Ian Lavender obituary

<span>Ian Lavender, third right, with fellow cast members in 1977. From left: Arnold Ridley (Private Godfrey), Clive Dunn (Corporal Jones), Arthur Lowe (Captain Mainwaring), John Laurie (Private Frazer) and John Le Mesurier (Sergeant Wilson). </span><span>Photograph: Express/Getty Images</span>
Ian Lavender, third right, with fellow cast members in 1977. From left: Arnold Ridley (Private Godfrey), Clive Dunn (Corporal Jones), Arthur Lowe (Captain Mainwaring), John Laurie (Private Frazer) and John Le Mesurier (Sergeant Wilson). Photograph: Express/Getty Images

The actor Ian Lavender, who has died aged 77, played the awkward, impulsive Private Frank Pike in the long-running BBC comedy Dad’s Army, and was the last surviving member of the cast who portrayed Captain Mainwaring’s Home Guard platoon.

Most of the part-time soldiers depicted in the series, which ran from 1968 to 1977, were exempted from call-up to the army during the second world war because of advanced age. Pike, their junior in most cases by several decades, had been excused because of his weak chest, and always wore the scarf insisted upon by his widowed mum, Mavis.

In spite of their foibles and foolishness, Mainwaring’s pomposity and the frequent slapstick sequences, the heroes of Dad’s Army were courageous men prepared to give their lives to protect their country, and it was this innate nobility that lifted the series, written by David Croft and Jimmy Perry, to greatness. At its peak it had more than 18 million weekly viewers, and is still regularly rerun.

There were many catchphrases – Lance Corporal Jones’s “Don’t panic!”, Private Frazer’s “We’re doomed!” and Sergeant Wilson’s languid “Do you think that’s wise, sir?” – and the best-remembered belongs to the gangster movie-fixated Pike, though he did not utter it himself: Mainwaring’s weary “You stupid boy!”

Pike was also involved in Dad’s Army’s most frequently quoted joke. “What is your name?” snarls the German U-boat commander who has been captured by the platoon. “Don’t tell him, Pike,” shouts Mainwaring. There was often great subtlety in the inter-platoon relationships, best exemplified by that of Pike and Wilson (John Le Mesurier). Wilson, whom Pike calls Uncle Arthur, is Mrs Pike’s lodger, and is forever fussing around the boy, making sure his scarf is on tight and gently steering him away from danger. It was not until the end of the final series that Lavender asked Croft if “Uncle Arthur” was actually Pike’s father. “Of course,” replied Croft.

Born in Birmingham, Ian was the son of Edward, a policeman, and Kathleen (nee Johnson), a housewife; his mother often took him to see pantomimes, variety shows and Saturday morning cinema, which gave him his first ambitions to become an actor. After performing in many school drama productions at Bournville boys’ technical school he was accepted, with the help of a grant from the city of Birmingham, by the Bristol Old Vic acting school. Clearly far from being a stupid boy, he passed 12 O-levels and four A-levels. “The only reason I don’t have a degree is because I went to drama school,” he said years later.

He made his first television appearance soon after he graduated from Bristol in 1968, playing an aspiring writer whose family want him to get a proper job, in Ted Allan’s play for the Half Hour Story series, Flowers at My Feet, with Angela Baddeley and Jane Hylton.

In the same year, he was cast as Pike, joining the seasoned veterans of comedy and the classics Le Mesurier, Arthur Lowe (Mainwaring), Clive Dunn (Jones), John Laurie (Frazer), James Beck (Private Walker), Arnold Ridley (Private Godfrey) and Bill Pertwee as Air Raid Warden Hodges. Janet Davies played Mrs Pike.

While Dad’s Army catapulted Lavender to national fame at the age of 22, the role of Pike haunted him for the rest of his long career. Not that he had any complaints.

Asked in 2014 if he got fed up with a lifetime of having “stupid boy” called out to him in the street, he replied: “I’m very proud of Dad’s Army. If you asked me ‘Would you like to be in a sitcom that was watched by 18 million people, was on screen for 10 years, and will create lots of work for you and provide not just for you but for your children for the next 40-odd years?’ – which is what happened – I’d be a fool to say ‘Bugger off.’ I’d be a fool to have regrets.”

After Dad’s Army, Lavender made further television appearances, including Mr Big (1977), with Peter Jones and Prunella Scales, and in 1983 he revived Pike for the BBC radio sitcom It Sticks Out Half a Mile, a sequel to Dad’s Army, but it was not a success and lasted only one series. In contrast, the original series, with most of the regular cast, had been rerecorded for radio from 1974 to 1976 and proved very popular.

He was also in the BBC TV series Come Back Mrs Noah (1977-78), co-written by Croft; and played Ron in a new version of The Glums (1979) for London Weekend Television, adapted from Frank Muir and Denis Norden’s original radio scripts of the 1950s. There were more smallish television parts in the 80s, such as two episodes of Yes, Minister, and bits in Keeping Up Appearances, Goodnight Sweetheart, Rising Damp and Casualty. He starred in the unsuccessful BBC series The Hello Goodbye Man in 1984 and provided the lead voice in the children’s cartoon series PC Pinkerton in 1988.

He was also in various quiz shows, including Cluedo (1990). On Celebrity Mastermind, broadcast on BBC1 on New Year’s Day 2009, when the presenter John Humphrys asked him to state his name, a fellow contestant, Rick Wakeman, shouted: “Don’t tell him, Pike!”

In addition to co-starring in the first film version of Dad’s Army (1971), he appeared in various low-level British sex farces of the 1970s, including Confessions of a Pop Performer (1975), Carry on Behind (1975), Adventures of a Taxi Driver (1976) and Adventures of a Private Eye (1976). He also starred in the thriller 31 North 62 East (2009). “I was close to getting two very big movies in the 70s,” he said without rancour in 2014, “but in the end they said: ‘We can’t get past Private Pike.’”

Lavender’s second best-known role was his delicate and sympathetic portrayal of Derek Harkinson, Pauline Fowler’s gay friend, in the BBC soap EastEnders from 2001 to 2005, and again in 2016-17.

In addition to various live Dad’s Army productions, his stage work included the Peter Hall Company’s The Merchant of Venice, with Dustin Hoffman as Shylock in 1989, touring as the Narrator in The Rocky Horror Show in 2005, Monsignor Howard in the London Palladium production of the musical Sister Act in 2009, The Shawshank Redemption at the Edinburgh fringe in 2013, and his own one-man show of reminiscences, Don’t Tell Him, Pike.

Lavender had a great admiration for Buster Keaton, and was an expert on the silent comedian’s career. In 2011 he introduced Keaton’s Sherlock Jr (1924) at the Slapstick silent comedy festival in Bristol, and commented that finding Keaton’s grave in the Fountain Lawns cemetery in Hollywood had been one of his life’s special moments.

In 2016 a new cinema version of Dad’s Army was released, with Toby Jones as Mainwaring and Bill Nighy as Wilson. Private Pike was played by Blake Harrison, and Lavender was promoted to play Brigadier Pritchard. In a touching in-joke, his younger face was also seen on an advertisement poster in a street scene.

Lavender is survived by his second wife, Miki Hardy, whom he married in 1993; by his sons, Sam and Daniel, from his first marriage, to the actor Suzanne Kerchiss, which ended in divorce; and by two granddaughters.

Arthur Ian Lavender, actor, born 16 February 1946; died 2 February 2024

• This article was amended on 5 February 2024. The 1989 production of The Merchant of Venice was by the Peter Hall Company, not the RSC, and the spelling of Suzanne Kerchiss’s surname was corrected.