Ian Lavender, actor who played the naive Private Pike in Dad’s Army – obituary

Lavender: counted the day he was cast as Pike as the luckiest of his life
Lavender: he counted the day he was cast as Pike as the luckiest of his life - Chris Barham/Daily Mail/Shutterstock

Ian Lavender, the actor who has died aged 77, was celebrated for his portrayal of the endearingly naive Private Pike in the hugely successful television comedy series Dad’s Army (BBC, 1968-1977), and was the last surviving member of the main cast.

Young Frank Pike, an immature and buttoned-up mother’s boy, mollycoddled bank clerk and spare-time private, among the veteran members of the Walmington-on-Sea Home Guard, worked in the bank alongside the languid and effete Sergeant Wilson (John Le Mesurier) and the pompous, bossy Captain Mainwaring (Arthur Lowe).

It was implicit in the script that the world-weary Wilson was carrying on an irregular liaison with Pike’s formidable mother. Young Pike – invariably admonished as a “stupid boy” by Captain Mainwaring – would embarrass Wilson by addressing him on parade as “Uncle Arthur” and by innocently passing on such intimate messages as “Mum says can you pick up some sausages for tea?”

Lavender as Private Frank Pike and John Le Mesurier as Sergeant Arthur Wilson
Lavender as Private Frank Pike and John Le Mesurier as Sergeant Arthur Wilson

Lavender delivered Pike’s lines with superb timing and to great comic effect, and his character was based on that of the series co-writer, Jimmy Perry, as a young man.

Lavender’s best-known scene came in an episode called “The Deadly Attachment” (1973), in which the platoon guarded the crew of a German U-boat in the church hall.

When the U-boat commander, understatedly played by Philip Madoc, menacingly demands to know the name of his youngest captor for goading him with a put-down of the Führer (“Whistle while you work/Hitler is a twerp”), Mainwaring intervenes shouting: “Don’t tell him, Pike!” This classic one-liner was often reckoned the funniest in the history of British sitcoms.

That episode was watched by an audience put at nearly 13 million, and when it was repeated the following year, nearly 11 million viewers tuned in to see it. Lavender also earned praise for his portrayal of a Germanic Pike in “Ring Dem Bells”, an episode screened in 1975, in which he donned a monocle and adopted a Hollywood-German accent and an air of cruel arrogance. Viewers telephoned the BBC to congratulate him on his versatility and comedic talent.

Pike wearing his knitted claret and blue Aston Villa scarf
Pike wearing his knitted claret and blue Aston Villa scarf - Scope Features

But his default mode in the series was as the fragile, whey-faced weed. With his over-long Aston Villa scarf – which he picked himself from the costume department as a nod to the team he supported – and khaki cap pulled over his ears, Lavender played Pike with a nicely observed range of mannerisms and neurotic twitches.

At 22, he was already several years older than his character when the series began, and by the time it ended his hair had long since turned grey, a transition arrested on screen using a combination of colour spray and Brylcreem.

John Le Mesurier wrote in his memoirs that he feared his Dad’s Army “nephew” would be typecast as a bumbling juvenile, but he was pleased to observe that Lavender’s subsequent career belied this.

Only after nine years and 80 episodes of Dad’s Army did Lavender finally learn the truth about the character he played. When the cast wrapped for the last time, the show’s co-creator David Croft told him that Pike really was Sgt Wilson’s son, the product of a furtive relationship with Mrs Pike. “I never knew until then,” Lavender confessed. “I just said the lines.”

With Patricia Brake in The Glums
With Patricia Brake in The Glums - TV Times via Getty

While Lavender never again found quite such a successful or identifiable role as Pike, he scored a modest hit with the television series of The Glums (LWT, 1978-1979), in which he played Ron, the gormless son of Jimmy Edwards’s mouldy patriarch. Lavender’s character, as one critic put it, “made Private Pike look like a contestant on Mastermind”.

His other television series included Mr Big (1977) with Prunella Scales and Come Back Mrs Noah (1977-1978), with Mollie Sugden. Having finally cast aside callow, dim-witted youths, he went on to play a wide variety of parts both on television – such as a dentist in Have I Got You… Where You Want Me? (Granada, 1981) and a travelling salesman in The Hello Goodbye Man (BBC, 1984) – and on the stage. In 1989 he appeared with Dustin Hoffman in The Merchant of Venice at the Phoenix Theatre in London.

The son of a policeman, Arthur Ian Lavender was born in Birmingham on February 16 1946 and educated at Bournville Technical School where, he recalled, he “studied music, drama, cricket and girls”.

Up to the age of 17 he had hopes of a professional cricketing career, but the acclaim for his performance as Pontius Pilate in the school production of The Man Born to be King convinced him that he should go on the stage.

