Sunday, November 08, 2020

"After Life's Fitful Fever, He Sleeps Well"

With his mournful, more-in-sadness-than-anger facial expression and deliciously lugubrious vocal delivery, Geoffrey Palmer was one of the best-known actors of his generation on British TV. He cut his teeth on the stage before launching a career as a character actor in a variety of roles in film and television. He was perhaps most famous for a series of massively popular sitcoms including Butterflies, The Fall & Rise Of Reginald Perrin and As Time Goes By. A reserved man who valued his privacy, he usually remained out of the public gaze when not appearing on stage or screen and rarely gave interviews.
Geoffrey Dyson Palmer was born in London in June 1927, the son of a chartered accountant. After attending Highgate School he did his National Service in the Royal Marines, where he became an instructor, taking recruits through field training and the intricacies of using small arms. He qualified as an accountant, but he'd always had a hankering for trading the boards and his then girlfriend persuaded him to sign up with a local amateur dramatic society. There was a job as assistant stage manager at The Grand Theatre in Croydon, before he set out on the traditional actor's apprenticeship, touring in rep. In 1958 he moved into television with a role in ITV's The Army Game, a sitcom based on the lives of National Service soldiers which launched the careers of a number of famous actors and led to the first Carry On film. There followed a variety of TV character parts in episodes of series like The Avengers (four separate roles), The Saint, Gideon's Way and The Baron. He appeared three times in Doctor Who - as Edward Masters in Doctor Who & The Silurians (1970), The Administrator in The Mutants (1972) and Captain Hardaker in the 2007 Christmas episode, Voyage Of The Damned.
He also appeared as a property agent in Ken Loach's groundbreaking BBC Wednesday Play, Cathy Come Home. His world-weary demeanour made him instantly recognisable although it did not reflect his real character. 'I'm not grumpy,' he once claimed in a rare interview. 'I just look this way.' Despite an increasing amount of TV and film work, he continued to perform in the theatre, where he received critical acclaim for his role in John Osborne's West Of Suez, appearing alongside Ralph Richardson. He went on to work with Paul Scofield and Laurence Olivier before being directed by John Gielgud in a production of Noël Coward's Private Lives and with Alison Steadman and Roger Lloyd Pack in Alan Bennett's Kafka's Dick.
He came to the attention of a wider audience as Jimmy Anderson, the clueless militaristic buffoon of a brother-in law of Leonard Rossiter in The Fall & Rise of Reginald Perrin, which started in 1976 (who could ever forget his proto-Trumpian 'forces of anarchy' speech?) He followed that triumph with the part of the reserved, conservative dentist Ben in Carla Lane's bittersweet comedy, Butterflies. Palmer's character would sit gloomily at the end of the family dinner table, unable to comprehend his adolescent sons or his wife's midlife crisis. His world-weary take on events acted as his defence mechanism against the mayhem surrounding him. He was still much in demand as a character actor. His film appearances included O Lucky Man!A Fish Called Wanda, The Madness Of King George and Clockwise. On the small screen he played Doctor Price in the Fawlty Towers episode The Kipper & The Corpse (getting one of the best comedy lines in TV history, angrily telling Manuel: 'I'm a doctor and I want my sausages!') and he appeared in The Professionals, The Goodies and Whoops Apocalypse. He was the lead in the Channel Four comedy Fairly Secret Army (1984). Though not a specific spin-off from The Fall & Rise Of Reginald Perrin, his character, Major Truscott, was very similar to Geoffrey's portrayal of Jimmy in that series and the scripts were written by Perrin's creator David Nobbs.
