At first a dour and dignified supporting actor, usually playing figures of authority and moral rectitude, Geoffrey Palmer, who has died aged 93, became a television star in three highly popular series. In each, he punctured his own apparent pomposity with a comedy technique that made him attractive and funny to audiences over several decades.
I first saw him on the West End stage in a small role in a routine courtroom drama, Difference of Opinion, at the Garrick in 1964; he and most of the cast, led by Raymond Huntley and Robert Beattie, were men in suits talking earnestly about nothing much I can remember. Fifty years later, he was virtually a national treasure, the voice of the Audi car commercials and the narrator of the TV talking-heads show Grumpy Old Men. “I am not grumpy,” he said. “I just look this way.”
He used that look – bloodhound face, jowly and still, hooded eyes – and an armoury of slow-burn reactions and minimal gestures accompanied by a voice of mellow fruitiness, to score countless laughs, opposite Leonard Rossiter in David Nobbs’s The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin (1976-79); Wendy Craig in Carla Lane’s Butterflies (1978-83); and, most resoundingly, Judi Dench in Bob Larbey’s As Time Goes By (1992-2005).
In the first, he was Rossiter’s military-mannered buffoon of a brother-in-law, given to scrounging meals with such semi-apologetic lines as, “Bit of a cock-up on the catering front”; in the second, he was a butterfly collector and bad-tempered dentist married to a woman (Craig) who felt life was passing her by; and with Dench, he played an ex-army officer belatedly “falling in” with the woman he loved – previously denied, like Romeo’s Juliet, by an unreliable postal service.
The acting in all three series was as brilliant as the writing, and the appeal to audiences was one of recognition and delight in familiar situations and domestic crises. Palmer rarely ventured outside of his prescribed territory, never shook you with shock or surprise, but everything he did was perfectly timed and executed.
He played only twice for the National Theatre: in Laurence Olivier’s 1974 production of JB Priestley’s Eden End (as a “handsome bachelor” in love with Joan Plowright), which ran at the Old Vic; and as another hopelessly besotted but equally ineffectual suitor, a landowner, in Trevor Griffiths’s Piano (1990), a panoramic variation on Chekhov’s Platonov with added material from the short stories and an unfinished Russian film.
Surprisingly, perhaps, he played the role of the drunken, charismatic Captain Stanhope – originally performed by Olivier in 1928 – in RC Sherriff’s famous play of the first world war trenches, Journey’s End. But that was when he was a leading light of the drama club at Highgate school in north London.
His stamp of respectability came from his parents, Frederick Palmer, a chartered accountant, and Norah (nee Robins), and he went straight from school into the Royal Marines. He then started work in accountancy, but was sidetracked into amateur theatre by a girlfriend, before finding his way, in the early 1950s, to the outstanding nursery of professional talent that was the Q theatre in Kew.
After the glamour of working as an assistant stage manager in Croydon, and several years of acting in rep, his first television work was in straight-faced stooge roles opposite Harry Worth and Arthur Askey, and in the sitcom The Army Game (1959-60), with Bernard Bresslaw and Alfie Bass. The first of his two appearances at the Royal Court, in John Osborne’s West of Suez (1971), with Ralph Richardson as a literato gunned down by guerrillas on his own lawn, led to filming with Alfred Hitchcock in Frenzy (1972) and Lindsay Anderson in O Lucky Man! (1973).
Roles in some notable British movies followed over the next 20 years, including a British ambassador in John Mackenzie’s The Honorary Consul (1983, starring Michael Caine, scripted by Christopher Hampton); a headmaster at a conference in Christopher Morahan’s Clockwise (1986, with John Cleese, script by Michael Frayn); a judge in Charles Crichton’s A Fish Called Wanda (1988, Cleese again, starring and writing); Sir Henry Ponsonby, Queen Victoria’s private secretary, in John Madden’s Mrs Brown (1997, with Judi Dench and Billy Connolly); and Admiral Roebuck, M’s adviser, in the James Bond movie Tomorrow Never Dies (1997, with Dench as M, and Pierce Brosnan as Bond). None of these roles, however, earned him the recognition and acclaim he found on television.
In 1986, he was in two remarkable Alan Bennett dramas, both about Franz Kafka, both directed by Richard Eyre. In the first, The Insurance Man, shown on the BBC, Palmer played an angry doctor in a surreal, cinematic vision of Kafka as a reptilian accident-claims clerk, starring Daniel Day-Lewis. The second, Kafka’s Dick, was a satirical meditation on the nature of literary criticism and biography with reference to penis size, staged at the Royal Court. Palmer was wonderfully funny as a pedantic amateur sleuth compiling a treatise on the man he called “the Czech Chekhov” or “the Prague Proust”.
Sporadic appearances in Blackadder (as Field Marshal Haig, naturally), Doctor Who and Fawlty Towers – as the doctor demanding his breakfast while Basil is trying to conceal a corpse – kept his ever straight face before the public. His most substantial television work after As Time Goes By was The Savages (2001), by Simon Nye, in which he played Marcus Brigstocke’s widowed father; and as another grandee, Sir Marmaduke Rowley, governor of the fictional Mandarin Islands, in four one-hour episodes of He Knew He Was Right (2004), adapted from Anthony Trollope by Andrew Davies.
He also played a vice-admiral in an episode of Poirot, directed by his son, Charlie Palmer, with David Suchet in 2009; and a bishop in the five-part BBC serialisation of Parade’s End (2012), with Benedict Cumberbatch and Rebecca Hall, adapted from Ford Madox Ford by Tom Stoppard.
Almost his last public deeds were to play the head geographer in the first Paddington movie in 2014 before reverting to dignified outspokenness as the lord chief justice in Richard Eyre’s BBC film of Henry IV Part 2 – and in vocal off-camera opposition to the HS2 rail line, due to be passing near his Buckinghamshire front door. He is due to appear in the forthcoming Roald Dahl film An Unquiet Life, as Dahl’s Repton headmaster (and later archbishop of Canterbury) Geoffrey Fisher.
He married Sally Green, a health visitor, in 1963, and is survived by her and their two children, Charles and Harriet. A keen fisherman all his life, and a stalwart of the Garrick Club, he was made OBE in 2004.
• Geoffrey Dyson Palmer, actor, born 4 June 1927; died 5 November 2020