Keith Barron: Yorkshire actor rarely off our screens for half a century but best known for Eighties sitcom ‘Duty Free’

Barron once joked that his career had two stages: ‘Penetration Acting’ and ‘Heart Attack Acting’: Rex
Barron once joked that his career had two stages: ‘Penetration Acting’ and ‘Heart Attack Acting’: Rex

Keith Barron was perhaps best known to a generation of viewers for his roles in the sitcoms Duty Free and Haggard, with his most recent appearance being in the ITV police crime series DCI Banks.

Seldom out of work, which he confessed was a bit “masochistic”, the highly versatile, blue-eyed, Yorkshire-accented Barron played the full gamut of roles from adulterer to police officer with a sprinkling of hard-hitting characters in between in a career spanning over five decades.

He made a number of appearances in landmark British shows including Coronation Street, Doctors, A Touch of Frost, Doctor Who and Casualty. He also hit the big screen with British films Baby Love (1968); The Man Who Had Power Over Women (1970) with Rod Taylor and David Puttnam’s film Melody (1971), before crossing the pond and gaining Hollywood roles in The Land That Time Forgot (1975); and At The Earth’s Core (1976), with Doug McClure and Peter Cushing; and Voyage Of The Damned (1976), alongside Faye Dunaway, Max von Sydow, Orson Welles and James Mason.

Barron admitted, “If I’m out of work, I’m terrible. If I go out, I’m all the time wondering whether the phone’s rung while I’ve been out. And if I sit in waiting for it to ring, I’m like a bear with a sore head wondering why it hasn’t.”

Born in the mining town of Mexborough, north-east of Sheffield, in 1934, Keith Barron was the son of a wholesaler. Expected to enter the family business, Barron had other ideas. He later declared that “if it hadn’t been for the theatre, I would have ended up in jail … I used to drink too much and behave disgracefully.”

In the role for which he is best loved, with Joanna Van Gyseghem and Frank Coda in 'Duty Free' (ITV/REX)
In the role for which he is best loved, with Joanna Van Gyseghem and Frank Coda in 'Duty Free' (ITV/REX)

After leaving school early, he completed his National Service in the RAF. Upon returning, he began to live his dream; he studied acting at the former Sheffield Playhouse, where he met future wife, the stage designer Mary Pickard.

He later joined the same am-dram group as Brian Blessed and landed his first job at a repertory company in Sheffield, earning the princely sum of £1 a week. He soon married Mary and after their wedding, Barron departed to do a matinee of Hay Fever.

Following a move to London in the 1960s, Barron started to gain notoriety and was at the vanguard of a new age of attractive yet intellectual leading men, who in the 1960s helped expand the boundaries of drama on television during the Harold Wilson years (1964-70).

His TV debut came in the form of a 1961 episode of The Avengers. Barron then quickly rose to national fame after playing DS Swift in Granada Television’s The Odd Man (1964) and its spin-off, It’s Dark Outside (1964-5). He wielded a warrant card again in The Ruth Rendell Mysteries (ITV, 1996) and on BBC’s NCS: Manhunt (2001-02).

His breakthrough came in 1965, when he landed the lead in Dennis Potter’s acclaimed BBC1 television plays, Stand Up, Nigel Barton and Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton, which tell the story of a miner’s son, who alienates himself from his family by going to Oxford and whose ambition takes him into the middle classes and the hierarchy of the Labour Party; he finds himself torn between two worlds and epitomises a new wave of working class hero. Although based on Potter’s own experience, the story resonated with Barron too. It was widely regarded as one of his finest career performances.

In a non-multi-channelled TV world, where audiences could easily hit 18-20 million viewers, the role made Barron a star and an instantly and permanently recognisable actor. He once said of acting, “You take nothing for granted. And the best thing about it is being offered another job. It keeps the whole thing alive.”

In 1967, Barron got the lead role of Jim Dixon in The Further Adventures of Lucky Jim for the BBC, and through the rest of the 1960s and the 1970s he was consistently in demand, appearing in hit shows such as Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) (1970), Upstairs, Downstairs (1974), Z Cars (1976), The New Avengers (1976) and The Professionals (1977). His soothing, calm voice led to him becoming a regular reader of stories on BBC children’s Jackanory from 1967 to 1971.