He also made a memorable appearance as Field Marshal Haig in Blackadder Goes Forth, casually sweeping model soldiers off a plan of the battlefield with a dustpan and brush. In 1992 he began a role in As Time Goes By, alongside his close friend, Judi Dench. It followed the progress of former lovers who rekindled their relationship after a thirty-year gap. It became one of the BBC's most popular comedies and was still being shown twenty five years later. Palmer also appeared with Dench in the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies and as Sir Henry Ponsonby in Mrs Brown. With a voice as distinctive as his appearance, Geoffrey was much in demand as a narrator. He was heard on the BBC series Grumpy Old Men and he recorded a number of audio books including a version of A Christmas Carol for Penguin. He also voiced some notable adverts, urging people to 'slam in the lamb' in a commercial for the Meat & Livestock Commission and he introduced a British audience to 'Vorsprung durch Technik' in adverts for Audi. His CV also included appearances in The Killing Stones, Murder Bag, St Ives, The Strange World Of Gurney Slade, The Odd Man, Family Solicitor, Garry Halliday, The Edgar Wallace Mysteries, The Human Jungle, Suspense, Thirty Minute Theatre, Pardon The Expression, Sergeant Cork, Public Eye, The Rat Catchers, Emergency Ward Ten, The Troubleshooters, Coronation Street, Z Cars, Paul Temple, The Expert, Shadow Of The Tower, Out Of The Unknown, Doomwatch, Colditz, Menace, The Liver Birds, Edward VII, Play For Today, Bill Brand, Angels, Van Der Valk, The Sweeney, Bless Me Father, PD James Mysteries, The Kenny Everett Television Show, Oxbridge Blues, Executive Stress, Hotel Metal, Inspector Morse, Look At The State We're In!, He Knew He Was Right, Ashes To Ashes, Rev, Poirot and dozens more.
Away from acting, Geoffrey was a keen fly fisherman, once appearing in a DVD series, The Compleat Angler, in which he retraced Izaak Walton's classic Seventeenth-Century book. In 2011 he joined the campaign to try to halt plans for the HS2 railway line, the proposed route of which ran close to his home in Buckinghamshire. In 2000 the British Film Institute polled industry professionals to compile a list of what they felt were the greatest British TV programmes ever screened. Palmer was the only actor to have appeared in all of the top three - Fawlty Towers, Cathy Come Home and Doctor Who. A stalwart of the Garrick Club, he was made OBE in 2004 for his services to entertainment. Geoffrey Palmer had no formal training as an actor but his innate skills kept him in almost continuous work for more than six decades. His policy was never to turn down a part. 'I love working,' he once said 'and, if I'm not working, I'm not earning.' Amongst his final productions was to play the head geographer in the first Paddington movie in 2014 before reverting to dignified outspokenness as the Lord Chief Justice in Richard Eyre's The Hollow Crown. He is due to appear in the forthcoming Roald Dahl movie An Unquiet Life, as Dahl's Repton headmaster (and the later Archbishop of Canterbury) Geoffrey Fisher. He married Sally Green, a health visitor, in 1963 and is survived by her and their two children, Charles - a TV director - and Harriet and his daughter-in-law, the actress Claire Skinner.
The comedian, impressionist and actor John Sessions, who died of a heart attack aged sixty seven, claimed that he had trouble being John Sessions. 'The hardest part you'll ever play, honey, is yourself,' he told an interviewer in 1994. Instead, he transformed himself, brilliantly, into other people. His breakthrough 1987 one-man West End stage show The Life Of Napoleon, for instance, was described by a critic thus: 'In the course of a few sentences Sessions is liable to change voices from Olivier to Lofty of EastEnders, include a pun and a simile, refer to Picasso and Faulkner and move from the battle of Jena to a golf course. It is exhausting, exhilarating and mostly very funny.' Sessions made his name on TV on Channel Four's Whose Line Is It Anyway? (1988 to 1991), in which contestants (other regulars included Stephen Fry, Tony Slattery and Josie Lawrence) would improvise sketches suggested by the studio audience. He was in his element, imagining how James Joyce would spend a day at the beach, or how Hemingway might behave at the dentist. When the contestants were asked to impersonate the person they would least like to be trapped with in a lift, Paul Merton memorably said: 'Hello, my name's John Sessions!' John took it on the chin: 'A lot of people found me infuriating - they thought I was a smart-aleck, but I did try not to be.' And yet, on that show - and others including From The North favourite Qi on which he appeared frequently - he never wore his intelligence lightly, outsmarting the erudite Fry in the first episode of Qi (2003) by knowing Michelangelo's dates of birth and death. Whilst his impression of Alan Rickman in a later episode was one of the greatest two minutes of telly you've ever seen.
