Tuesday 6 December 2016

Obituary: Nicholas Smith, actor

March 5 1934, died December 6 2015

Published 13/12/2015 | 02:30

Nicholas Smith played Mr Cuthbert Rumbold in Are You Being Served?
Nicholas Smith played Mr Cuthbert Rumbold in Are You Being Served?

Nicholas Smith, who has died aged 81, was the last surviving member of the main cast of the Jeremy Lloyd and David Croft sitcom Are You Being Served?; although a classically trained actor, for millions he will always be the jug-eared Mr Rumbold, the well-meaning but inept manager of Grace Brothers department store.

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Smith was picked for the role by Croft, with whom he had worked on an episode of Up Pompeii! with Frankie Howerd. For a time, however, it seemed unlikely that the show (also starring John Inman, Molly Sugden, Frank Thornton and Wendy Richard), would be screened.

"The pilot was only given its chance because of the 1972 Munich Olympics tragedy… With the Games cancelled, the BBC had hours of blank screens to fill. So the pilot was plucked from the shelf," he recalled.

As the dim-witted but self-important store manager, Smith was a fixture on the show from its inception in 1972 until the final series in 1985. He took the same role in a film adaptation and in a spin-off, Grace And Favour (1992-93), in which five members of the original cast reunited to manage a country hotel.

Many critics disliked the show's earthy humour and outrageously vulgar double entendres, generally involving the redoubtable purple-haired Mrs Slocombe (Mollie Sugden) and the travails of her celebrated pet cat, always referred to as "my pussy".

But audiences loved it and it won a regular following of up to 22 million per episode.

"People always say Are You Being Served? was from a more innocent time, but although we purposely played it absolutely straight, it was actually fairly filthy," Smith recalled.

"There were various occasions at the first reading of a script when we said, 'We'll never get away with it'. But David Croft would reply, 'Deliver those lines with complete innocence, as though you haven't the slightest idea there is any sense of a double entendre'. And it worked... Mary Whitehouse didn't even complain."

Smith knew instinctively how to play his character - not overbearingly, but rather as a middle manager who does not know what he is doing but applies endless enthusiasm and energy to doing it and getting it wrong. It was hard to imagine a character less like the urbane and witty actor who played him. For Smith was, among other things, an experienced Shakespearean actor, a published poet and an accomplished musician with an excellent singing voice - the composer of some dozen string quartets and other works.

He admitted, however, that he did not have to try too hard to be Mr Rumbold, recalling that it had been the first role in his life when he was allowed to speak with his own accent and wear his own glasses.

The only physical change he needed was turned-up eyebrows, to give Rumbold a perpetually harrassed look.

He had no regrets. Are You Being Served? he said, was "something I was proud to be in" .

Nicholas Smith was born at Banstead, Surrey, on March 5, 1934. His father was a chartered surveyor and both parents were keen amateur actors.

Determined to be an actor from an early age, Nicholas took leading roles in school plays and, after National Service in the Royal Army Service Corps in Aldershot ("A miserable time, the worst I've had"), trained at Rada, alongside Albert Finney and Richard Briers. He started off his career in stage musicals, and alongside his television career, spent two years with the Royal Shakespeare Company, appeared regularly in rep, on the West End stage, at the Bristol Old Vic and on Broadway, in everything from classical productions to pantomime.

Smith would continue to perform in musical theatre throughout his career, at various times playing the "old gentleman" in a musical production of The Railway Children, giving an acclaimed performance as Alfred Dolittle in My Fair Lady at Cheltenham and taking leading roles Gilbert and Sullivan operettas such as The Mikado and The Pirates of Penzance.

His film appearances included The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother, a 1975 American musical comedy film starring Gene Wilder and Marty Feldman.

His other film credits included Salt and Pepper (1968), A Walk with Love and Death (1969), Mel Brooks's The Twelve Chairs (1970), and Pasolini's The Canterbury Tales (1972).

Most recently, he was the voice of Reverend Clement Hedges in the Wallace & Gromit film The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005).

Smith made his television debut in an unscripted role in the 1960s sci-fi series, Pathfinder To Mars.

His first speaking role on television was in three episodes of the 1964 Doctor Who series The Dalek Invasion of Earth in which he played Wells, a former slave of the Daleks who helps the doctor (William Hartnell) lead a rebellion against them.

By the time he was cast as Mr Rumbold, he had appeared in dozens of television series, including The Avengers, The Saint, The Champions, and Z Cars in which he played the uncouth PC Geoff Yates.

Later television credits included Worzel Gummidge (as the headmaster Mr Foster).

In 1959, Nicholas Smith married Mary Wall.

She died in 2008 and he is survived by their daughter, the actress Catherine Russell, best known for playing Serena Campbell in Holby City.

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