With his distinctive deep tones, he was a frequent voiceover artist for British TV commercials and public information films, including the 1975 public service announcement “Grain Drain”, which pointed out the dangers of letting children play near unguarded grain pits.

Barron later impressed as an adulterer in Brian Clarke’s long-running Telford’s Change (BBC1, 1979), enticing Hannah Gordon as the wife of Peter Barkworth’s workaholic businessman.

By the 1980s, the Barrons were exhausted and decided to set-up their own restaurant, Fox’s, in Hayle, Cornwall, where they earned plaudits in the Michelin Guide and The Good Food Guide but the stress became too much and after three years returned to London.

Following a memorable guest appearance in Dr Who, in 1984, Barron landed the role for which many lovingly associate him with, that of David Pearce, in Yorkshire Television’s Duty Free, written by Eric Chappell and Jean Warr. Although he embodied the randy middle-aged man with his character playing the languid and slightly louche lounge lizard in a Spanish hotel – wine glass in one hand and a woman in the other – the role helped cement Barron’s reputation as a leading man.

Running from 1984-86, the sitcom pulled in over 17 million viewers a week, who avidly watched the antics of Pearce, a northern socialist, who was holidaying with his wife, Amy (Gwen Taylor) in Marbella, Spain, but who becomes enamoured with the wife, Linda (Joanna Van Gyseghem) of a Tory southerner, Robert (Neil Stacy) staying in the same hotel. The comedy drama revolved around the class-related tensions and the interruptive affair.

Despite being set in a sunny Spanish resort, the series was filmed almost entirely in Leeds, although the concluding Christmas special had some scenes shot in the Don Carlos Hotel and Spa in Spain. In 2014, Barron toured with Taylor and Stacy reprising their roles in a stage version.

Starring in bawdy Georgian romp 'Haggard' (ITV/REX)
Starring in bawdy Georgian romp 'Haggard' (ITV/REX)

In 1986, he starred as bully TV boss Kevin Hughes in ITV sitcom Room At The Bottom – a role Barron played so well that, rumour had it, several television executives were convinced his character was based on them.

He won plaudits for his role alongside Maggie O’Neill in Tony Marchant’s 1989 BBC series Take Me Home, where Barron plays a long-time married taxi driver and adulterous husband who starts an affair with a passenger; the miniseries explored the social changes during Thatcher’s Britain.

He returned to bed-hopping in ITV’s bawdy romp Haggard (1990-92) where he played a lustful squire in 18th-century England. This was followed by the sitcom All Night Long (1994).

More recently, Barron had guest roles in Foyle’s War (2006), A Touch of Frost (2008) and as the deputy mayor of Benidorm in the comedy series of the same name (2009), and appeared in the 2013 BBC comedy-drama Being Eileen.

Barron also had a short reoccurring television roles, including Alan Boothe in the Yorkshire family drama Where the Heart Is (2003-4), in Coronation Street, playing George Trench, one of Angela Hawthorne’s ex-husbands, and between 2011-15, he had several guest parts in Doctors, as well as BBC1’s Casualty, 2008-13.

He continued to act up until last year, where he appeared regularly, alongside Stephen Tompkinson, as Arthur Banks, the hero’s father in DCI Banks, ITV’s long-running detective drama. His final performance will be seen posthumously in the BBC1 sitcom Not Going Out Christmas special.

Away from acting, Barron made a number of appearances as the celebrity guest in “dictionary corner” on Channel 4’s Countdown. He was also the star on Bunn and Co., a Radio 4 show (2003-04) and in September 2006, Barron’s performance on the BBC’s Test the Nation IQ test show gave him an IQ of 146.

Once summarising his career, Barron wryly observed that he had enjoyed a career of two stages: in the first, he had become an expert in what he termed “Penetration Acting” – pretending to make love on screen; while the second stage involved “Heart Attack Acting” – playing older characters whose bedroom antics have cardiac consequences.

Barron died after a short illness and is survived by his wife, Mary, and his son, Jamie.

Keith Barron, actor, born 8 August 1934, died 15 November 2017, aged 83