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Geoffrey Palmer - An Obituary

Geoffrey Palmer – Actor

Born June 4, 1927; died November 5, 2020 


Geoffrey Palmer, who has died aged 93, was a ubiquitous and instantly recognisable fixture of the small screen. His hangdog features illustrated the Eeyoreish intonations that emerged from a voice laced with disappointed authority. With a delivery that was by turns officious and charmingly sad, Palmer’s slow burning sense of tragicomic timing lent itself perfectly to a seemingly endless seam of emotionally stunted little Britainites he played over his sixty-year career. 

 This was the case in the series of sit-com roles that first gave him a national profile in the 1970s. It began with Jimmy, the ex army reactionary forever struggling with a ‘cock-up on the catering front’ in David Nobbs’ The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin (1976-1979). Palmer later played a Jimmy style would-be vigilante at the centre of the Nobbs scripted Fairly Secret Army (1984-1986). In Butterflies (1978-1983), Carla Lane’s poignant tale of a woman’s attempt to find life beyond her stultifying marriage saw Palmer play Ben, the ploddingly glum husband of Wendy Craig’s achingly unfulfilled Ria.

 While Palmer’s characters did their soul-searching largely on the sidelines, they seemed to embody a constipated kind of collective suburban ennui. This softened for Bob Larbey’s gentle comedy, As Time Goes By (1992-2000), in which Palmer played Lionel, a military man who meets his former lover Jean, played by Judi Dench, after they were separated thirty eight years earlier.  

 Throughout all this, Palmer became the understated face and voice of middle class, middle aged, middle England. This led to other opportunities, with Palmer’s smooth tones putting the phrase ‘Vorsprung durch Technik’ – it translates from the German as ‘progress through technology’ - into popular parlance by way of a TV ad for Audi cars. Audi gave Palmer a new car every year for his efforts. 

 Palmer was also co-opted to provide knowing gravitas to a spoken word adaptation of Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy that introduced one of the 12-inch mixes of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s bombastic fourth single, Welcome to the Pleasuredome (1985). Whether by accident or design, Palmer pronounced the final word as Pleasuredrome. The error added another dimension to Palmer’s unruffled sounding but inherently alarmed delivery. This made him a natural too as off-screen narrator for Grumpy Old Men (2003-2006), his commentary on the niggles of modern life for the unreconstructed male sounding like a dinosaur’s last stand.

 Geoffrey Dyson Palmer was born in London to Frederick, a chartered surveyor, and Norah. He attended Highgate School from 1939 to 1945, before doing two years National Service as a corporal instructor in small arms and field training with the Royal Marines. He initially took up the respectable profession of accountancy, before a girlfriend led him astray into amateur dramatics. 

 His professional career began at 1950s new writing emporium, the Q Theatre in Kew, thenceforth to Croydon and several years in rep before joining the Wilson Barrett touring company in Scotland. On TV, he was a regular in The Army Game (1959-1960), played various policemen in Bootsie and Snudge (1960-1963), and was seen in four different roles in The Avengers (1961-1965). There were guest slots in numerous other shows as a variety of professors, superintendants and other high-ranking officials.

 Palmer’s appearance at the Royal Court in John Osborne’s West of Suez (1971) led to a small role in Lindsay Anderson’s big-screen state of the nation Brechtian epic, O Lucky Man! (1973). He appeared in Christopher Hampton’s play, Savages, the same year, and, in 1974, in Laurence Olivier’s National Theatre production of J.B. Priestley’s Eden End.

 Guest roles on TV included an episode of Fawlty Towers, in which Palmer played an increasingly irate doctor attempting to have breakfast in the face of the chaos caused by a dead body. Palmer went on to work with the programme’s star and co-creator, John Cleese, in Clockwise (1986) and A Fish Called Wanda (1988). 

 Other films included The Honorary Consul (1983), Peter Greenaway’s A Zed & Two Noughts (1985), The Madness of King George (1994), Mrs. Brown (1997) and Tomorrow Never Dies (1997). 

 Palmer was awarded an OBE in 2004, and his later years saw him play a roll call of military types and titled toffs. He was Lord Scarman in an episode of Ashes to Ashes (2008), and Sir John Crowder in Margaret Thatcher: The Long Walk to Finchley (2008). He played a vice admiral in a 2009 episode of Poirot directed by his son Charlie, was Lord Chief Justice in The Hollow Crown, and provided the voice for Sir Buster Sparks, whose grandsons attempt to sell his country pile in The Last Sparks of Sundown (2014). 

 He played the Head Geographer in Paddington the same year, and will be seen posthumously as future Archbishop of Canterbury Geoffrey Fisher in An Unquiet Life, a study of the relationship between writer Roald Dahl and actress Patricia Neal. The couple lived in Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire, where Palmer and his family also settled.

 Latterly, Palmer became involved in a campaign in opposition to the HS2 railway line passing close to his Buckinghamshire home. As with every other role he played, Palmer took part in this piece of community activism with a quiet but commanding gravity.

 He is survived by his wife, Sally, and two children, Charles and Harriet.

The Herald, November 21st 2020




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