Ron Pember, actor who was best known on screen in the Resistance drama series Secret Army – obituary

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Ron Pember in The Flaxton Boys in 1973 - ITV/Shutterstock
Ron Pember in The Flaxton Boys in 1973 - ITV/Shutterstock

Ron Pember, the actor, who has died aged 87, was a stalwart of London’s newly built Mermaid Theatre from its opening in 1959 until his retirement more than 30 years later. At the same time, he was one of British television’s most prolific character actors, whose lived-in face and roguish grin brought both realism and comedy to the screen.

Many of his 150 screen roles saw him drop in on popular series for just an episode, as when he played Baz in Only Fools and Horses in 1983, providing Del Boy (David Jason) with the opportunity for another scam.

While waiting for a local tenants’ association meeting that Baz is to chair, Trigger (Roger Lloyd Pack) finally tells Rodney (Nicholas Lyndhurst) why he has always called him Dave – he simply thought that was his name.

With only the two of them in attendance, Trigger asks Baz if the meeting is going to begin. According to the constitution, says Baz, it cannot start without the vice-chairman.

“Well, how long’s he going to be?” asks Rodney. “Oh, probably a hell of a long time, son,” replies Baz. “He died a fortnight ago.”

Members of the cast of Secret Army, l-r, Angela Richards, Stephen Yardley, Juliet Hammond-Hill, Pember and Bernard Hepton - Don Smith/Radio Times/Getty Images
Members of the cast of Secret Army, l-r, Angela Richards, Stephen Yardley, Juliet Hammond-Hill, Pember and Bernard Hepton - Don Smith/Radio Times/Getty Images

In the event, Rodney is elected to replace him and promptly becomes chairman when Baz resigns. Del Boy sees in this the chance to use his brother’s new-found power to get them and their ailing Grandad (Lennard Pearce) out of their Mandela House council flat and into a bungalow.

A rare long-running role for Pember was Alain Muny in all three series of the much-acclaimed Second World War drama Secret Army (1977-79), about the Lifeline resistance movement in German-occupied Belgium returning Allied aircrew shot down by the Luftwaffe.

Alongside Bernard Hepton as Albert Foiret, the café owner providing a base for the group, and Clifford Rose as Ludwig Kessler, the sadistic head of the Gestapo in Belgium, Pember played Lifeline’s radio operator, a pivotal character keeping contact with London and supplying food to Café Candide. In the final series, a British agent saves him from torture by the Gestapo.

Another of Pember’s cameo roles was in a 1988 episode of the cult TV comedy Red Dwarf as the psychopathic tax collector presenting Arnold Rimmer (Chris Barrie) with an £18,000 demand, telling him in the event of non-payment: “I am instructed by the revenue to break both your legs and pull off your thumbs... Sir.”

He later reappears, jumping out of a sleeping-quarters locker on the mining ship, grabbing Rimmer and smashing him over the hand with a mallet.

Molière's Don Juan at the National Theatre in 1981, l-r, Elizabeth Estensen, Pember, Nigel Terry and Holly de Jong - Donald Cooper/Alamy
Molière's Don Juan at the National Theatre in 1981, l-r, Elizabeth Estensen, Pember, Nigel Terry and Holly de Jong - Donald Cooper/Alamy

Another of the Red Dwarf cast, Danny John-Jules, recalled: “He was such a gentleman with us upstarts. He just rammed his tongue firmly into his cheek and joined the party!”

Ronald Henry Pember was born in Plaistow, then in Essex, on April 11 1934, the youngest of five children, to Gladys (née Orchard) and William Pember, a house painter.

The family moved to Dagenham when he was three and he later gained a love of showbusiness through visiting the People’s Palace theatre in Mile End Road. “Listening to the audience applauding made me want to get up there and do it myself,” he said.

While still attending Eastbrook Secondary Modern School, Dagenham, he gained stage management experience by helping at theatres in the evenings.

Then in 1949 he made his stage début as Fabian in an Arts Council-funded company’s production of Twelfth Night on a tour of pubs in Durham mining villages. While going through various jobs by day – including ice-cream seller and working for a theatre scenery supplier – he acted with an amateur group.