Unlike many of his peers, John had not been to Oxbridge and he had failed to complete his PhD thesis on the poet John Cowper Powys. Had he become Doctor Sessions, wrote one armchair analyst, 'perhaps he would not feel compelled to display his erudition; but then he would have been lost to the stage, which would have been a pity.' The smart-aleck image stuck, so much so that when Spitting Image produced a puppet of Sessions in 1989, he was represented disappearing up his own Gary Glitter. Sessions was singular in having served on the show both as impressionist (his forty-voice repertoire included Prince Edward, Laurence Oliver, Norman Tebbit and Keith Richards) and a target. His appearance as a rubberised member of Kenneth Branagh's 'Brit Pack' discombobulated Sessions: 'Suddenly on the telly I saw this brilliant puppet with this funny tie and baggy cheeks and it was me going up my ass. That was quite scary. I thought, "Am I going up my ass?"'
Such self-doubt was somewhat typical. Sessions was prone to depression, said that he reportedly loathed his appearance and was given in interviews to self-laceration. In 1999 he told The Sunday Times: 'Some nights, I can't get to sleep and lie there looking back on my life and eventually nod off thinking, "I'm completely useless and hopeless, talentless and should fuck off."' He was not mollified when the interviewer told him no one else had ever had that thought about him. He was born in Largs, Ayrshire. His father, John Marshall, was a peripatetic gas engineer and a Protestant; his mother, Esmé, was a Glaswegian Catholic ostracised by her family when she married. He had a twin sister, Maggie and an older brother, Bill, who was twelve when the twins were born. 'I remember thinking I mustn't cause my parents any trouble, because they were that much older.' He liked to be at home with his mother: 'We used to have a sort of confidentiality of humour. We'd find funny the unacknowledgedly absurd. Which I think is the type of stuff I do and which still makes me laugh.' When John was three, the family moved to England, eventually settling in St Albans, where he was educated at Verulam school. He did his first impersonation aged seven, singing Lonnie Donegan's 'Hang Down Your Head, Tom Dooley', partly to impress his father. He went to Bangor University to read English with the aim of becoming a teacher. Then his father organised a personnel job for him at the gas board. 'I told dad it was boring and the next thing he knew was that I was going off to do a PhD in Ontario.' He found Canada cold and depressing and said that his uncompleted dissertation consisted of 'two hundred pages of rubbish.'
Aged twenty six, he returned to the UK and applied to RADA. He arrived at his audition with a hangover. 'I did Benedick's "This can be no trick" from Much Ado. Hugh Cruttwell [RADA's principal] said: "That was terrible. You weren't acting, you were doing an impersonation of what an actor sounds like."' But a second performance, from Pinter's The Homecoming, won him a scholarship. Better, it led to a lifelong friendship with Branagh, a fellow student, who later directed him on-stage in The Life Of Napoleon, in the film version of Henry V (1989) and his comedy In The Bleak Midwinter (1995). Finding there was another John Marshall in Equity, he changed his name to Sessions. When he left RADA, he said, 'my plan was to try and do two careers at once - to be a comedian and an actor. For some years, I managed to juggle the two, but I never felt I joined either club.' He worked the comedy circuit in London, sometimes appearing on the same bill as French and Saunders, often doing rarefied material, such as imagining Milan Kundera's version of the TV soap Dallas. He would cement his brand as abstruse improv virtuoso with the TV shows John Sessions' Tall Tales (1991) and John Sessions' Likely Stories (1994). In 1994, in an interview promoting his performance in Kevin Elyot's AIDs drama My Night With Reg, he was asked by an interviewer if he was gay. 'I said "Yes I am, but my parents don't know and I don't want them to find out by picking up a copy of the Evening Standard." The journalist said she thought I should tell them and outed me. My mother died unexpectedly six weeks later and my father quickly developed dementia. It was never mentioned.'
Sessions explained his compunctions about telling his parents about his sexuality. 'They weren't going to go to their graves hating me or throw me out of the house, but they were born before the First World War and they might have died thinking it was their "fault."' One night at The Criterion Theatre during My Night With Reg, Sessions forgot his lines and had to leave the stage. 'It wasn't stage fright, because I'd been on for six weeks. It was because everything got too much for me. I'd been home for Christmas and found that my father, who was suffering from a mental illness after my mother died, had filled the fridge full of presents for her.' After that, he did not return to theatre for many years. 'I should have gone to the RSC or the National and done four or five plays, really worked my arse off. Some good old-fashioned graft would have done me the power of good. But I couldn't face a play again.' Only in 2013 did he return to the stage, in his friend the novelist William Boyd's play Longing. 'I thought it was going to lead to all kinds of interesting things, but I wasn't killed in the rush.' He never recaptured the fame of his first few years in TV. 'I had a twinkly couple of years, but then I ran out of steam,' he told the Gruniad Morning Star in 2014. 'As I was getting older, I wasn't getting more confident, I was getting less confident. I lost my way.' Arguably, he found it again through his talent for mimicry, when he starred in and co-wrote Stella Street, the 1997 to 2001 BBC series which imagined a street in Surbiton populated by movie and rock stars. His Keith Richards (opposite Phil Cornwell's Mick Jagger) who owned the corner shop was a sight to see.
