Robert Fyfe, actor best known as henpecked Howard in Last of the Summer Wine – obituary

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Robert Fyfe - Starstock/Photoshot/Avalon
Robert Fyfe - Starstock/Photoshot/Avalon

Robert Fyfe, who has died aged 90, was a jobbing provincial actor before finding fame on television as the henpecked Howard Sibshaw in Last of the Summer Wine, the world’s longest-running sitcom.

Launched in 1973 by the BBC as a spin-off to a Comedy Playhouse pilot, the show was in its eighth series when Fyfe joined in 1985. By then it was drawing a weekly audience of 15 million.

His character Howard belonged to a raft of subsidiary characters created by the show’s writer Roy Clarke to complement the three ageing principals, Foggy Dewhurst (Brian Wilde), Norman Clegg (Peter Sallis) and Compo Simmonite (Bill Owen). The show was filmed in and around Holmfirth in West Yorkshire.

As the weasel-faced Howard, Fyfe also formed part of a trio, a ménage à trois, comprising his terrifying on-screen wife Pearl (Juliette Kaplan) and his man-eating floozy Marina (Jean Fergusson).

Fyfe’s character lived next door to Norman Clegg and often asked for his help to deceive Pearl in order to sneak away with Marina, who worked on the check-out at the local Co-Op.

Fyfe as Howard Sibshaw - AA Film Archive/Alamy
Fyfe as Howard Sibshaw - AA Film Archive/Alamy

In her free time Marina exchanged her overall for an inappropriately short miniskirt, heels and low-cut top. Fyfe’s character pursued her assiduously, despite the vigilance and pursed disapproval of his suspicious wife.

Howard’s assignations with his on-screen mistress became increasingly bizarre over the years. On one occasion, Fyfe accidentally ducked her into a filthy canal. Despite much innuendo, the show remained sex-free: Howard the putative adulterer never seemed to get into a clinch with Marina, let alone bed.

Much of their unconsummated passion was played out on their bicycling trips to various out-of-the-way locations away from Pearl’s beady glare. Going to Marina’s house was not an option, as she lived there with her mother.

The relationship between Howard and Marina epitomised the central premise: all the men were petrified of the women; all the women were tyrants (such as Ivy, the café owner, played by Jane Freeman), scolds (Pearl) or (as in Marina’s case) trollops.

Whenever Pearl smelt a rat, Fyfe’s Howard would deflect suspicion with a mixture of wheedling and sheepishness. If caught with Marina red-handed, Fyfe would hop on the spot with panic before taking flight.

“The execution of this little jig is a joy to watch and so expertly executed by Robert Fyfe,” noted one fan.

Howard with Marina, the object of his unrequited ardour, played by Jean Fergusson - Allstar Picture Library Ltd/Alamy
Howard with Marina, the object of his unrequited ardour, played by Jean Fergusson - Allstar Picture Library Ltd/Alamy

With its gentle humour and larger-than-life characters loafing around beautiful West Yorkshire, Last Of The Summer Wine was considered one of the few genuinely original television comedies. But by the time the series wound up in 2010, viewing figures had slumped from 19 million to three million.

At the end Fyfe had played Howard Sibshaw in 230 episodes.

Robert Douglas Fyfe was born on September 25 1930 in Kirkcaldy, Scotland, and read English at Edinburgh University before training for the stage under Esmé Church at the Northern Theatre School, Bradford.

While there he played at Halifax, York and Scarborough, and appeared in the 1954 Festival of York Mystery Plays. A year’s tour with the Northern Children’s Theatre was followed by a further year at the Royal, Lincoln, and a season at the Palace, Kilmarnock.

Having joined the Castle Theatre Company at Farnham in 1957, initially for three weeks, he quickly became an established favourite. Fyfe went on to take roles in theatres around the country, ranging from classical drama to drawing-room comedy.

In 1966 he was appearing in pantomime at the New Bromley Theatre, where he and David Jason played two Chinese policeman in Aladdin. Latterly he appeared with his Summer Wine wife Juliette Kaplan as Baron Hardup and the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella (New Theatre, Hull, 1995).

Fyfe made his Summer Wine debut in a 1985 episode called “Catching Digby’s Donkey”, which also introduced the characters of Pearl and Marina.

Other television credits included appearances in Z Cars, Survivors, The Gentle Touch, The Return of Sherlock Holmes and Monarch of the Glen.

In December 2012, when he was 82, Fyfe appeared as the lollipop man Malcolm Lagg in Coronation Street. The character was seen training Dennis Tanner, played by Philip Lowrie, to take over his job.

Fyfe also appeared in several films, including Xtro (1982), The 51st State (2001), the remake of Around the World in 80 Days (2004) and Babel (2006). His last appearance was in 2012 in Cloud Atlas.

Robert Fyfe married, in 1957, the stage designer Diana Rush; she predeceased him by a few weeks, and he is survived by their three sons.

Robert Fyfe, born September 25 1930, died September 15 2021

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