Obituary: Geoffrey Palmer, star of Butterflies and As Time Goes By

Geoffrey Palmer, actor. Born June 4 1927 in London. Died November 5 2020 in Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire, aged 93.

Geoffrey Palmer pictured in 2004
Geoffrey Palmer pictured in 2004

With a career spanning seven decades, Geoffrey Palmer was one of Britain’s most in-demand film and TV actors. He co-starred with Judi Dench in the hit sitcom As Time Goes By in the 1990s and 2000s, but more often he appeared in supporting roles alongside such iconic figures as Reggie Perrin, Paddington Bear and even James Bond.

With his famously hangdog features, Palmer was unlikely to be cast as an action hero, although somehow he had risen to the rank of admiral in the 1997 Bond movie Tomorrow Never Dies. And he was ex-military, too, in The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin and As Time Goes By.

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Palmer always seemed to be there, in the background, appearing in literally hundreds of films and TV shows. Before his long-running stint as Dench’s hesitant suitor in As Time Goes By, he was Wendy Craig’s husband in another popular sitcom Butterflies in the 1970s and 1980s. In the latter his character was a dependable, slightly irascible, emotionally repressed dentist, whose passion was butterfly collecting and whose wife was tempted by the possibility of an affair with a more exciting man.

In The Fall and Rise of Reginal Perrin, Palmer played Jimmy, turning up at mealtimes and announcing matter-of-factly that there had been “a bit of a cock-up on the catering front”. And one imagines that his character may well have been in the Catering Corps rather than the SAS. It was one of the phrases adopted by a public who loved the screen adaptation of David Nobbs’s novels about the eponymous sales executive, played by Leonard Rossiter, who stages a mock suicide and returns with a new identity. Jimmy’s catchphrase could be readily adapted to any cock-up situation. Jimmy was Reggie’s brother-in-law, always there or thereabouts, but rarely in the limelight, reflecting Palmer’s career. His characters often appeared lugubrious, quietly melancholy, laid back to the point of stupor.

The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin ran for three seasons from 1976 to 1979. The character of Jimmy was the template for Palmer’s inept ex-army officer in Fairly Secret Army in the 1980s, also created by David Nobbs. The idea emerged from a suggestion by Jimmy in The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin that they set up and train a secret army to protect Britain from anarchists, but the character’s name was changed to Major Harry Truscott because it was developed for Channel 4 and the BBC had the rights to the Perrin characters.

Rossiter died in 1984, aged 57. But the rest of the cast reunited in the 1990s for The Legacy of Reginald Perrin, in which Reggie has left a fortune to family and friends, but with strings attached. It lasted only one season.

The son of a chartered surveyor, Geoffrey Dyson Palmer was born in 1927 in London. He acted at school, spent two years in the Royal Marines and worked in an accountant’s office before becoming a professional actor in English rep. He began appearing on TV in the mid-1950s, had regular roles on several drama series in the early 1960s, played four different characters in The Avengers and appeared with Alfie Bass in both The Army Game and its spin-off, Bootsie and Snudge.

In the early 1970s he was a senior civil servant in Doctor Who and the Silurians and he had 20 years of TV behind him when he got the role of Major Jimmy Anderson in The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin.

“Leonard was a perfectionist who demanded perfection from those around him,” he said. “During the first series he told me that the way I was playing Jimmy wouldn't work, that I wouldn't get any laughs. But he was absolutely right. The more I worked with him the more I respected him. He was a comedy genius.”

By the time Reginald Perrin finished, Palmer was already appearing in Butterflies. Butterflies, Fairly Secret Army and As Time Goes By provided him with steady work from the late 1970s to the mid-2000s. He also had numerous guest roles in other TV shows and small parts in films.

He was a Fawlty Towers guest who clashes with Manuel at breakfast time in the episode The Kipper and the Corpse. He waits for ages for his sausages, only to be told by Manuel that breakfast time is over and they have a tussle over the tablecloth. In the end he cooks his own sausages and it turns out they are off. Fairly Secret Army was made by John Cleese’s production company and Palmer worked with him again when he played a judge in A Fish Called Wanda. Palmer was another incompetent soldier, Field Marshal Haig, in the powerful final episode of Blackadder Goes Forth.

In As Times Goes By, Palmer was a retired army officer and coffee planter, and Dench an independent businesswoman. They had been in love decades earlier, before he was posted to Korea. They meet again and find there is still something between them, though Palmer’s Lionel is certainly not rushing into anything.

One critic commented that Palmer’s presence in a sitcom was always a sign of decency and that no one would spit on the pavement. In recent times Palmer was the voice of the Vorsprung durch Technik Audi car adverts, the narrator on Grumpy Old Men and a geographer in the 2014 Paddington film.

His passion was fly-fishing and some wit suggested he modelled his look on the trout he caught. Asked if he was like his rather downbeat characters, he replied: “Obviously with these roles, a lot of what you see is the actor himself.”

He is survived by his wife of 57 years and two children.

Brian Pendreigh

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