Mimicry served him well in later triumphs on TV and in the cinema. He was superb as Geoffrey Howe in Margaret (2009), Harold Wilson in Made In Dagenham (2010), Ted Heath in The Iron Lady (2011), Norman Tebbit in The Hunt For Tony Blair (2011) and, in 2015, he was note perfect as Arthur Lowe performing Captain Mainwaring in We're Doomed! The Dad's Army Story. His later roles were mainly minor ones, but he stole the show as Doctor Prunesquallor, oleaginous royal physician to the House of Groan in the 2000 adaptation of Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast. In 2010, he played Kenny Prince in Sherlock - a huge fan of Conan Doyle, he had won the previous year's Celebrity Mastermind with the Sherlock Holmes stories as his specialist subject. Sessions appeared in the teen drama Skins in 2011 as one of two adopted fathers of Franky Fitzgerald. He also appeared as a Brummie vicar in an episode of Outnumbered. His CV also included appearances in Laugh??? I Nearly Paid My Licence Fee, Happy Families, Girls On Top, Porterhouse Blue, The New Statesman, Boswell & Johnson's Tour Of The Western Isles, In The Red, Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased), Dalziel & Pascoe, New Tricks, Lewis, Rab C Nesbitt and Doctor Who (a voice-over part on the episode Mummy On The Orient Express). Away from stage and screen, Sessions claimed to be a loner. 'I like the solitary life,' he once said. Latterly, the man of a thousand characters found consolation in playing the role of an ageing buffer drifting to the right politically. He had once proudly supported Labour but later voted for UKiP, claiming that 'the European Union is the biggest money-wasting piece of shit' and that the Scottish parliament should be scrapped. 'I'm pretty much one character really,' he reflected. 'A grumpy old fool.' Sessions died of a heart attack at his South London home on 2 November. The day after he died, his friend the broadcaster Danny Baker described him as 'terrific company and always a true talent.' The team behind Qi praised his 'incredible wit and encyclopaedic knowledge [which] played a huge part in the show's history.' He is survived by his sister and brother.
Earlier this week, dear blog reader, Keith Telly Topping received his review copies of the first four episodes of the new - third - series of Star Trek: Discovery, sent over from America. And, they were very good. As previously stated on From The North, this blogger rather liked Discovery from the start though did take a few episodes for it to work out what exactly, it wanted to be (the fact that the entire first episode was, effectively, a pilot for a series we never got notwithstanding). But, once the characters had started to establish themselves (by around the Harry Mudd episode), it was getting there and the Mirror Universe stuff was excellent. This blogger, however, adored last year's second series; yer actual proper Star Trek, that was. Again, this year, it appears to have reformatted itself into a completely different show (for the third time in three years so, to be fair, it's consistent at least). Effectively, it is now what Voyager should've been, but wasn't! There are many things wrong with the world, dear blog reader, but at least the Star Trek franchise appears to have remembered what it did that made it's productions so all-pervasive in the first place.
Whatchama'gunnag'do in these desperate times, dear blog reader? Well, having a - really deserved - beef and prawn chow mein for Us Tea at the Stately Telly Topping Manor Plague House was a totally decent start ...
On a related note, on a scale of one-to-ten, with one being 'he didn't really deserve this' and ten being 'he really, really, really deserved this,' yer actual Keith Telly Topping his very self scored this here prawn and chicken with mushrooms in oyster sauce a ten. Borderline eleven.
