Obituary: Derek Nimmo

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The Independent Culture
PLAYING THE clerical buffoon, poking gentle fun at the Church on television in the Sixties, made Derek Nimmo a household name. During his small-screen heyday and beyond, Nimmo also enjoyed a long and successful career in London stage comedies and was something of a modern-day Ralph Lynn, the monocled farceur with the idiot grin who in feature films and Aldwych Theatre productions of the Twenties and Thirties brought laughs to adoring audiences with his portrayals of bungling bachelors.

Nimmo's trademark was his plummy voice with the hint of a stammer and a repertoire of amiable idiots which brought him a string of starring roles in television situation comedies. A devout Anglican, he admitted to being typecast and described his own personality as "twittish".

He was at his most successful as clerical clots such as the chaplain of the hallowed cathedral St Ogg's in the long-running All Gas and Gaiters and the novice monk testing the patience of the kindly old Prior to the limits in Oh Brother! "The Church has an in-built advantage for comedy," said Nimmo in the Swinging Sixties:

In this permissive world of ours, it is one of the few institutions which has rules by which it tries to live. It is the breaking down of those rules that makes it funny. In a way, All Gas and Gaiters and Oh Brother! are a great compliment to the religions depicted. The characters in them try to keep the rules, even though they fail. But the rules are there in the first place.

When television had exhausted Nimmo's stock-in-trade of "silly asses", he not only continued his stage career but showed entrepreneurial initiative by launching a business that took productions featuring British stars on tours abroad. As a result, he never experienced the rough patches that most actors go through after fading from the public eye.

It was an insurance policy that paid dividends for the Liverpool-born actor who on leaving school had followed his father into the insurance business. "You just have to prove yourself to your father," he said later. "So I went into his business and passed all my exams. Then I was free to be myself." As a result, after doing National Service in Intelligence in Cyprus, he worked as a salesman for a paint company at pounds 12 a week.

While running a Saturday-night dance in a disused church hall in Penny Lane in Liverpool, Nimmo met his wife-to-be, Patricia Brown, when she tried to sell him tickets for an amateur play. "We had our first date in the shelter mentioned in the song," recalled Nimmo, who was educated at the Quarry School, later attended by the Beatles John Lennon and Paul McCartney. She introduced him to amateur dramatics and, in 1952, he left his day job and turned professional as an actor, making his debut as Ensign Blades in Quality Street at the Hippodrome, Bolton, for just pounds 4 a week.

Work in repertory theatre followed, with companies in Nottingham, Oldham, Worcester, Clacton-on-Sea, Rotherham and New Brighton. On moving to London, Nimmo filled the time between occasional acting jobs by working at the Grade Organisation as assistant to Lew Grade - then simply a show-business agent - becoming road manager for the American singer Al Martino and working as a publicist for pop groups and pantomime producers. He also formed an agency that ran jazz concerts across the country, performed in a rollerskating act with his wife and worked with the ventriloquist Peter Brough (of Educating Archie) and as straight man to the comedian Arthur Haynes. During this time Nimmo, his wife and their first child, Timothy, lived and moved around in a caravan pulled by an old Buick.

Stage success finally came when Nimmo made his West End debut by taking over the role of Gaston in Waltz of the Toreadors, at the Criterion Theatre in 1957. This began a long run on the London stage, including appearances in Duel of Angels (Apollo, 1958), How Say You? (Aldwych, 1959), The Amorous Prawn (Saville, 1959), The Irregular Verb to Love (Criterion, 1961), See How They Run (Vaudeville, 1964, and Shaftesbury, 1984), Charlie Girl (Adelphi, 1965-71, for its entire run of more than 2,000 performances), Babes in the Wood (Palladium, 1972), Why Not Stay for Breakfast? (Apollo, 1973-55), Same Time, Next Year (Prince of Wales, 1978), A Friend Indeed (Shaftesbury, 1984) and The Cabinet Minister (Albery, 1991-92).

His potential for buffoonery was spotted early and he would have been a natural for the Aldwych farces of several decades earlier and the spin- off films made by Ralph Lynn and others. Although Nimmo acted in more than 20 pictures, most notably The Amorous Prawn (1962, based on the stage farce), the Peter Sellers comedy Heavens Above! (1963, made by the Boulting Brothers), Richard Lester's Beatles film A Hard Day's Night (1964) and the James Bond spoof Casino Royale (1967), times had changed and his talents were never appreciated on the big screen.

Instead, television provided a home for his style of comedy. Nimmo played the single girl Sheila Hancock's new neighbour and boyfriend, David, in the second series of writing team Ronald Wolfe and Ronald Chesney's The Bed-Sit Girl (1966) and, perhaps more appropriately, acted the "silly ass" Bingo Little in the second series of The World of Wooster (1966), based on P.G. Wodehouse's classic stories and starring Ian Carmichael and Dennis Price as Wooster and his manservant, Jeeves.