Adrienne Posta and Lavender in Carry on Behind, 1975
Adrienne Posta and Lavender in Carry on Behind, 1975 - Shutterstock

He attended the Bristol Old Vic drama school before going into repertory at the Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury. Strapped for cash, he returned to Birmingham, where he worked as a hospital porter and telephonist.

Lavender’s big break came in 1968 when he took the lead in a half-hour Rediffusion play, Flowers at My Feet, produced by Stella Richman. Then, having been taken on by a new agent, Ann Callender, the wife of the television producer David Croft, he was cast for a role in Croft’s new BBC series, which he thought would employ him for no more than the scheduled seven weeks as he could not imagine a successful comedy about the wartime Home Guard.

Certainly the first series of Dad’s Army proved to be something of a “sleeper” and made no great impact. But the second series was tremendously popular, and in 1970 the Variety Club gave their Personality of the Year award to the entire cast.

By the mid-1970s, Lavender had grown into the part of Pike to the extent that the writers decided to push him further to the fore. As the show’s biographer, Graham McCann noted, Lavender’s youthful energy, combined with a mature acting technique, proved increasingly valuable to an otherwise elderly cast.

Lavender himself counted the day he was cast as Pike as the luckiest of his life, and Dad’s Army went on to become a television classic. He also appeared in the ill-conceived 1971 film version directed by Norman Cohen, and the West End stage adaptation in 1975.

His other stage credits included George Bernard Shaw’s The Apple Cart (Mermaid, 1970), a touring production of The Ghost Train (1971), written in 1923 by Arnold Ridley (Private Godfrey in Dad’s Army) and Anita Loos’s play Happy Birthday (Apollo, 1979) with Christopher Timothy, Elizabeth Counsell and Julia Foster in the cast. He gave a notable performance in J V Stevenson’s Schooldays (Arts, Cambridge, 1980) and played the nosey neighbour in Ray Cooney’s farce, Run for Your Wife.

In the provinces and on tour he appeared in French Dressing and Getting Married. He also won approving notices for his interpretations of Buster Keaton (Theatr Clwyd, Mold), and the lecherous director Lloyd Dallas in Noises Off, and toured New Zealand with One for the Road.

Together with two other well-known television faces, Lavender formed the theatre production company MSL with Malcolm McFee of The Fenn Street Gang and Ian Sharrock of Emmerdale Farm. McFee and Lavender had a party piece performing There’s a One-Eyed Yellow Idol to the North of Kathmandu , which they did  to uproarious applause at charity events. Lavender also presented a one-man show, Don’t Tell Him, Pike at the Edinburgh Festival in which he reminisced and took questions about Dad’s Army.

Lavender returned to prime-time television in 2001 as Derek Harkinson, Pauline Fowler’s gay friend in EastEnders, a role he played until 2005, returning briefly in 2016 to appear with the Walford Players in their Christmas show. That year he also contributed a cameo role as a brigadier to a new film version of Dad’s Army.

He was diagnosed with bladder cancer while preparing to appear in a play in Manchester in 1993, and survived a mild heart attack in 2004.

His first marriage, to the actress Suzanne Kerchiss was dissolved; they had two sons. He married, secondly, the actress Michele (Miki) Hardy.

Ian Lavender, born February 16 1946, died February 2 2024

David Croft, who died in 2011, wrote: My wife, Ann, first spotted Ian playing at the Bristol Vic and brought him into her agency. I saw him on television in Flowers At My Feet with Jane Hylton in which he gave a charming and sensitive performance. He was soon persuaded to join the cast of a new television comedy.

His first day’s filming on Dad’s Army gave an insight into what was to come. He quickly realised that he was liable to be overwhelmed by the team of elderly and experienced actors that surrounded him so he swiftly acquired the long scarf and the uniform cap worn dead straight and pulled down to his ears. Pike, the Mother’s Boy, began to emerge.

A great friendship sprung up between Ian and the oldest member of the cast, John Laurie (Private Frazer). Ian revelled in John’s wicked sense of humour and a great rivalry sprung up between them as to who would be first to finish the Times crossword.

Arthur Lowe loved working with Ian and close observers of the programme can see a joyous conjuring trick which they frequently performed together. Arthur would fall over a chair or off a ladder or trip on mounting Jones’s van. Ian would be there to catch him and, during the chaos that ensued, Ian would fix the hat and Arthur would take care of the specs. Arthur would then emerge from the melee, hat awry and glasses askew. After the gales of laughter had peaked, Arthur would contemptuously say “Stupid boy!” and Ian would look deeply wounded. Renewed laughter.