A couple of days before Lockdown II ('it's back and this time, it's serious') this blogger ventured into town for, probably, the last time until early December to get the - government allowed - Stately Telly Topping Manor Plague House supplies in. And, he took a few photos whilst doing the rounds of Poundland, Boots, M&S, Lloyds, the Halifax, the Post Office, Greggs, Morrisons and KFC(!) to remind his very self in the coming weeks of aloneness what other people actually look like. And, yes, trust Keith Telly Topping, the irony of this particular image was lost on no one in the vicinity.
Keith Telly Topping spent several days this week watching back-to-back episodes of a new soap opera - America's Choice 2020 - on CNN, dear blog reader. The characters weren't very believable - one over-the-top cartoonesque supervillain in particular - and some of the plotlines stretched credulity up to and, indeed, well-beyond breaking point. Nevertheless it was one of those programmes that, in spite of oneself, you just couldn't drag your eyes away from. The bloke who played Wolf Blitzer was terrific although, come on, what sort of name for a TV character is that? Couldn't they have called him something normal, like Ken? Defiantly modernist in its approach, the multi-part series finale - Georgia On My Mind/Philadelphia Freedom - was pitched somewhere between a revenge tragedy and a somnambulist nightmare, adroitly capped by a pseudo-realist aesthetic. This blogger thought it was great.
And, it was smashing to watch with a really deserved and well-tasty salt and chilli king prawn dish into the bargain.
Of course, it still wasn't The West Wing, obviously.
'Do not, do not, do not act like it!'
One of the lady reporters on CNN said at one point on Saturday: 'When you talk to the Biden camp, they'll tell you "it's a done deal."' That was the first time this blogger had heard that particular phrase used in relation to a presidential erection since 2000 and Dubbya's infamous (if, ultimately, accurate) comment about the Florida count ('Ma brotha Jeb says "it's a done deal"'!) It's funny how some quotes stick in your head, isn't it?!
Things This Blogger Learned From Watching CNN For Four Days Straight: Apparently, it's pronounced 'Ne-Vah-Dah' and not, as Keith Tell Topping always assumed 'Ner-Var-Dah'. Who knew?
And finally, dear blog reader, a moment of seriousness amid all this erection malarkey. Here is something which this blogger doesn't often indulge in on From The North - an, entirely personal, political opinion (and please do feel free to disagree with every word of it if you wish): Donald Rump has been a - thankfully, non-terminal - cancer on the Presidency of America for the past four years. He appears, from the evidence of his public utterances alone, to be a vile and odious piece of work without a single ounce of dignity, nuance or class about him. He is someone who makes George W Bush look supremely Presidential and the late Richard Nixon appear as a beacon of honesty and trustworthiness. Rump seems to be a deeply paranoid narcissist with an ego the size of Africa. He is, unquestionably, graceless, immature, petulant, toxic and arrogant, a bombastic bully and a proven liar. And the fact that he, seemingly, intends to staple himself to a chair in The Oval Office despite the votes of a majority of the American people should, in no way, be a surprise to anyone given his previous track record. Yet he, seemingly, appeals to many people who share his - vastly unattractive - metaphoric black-and-white view of what is, actually, a beautifully multi-coloured world. If he was simply the controversial billionaire owner of a multinational corporation, he'd be something of an abstract curiosity (albeit, one with ridiculous hair and a mush like he'd just been tango'd). If he was simply the face of a reality TV show he'd be a crass - if harmless - clown. If he was a second-term President of the United States, however, he'd be bloody dangerous. So, it appears (taking nothing for granted and any potential legal challenges notwithstanding) we may have had one Hell of a lucky escape. Congratulations and sincere thanks from the rest of the planet, therefore, to this blogger's many excellent fiends in the US - in California, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Arizona and elsewhere - for rejecting bigotry and choosing reason. For rejecting fear and choosing hope. For rejecting stupidity and choosing integrity. We now return you, dear blog reader, to From The North's normal schedule programming of really deserved takeaways and reviews of telly shows. It's been emotional.
Oh, hang on though, dear blog reader - this just in ...
Keith Telly Topping must conclude with a final thought: Every time a TV commentator noted on Saturday evening that whilst President-Elect Biden had received the highest ever vote for a Presidential candidate in an erection they then, presumably for balance, added quickly that soon-to-be-former-President Rump had got the second largest vote, this blogger was reminded of that bit in The Simpsons when Homer joined NASA and was introduced to Buzz Aldrin, 'the second man on The Moon.' 'Second comes right after first,' says Buzz, helpfully ... Yeah. It does.