Michael Redfern, actor best known for playing Dad in the ‘Oxo family’ ads alongside Lynda Bellingham – obituary
Michael Redfern, the actor, who has died aged 79, was best known to television audiences as Dad, alongside Lynda Bellingham’s Mum, in the memorable series of commercials for Oxo that ran for 16 years; they amounted to mini soap operas providing a commentary on family life.
With their “children”, they formed the family who embodied “middle England”, as some saw it, when the ads began in 1983.
“What’s for dinner, Mum?” asks the precocious daughter in a typical scenario, before explaining the nutritional value of cooking methods, which Lynda Bellingham then translates in simple terms for Redfern.
When there were tensions between the “parents”, the children were seen as intermediaries.
However sexist this might have seemed, it was a progression from the first Oxo family, which from 1958 to 1976 had featured Katie (the actress Mary Holland), explaining that Oxo gravy, made from the brand’s cubes, “gives a meal man-appeal” in the home-cooked casseroles and other tasty treats she dishes up – her man being Philip, played by Richard Clarke and, later, Peter Moynihan.
Dennis Waterman, at the height of his success in The Sweeney, was the next face of the brand for several years. Lynda Bellingham was portrayed as a mother juggling a job with taking care of her family when she and Redfern took over in 1983.
The vegetarian stock cube made its debut in the 1980s and was followed in 1991 by gravy granules, with Dad doing the cooking while Mum watches a weepie film.
After the first commercial with Redfern and Lynda Bellingham, Oxo sales leapt by 10 per cent. But the gravy train ended when it was felt that the ads were no longer representative of the quintessential middle-class family, with fewer eating together.
The last of the pair’s 45 commercials, titled “The Last Supper”, was in 1999, featuring Mum, Dad and their three children enjoying a final meal together, shepherd’s pie, as the couple prepare to empty-nest and downsize.
However, Oxo unleashed a new TV family in 2016, with the mum every bit as much the breadwinner as the dad, who shares the cooking in their chaotic life. Redfern had a brief cameo as “Grandad” on a video call to the family.
The first commercial, introducing a multicultural element, had the elder daughter visibly horrified when she brings home her mixed-race school friend and discovers that Mum is preparing meatballs. This is seen to put pressure on Mum, who hopes adding Oxo stock cubes will win over the girl – who gives the seal of approval by taking a phone picture of her dish.
Disapproving of this new “modern” family in a technological age, Jan Etherington wrote in the Telegraph: “All I could think of was how Lynda would have been appalled by it. Her Oxo Mum would not have been so quivering, so apprehensive of the young visitor’s reaction.
“Rather, she would have welcomed her children’s friend into the home – funny, teasing, asking her questions – certain that the girl would love her food, but not bothered either way.”
Although the Oxo commercials brought good money to Redfern – easily recognisable for his moustache and bald pate – he blamed the high profile they gave him for other job offers drying up.
“After 16 years, I am imprinted on people’s minds as that character,” he explained. “It was great at the time and gave me a good living, but it has hindered my career. Work has been very thin on the ground.”
He eventually gave up acting and moved to Spain.
Michael Ian Redfern was born on March 30 1943 in Isleworth, Middlesex, to Betty (née Appleton) and John Redfern, a loss adjuster; he grew up in East Sheen, London, and attended St Paul’s School.
On leaving, he briefly worked backstage on the West End production of West Side Story before training as an actor at the Corona Academy.
Two of Redfern’s earliest television roles were in 1960s soaps launched by the BBC in an effort, ultimately unsuccessful, to compete with ITV’s Coronation Street and Crossroads.
The first, United!, was a serial about a Midlands football club languishing in the depths of the old Second Division (now the Championship). The BBC enthused that many of the actors were keen amateur players, although it drew a line in trying to create realism by insisting on bathing trunks being worn for Brentwich United’s post-match shower scenes.
In the spring of 1966, six months after its launch, the programme was revamped to spice things up, with seven actors axed. Redfern – a centre-half in showbiz teams for more than 20 years – joined as Chris Wood, one of the new cast members.
Despite having manager and former player Jimmy Hill as technical adviser, and filming games at Stoke City in a quest for authenticity, there were still complaints from viewers that the action on and off the pitch was unrealistic, and the soap bowed out in March 1967.
Redfern walked straight into The Newcomers, a BBC soap that had been launched at the same time but, with its worthy, middle-class storylines, pleased the corporation – and Mary Whitehouse’s Clean-Up TV organisation, which gave it an “honorary mention” in its annual awards for morally sound shows.
Maggie Fitzgibbon formidably led the cast as Vivienne Cooper, one of those moving from London to the East Anglia overspill town of Angleton, with Wendy Richard in the role of a rebellious Cockney teen living next door before her success in Are You Being Served? and EastEnders.
Redfern played Rufus Pargeter for the serial’s final two years (1967-69) before going on to become the perennial character actor, popping up mostly in TV comedies, alongside stars such as Harry Worth, Kenneth Williams, Terry Scott and June Whitfield, and playing everything from fire officers, delivery drivers and ushers to postal workers and bartenders.
He was playing football again, for a police team, in a 1975 episode of ...And Mother Makes Five, starring Wendy Craig. A year later, in Porridge, he was Tulip, one of Ronnie Barker’s fellow inmates at Slade Prison given the questionable honour of tasting the old lag Fletcher’s illicit wine made as a festive gift for his fellow convicts.
Later, alongside Eric Sykes in The Nineteenth Hole (1989), Redfern was a regular as Jack, one of the committee members locked in arguments about how to keep the financially troubled Prince’s Hill Golf Club afloat.
When work was thin on the ground, he took a part-time job as a cab driver and helped to run a friend’s café. He moved to the Valencia region of Spain in 2005.
Redfern is survived by Carol (née Hughes), his partner of more than 50 years, whom he married in 2016, and their son.
Michael Redfern, born March 30 1943, died July 29 2022