Obituary: John Bluthal
Actor with a gift for farce who appeared in comedies on screen and stage
John Bluthal, the actor who has died aged 89, was one of Spike Milligan's regular comedy partners and a familiar face in a string of film farces of the 1960s and 1970s. In recent years, he was known for his portrayal of Frank Pickle, the bow-tied bore who is one of the parish council odd-bods in the BBC sitcom The Vicar of Dibley.
Pickle's gormlessly staring eyes, droning voice and lack of insight into how others see him provided a rich seam of comedy. As parish secretary, he took down the minutes with excruciating pedantry, and in one episode he is asked if it was true that he had bored his parents to death. "That was never proved," he replies. "I just happened to be outlining parish council procedure, when hand-in-hand they leaned out of the open window."
On one occasion he does genuinely astonish Dawn French's vicar, the Rev Geraldine Granger - when during a broadcast on Dibley radio he reveals that he is gay. Unfortunately, such is his reputation for dullness, Geraldine is his only listener.
He was born Isaac Bluthal into a Jewish family at Jezierzany on Poland's southern border (now in Ukraine) on August 12, 1929; in 1938, aged nine, he fled the Nazis with his parents and sister to Melbourne, Australia.
At school there he discovered a flair for clowning and joined David Herman's Yiddish Theatre, before studying Speech and Drama at the University of Melbourne. Through the 1950s he toured in comedies and revues, with spells in Britain but chiefly in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. Among these was Richard Nash's The Rainmaker, featuring his fellow Australian Leo McKern, and he worked with Michael Bentine.
In 1959, he moved to Britain to settle. In the West End he took over from Ron Moody in Oliver! and that was followed by Shakespearean roles at the National Theatre.
On television, he made his mark early on in 'Sykes and A Bath', a classic 1961 episode of the Eric Sykes and Hattie Jacques series Sykes and A… Sykes, who has trapped his toe in a bath-tap, meets Bluthal in the hospital waiting room: his head, apart from his mouth, is stuck inside a tin pot. Although his normally expressive features are concealed, Bluthal's comic timing is impeccable in exchanges such as: "What happened to you then, mate?" "It's obvious, isn't it?"
But it was in Thames Television's hugely popular sitcom Never Mind the Quality, Feel the Width (1967-71) that he won wide recognition. Written by Vince Powell and Harry Driver, it was a rag-trade comedy with a running joke about religious differences, starring Bluthal as a Jewish tailor in a fractious business partnership with his Irish Catholic counterpart (Joe Lynch).
On the big screen, meanwhile, he exploited his gift for farce in dozens of comedies, including three Carry On films and two of the Beatles's feature films. In Richard Lester's A Hard Day's Night (1964) he plays a nervous car thief who finds the vehicle he has just broken into commandeered by the police in pursuit of the Fab Four. In Help!, the year after, he was a member of an exotic eastern cult. His final feature film role was in the Coen Brothers' Hail, Caesar! in 2016.
He had been one of Milligan's collaborators since they had first met in Australia in the 1950s, appearing in Milligan and John Antrobus's hit play The Bedsitting Room in 1963, in Milligan's film The Great McGonagall (1974) and in his 1970s sketch show Q.
Bluthal experienced Milligan's mercurial personality at first hand while making Q6. On one occasion the great comedian's manager, Norma Farnes, sensing the onset of a depression but finding his dressing-room door locked, had immersed two bottles of wine to chill in the sink of Bluthal's room.
No one had told Milligan, who was accustomed to a glass before the recording, and who complained during the audience warm-up that his manager had failed to arrange this. When Bluthal belatedly placed the bottles outside the star's door, Milligan flung them down the corridor, smashing them to smithereens.
In her memoir of Milligan, Norma Farnes recalled meeting Bluthal in the bar after the recording and agreeing that the tirade had been one of Milligan's best performances of the series. Milligan, for his part, is supposed to have once said of Bluthal: "I love John, but he's so temperamental."
Bluthal later turned up in episodes of Minder, Bergerac, Rumpole of the Bailey, Inspector Morse and Last of the Summer Wine among many other series. He was cast in The Vicar of Dibley in 1994, and it ran on BBC One for two seasons.
His final screen appearance was earlier this year in a short film made by his daughter Lisa, By Any Other Name.
Bluthal, who returned to live in Australia in 1999, had married the actress Judyth Barron in 1956. They separated but remained friends. She died in 2016. John Bluthal, who died on November 15. is survived by his daughters, Nava and Lisa.