an ad lib during the filming of one early scene Gervais addressed him as Keith: the name stuck and as the series (which ran for 14 episodes across three years) progressed, his role was expanded.

Despite acting alongside such outstanding comic performers as Gervais, Mackenzie Crook (as the gullible military enthusiast Gareth Keenan) and Ralph Ineson (as the boorish rep Finchy), MacIntosh held his own. He brought a brilliant banality to his conversations with his long-suffering co-worker Tim, played by Martin Freeman. (Keith: “I watched that Peak Practice … Bloody repeat.” Tim: “That’s annoying, innit?” Keith: “Not for me, I hadn’t seen it.”)

Keith also gives Tim the benefit of his romantic advice – “Men get turned on by what they see, but women get turned on by what they hear. I always make sure the woman hears the right thing… I very tenderly explain to them that I will guarantee them at least one orgasm” – before softly biting into one of his ever-present Scotch eggs, in a scene that took several takes as Freeman was reduced to helpless laughter.

MacIntosh’s own favourite moment came when Keith, asked for ideas for the office Christmas party, replies in front of his colleagues: “Invite girls. Not girls that work here. Pretty girls.”

Ewen Douglas MacIntosh was born in Merionethshire, Wales, on Christmas Day 1973, the son of Ewen MacIntosh and his wife Sara.

After Repton School he studied linguistics at the University of Edinburgh, where he was a founder of its comedy society, the Edinburgh Revue. He worked in market research for a time while writing and performing with a comedy troupe called Navel Gazing.

In 2001 he and his Navel Gazing co-star Jamie Deeks were cast in background parts in a new show called The Office. “All we were told before the first day’s filming was, it was a mock documentary,” he recalled. “The only benchmark I had was This Is Spinal Tap, which is pretty much my favourite comedy film. I thought, well, Christopher Guest, who plays Nigel Tufnel, just deadpans and chews gum, so maybe if I just deadpan and chew gum I’ll get away with it.”

After The Office, MacIntosh concentrated on comedy scriptwriting, but popped up as a performer in TV and radio comedies such as Little Britain, Miranda, Lead Balloon and Cabin Pressure.

In 2004 his performance as a cuckolded husband in Marcus Markou’s play Age-Sex-Location (Riverside Studios) was described by The Sunday Telegraph as “brilliant – just brilliant”. Nevertheless, he endured lean times and declared bankruptcy in 2016.

His other screen work included roles in EastEnders, Casualty (as a Pavarotti impersonator) and several nondescript British films. In 2022 he was reunited with Gervais for an episode of After Life, in which he played a man banned from an all-you-can-eat buffet for over-indulgence.

The Office remains enduringly popular, spawning an American remake in which the Keith equivalent, played by Brian Baumgartner, was called Kevin. MacIntosh also toured Britain with a pub quiz inspired by The Office, hearing first-hand how much the show meant to its fans. “These characters almost become people’s mates and just having it on provides comfort.”

Much more animated and genial than Keith, Ewen MacIntosh was well-liked by his colleagues. He is survived by his parents and his brother Colin.

Ewen MacIntosh, born December 25 1973, died February 19 2024