With Penelope Wilton in Major Barbara at the National in 1982 - Donald Cooper/Alamy
With Penelope Wilton in Major Barbara at the National in 1982 - Donald Cooper/Alamy

During National Service in the RAF (1952-54), as a member of ground staff in Egypt, Pember performed as part of a singing-and-comedy trio.

Back in Britain, he became a member of the Penguin Players, the repertory company at Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex, directing some productions as well as acting in them. Among the dancers was Yvonne Tylee, whom he married in 1959.

That year, he made his London professional début with the company at the Mermaid, whose new building in Blackfriars was the city’s first theatre to be built since Shakespeare’s time. It fulfilled a long-held ambition of Bernard Miles, who had played Long John Silver in Treasure Island on television and nine years earlier had founded the Mermaid in a barn at his home in St John’s Wood.

The actor joined for one of the first productions at Blackfriars, playing Harry in Miles’s stage version of Treasure Island, which became a regular Christmas show, sometimes directed by Pember. Another early Mermaid success was the original production of Gerald Frow’s musical comedy Mr Burke, MP (1960), in which Pember played Slasher Jack.

With Derek Thompson and Jill Gascoine in The Gentle Touch - ITV/Shutterstock
With Derek Thompson and Jill Gascoine in The Gentle Touch - ITV/Shutterstock

The popular – but now almost forgotten – Lionel Bart wartime musical Blitz! (Adelphi Theatre, 1962-63) provided Pember with his first West End role, as a firefighter. He then joined Laurence Olivier’s National Theatre company at the Old Vic (1965-68) alongside such luminaries as Frank Finlay, Albert Finney, Maggie Smith, Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi, directed by Peter Wood, Franco Zeffirelli and others.

He would return to the National after it established a base on London’s South Bank, for a longer run two decades later (1981-88). As well as parts in the classics such as Matvei Yegorovich in A Month in the Country (1981), Osip in The Government Inspector (1985) and Florio in ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore (1988), he acted Harry Morrison in the David Hare-Howard Brenton play Pravda (1985), and Ken Ayres in A Small Family Business (1987), by Alan Ayckbourn.

The RSC also called on Pember’s talents as a team player to act a porter in Macbeth and Feste in Twelfth Night, both at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1974 and the Aldwych Theatre in London the following year.

He had success himself as a composer with Jack the Ripper, co-written with Denis de Marne. It opened at the Players’ Theatre, Covent Garden, in 1974 before moving into the West End at the Ambassadors and Cambridge theatres.

Although some questioned whether this was the most appropriate way to bring the story of the Victorian serial killer to the stage, the melodrama and music-hall style proved a winner with audiences.

One critic wrote: “The chirpy Cockney knees-up music sung by bawdy men and women of the night is an oddly unsettling way of telling such a sinister tale, though it does key into the British way of seeing humour in everything and using mockery as a weapon.”

Among the productions that Pember directed during other stints with the Mermaid were Treasure Island on a 1969 tour of the US and Canada, then – back in London during the rest of the decade – Henry IV, Parts I & II, his own play Dick Turpin, John Wilson’s Army deserter drama For King and Country, Harry Nilsson’s musical fable The Point, adapted by Pember and Miles and starring Davy Jones and Micky Dolenz, and (1981), an ambitious play combining Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra.

Days before he was due to star in his own musical version of Scrooge at the Mermaid in 1992, Pember suffered a stroke. As a result, he went into early retirement aged 58.

During his later years at the Mermaid, the theatre’s financial survival was constantly under threat. His 32-year partnership with Miles finished with the death of its founder in 1991. The theatre finally closed in 2003.

Pember’s other television roles included Mr Snawley in Nicholas Nickleby (1977), Mike Connor in the first two series (1980-81) of the sitcom Sink or Swim; Dennis Timson, a regular client of Leo McKern’s defence barrister, in Rumpole of the Bailey between 1987 and 1992; Mr Cullen in the children’s series Bluebirds (1989) and Victor Wilson in All Good Things (1991), another sitcom.

When he played the junk shop owner Chesney Black in the comedy High Street Blues (1989), an in joke among the other screen characters was his likeness to the American Western star Lee Van Cleef.

Pember is survived by his wife and by their son and two daughters.

Ron Pember, born April 11 1934, March 8 2022

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