In the same year, Nimmo landed the role of the Rev Mervyn Noote, the bumbling chaplain to the Bishop (played by William Mervyn) at St Ogg's Cathedral, in The Bishop Rides Again, presented in the BBC's "Comedy Playhouse" slot. It was so popular that the writers, Edwin Apps and Pauline Devaney, turned it into All Gas and Gaiters (1967, 1969-71), which ran for five series. It was the first time that television situation comedy had taken a swipe at the clergy, albeit gently. As well as Mervyn and Nimmo, this comedy-in- the-cloisters featured Robertson Hare, and Ernest Clark as the Dean, who regularly crossed swords with the trio.

At the same time, Nimmo enjoyed starring in other situation comedies, beginning as the doddery but cunning earl's son Frederick in Blandings Castle (1967). Billed under "The World of Wodehouse" banner, John Chapman's six-part adaptation of P.G. Wodehouse's stories about Clarence, ninth Earl of Emsworth, starred Ralph Richardson. Nimmo's character from The Bed-Sit Girl was revived by Ronald Wolfe and Ronald Chesney as the eternal student David in Sorry I'm Single (1967), set in flats in a converted house in Hampstead also occupied by three women on the lookout for a husband.

However, these programmes never achieved the same success as All Gas and Gaiters, which made a star of Nimmo and resulted in the remarkable phenomenon of a completely new comedy-of-the-clergy being written specially for him while the original was still being screened. David Climie and Austin Steele created the role of an accident-prone novice monk in Oh Brother! (1968-70), which ran for three series, with Nimmo's character, Brother Dominic, making life at Mountacres Monastery difficult for the Prior, Father Anselm (the veteran actor Felix Aylmer), and the Master of the Novices (Colin Gordon). In a sequel, Oh Father! (1973), Nimmo was ordained Father Dominic and left the monastery to become curate to Father Harris (played by another long-time film star, Laurence Naismith). His popularity had won him the Royal Television Society's Silver Medal in 1970 and the Variety Club of Great Britain's Showbusiness Personality of the Year award the following year.

As if he were not seen enough on television, Nimmo was given his own interview series, If It's Saturday, It Must Be Nimmo and Just a Nimmo, and more situation comedies followed. Leaving men of the cloth behind, he played Henry Prendergast, husband of the newly elected MP Jane (Pauline Yates), in My Honourable Mrs (1975), dallying with other women while his wife attended to her parliamentary duties.

Then he teamed up with Rosemary Leach as the middle-class couple Chris and Katy Bunting who face up to parenthood at the age of 40, in two series of Jan Butlin's Life Begins at Forty (1978, 1980). Butlin then created another comedy, Third Time Lucky (1982), for Nimmo, in which he and Nerys Hughes acted George and Beth Hutchenson, who had divorced one another and their subsequent respective partners, and were now planning to marry each other again.

Nimmo returned to type when Butlin wrote the situation comedy Hell's Bells (1986), casting him as Dean Selwyn Makepeace of Norchester Cathedral, whose quiet life with his irritable sister Edith (Phyllida Law) and fiancee Maudie Mountjoy (Penelope Horner) is disrupted by the arrival of a new bishop, Godfrey Hethercote (Robert Stephens), and his wife Emma (Susan Jameson), who are determined to create closer relations with their errant congregation.

After an impressive run of 20 years, Nimmo was rarely seen on television again but continued to work in the theatre. As well as appearing on the London stage, he was closely involved in running Intercontinental Entertainment, the company he had formed in 1976 to take British stage productions such as See How They Run on tour abroad, featuring such stars as David Jason, Leslie Phillips, Dora Bryan, Alfred Marks, Jimmy Jewel, Peggy Mount, Michael Denison, Dulcie Gray and Googie Withers. These shows have been seen in about 30 countries, mostly in Africa, Australia, America and the Middle and Far East. Such behind-the-scenes work also led Nimmo to become a founder- member and director of the London-based Theatre of Comedy.

He made a surprise return to television in the role of Lord Ledgerwood in the Australian serial Neighbours, seen meeting Madge and Harold Bishop when they visited Britain in 1991, and later guest-starred in an episode of The Good Guys (1993), starring Nigel Havers and Keith Barron.

As well as acting briefly on BBC radio in the legendary serial The Dales, since 1968 Nimmo was a regular panellist in the long-running Just a Minute. A popular after-dinner speaker, he also wrote many books, including Derek Nimmo's Drinking Companion (1979), Shaken and Stirred (1984), Oh, Come On All Ye Faithful: a humorous church collection (1986), Not in Front of the Servants (1987), Up Mount Everest Without a Paddle (1988), As the Actress Said to the Bishop (1989), Wonderful Window Boxes (1990), Table Talk (1990) and Memorable Dinners (1991).

He was an enthusiastic collector of paintings, Derby porcelain and English 17th- and 18th-century walnut furniture and, as a connoisseur of food and drink, became a member of the Academie Culinaire of France and the Wine Guild of Great Britain.

Derek Robert Nimmo, actor, producer and author: born Liverpool 19 September 1930; married 1955 Patricia Brown (two sons, one daughter); died London 24 February 1999.