Obituary: Robin Ray

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PANEL GAMES, once the high spot of channels like BBC2, are today reduced to daytime programme fodder. For reasons, ask not the millions of loyal viewers for whom series like What's My Line? were topped only by game shows such as Call My Bluff. These series made stars of Barbara Kelly (Mrs Bernard Braden), with her extraordinary earrings, Lady Barnett (Isobel to us fans) and her suspiciously frequent "informed guesses", but also of the chairmen such as former sports reporter Eamonn Andrews or former pianist Joseph Cooper.

One of the best, Call My Bluff, started on BBC2 (then the channel for the intelligensia, or at least for those with a shade more taste than your average BBC1 viewer) on 17 October 1965. Described by the Radio Times as "a duel of words and wit", it starred as regular team captains Frank Muir, the comedy scriptwriter, and Robert Morley, the humorous actor of stage and screen. Supporting them were the actress Celia Johnson, usually rather cool of performance, and the Daily Mirror agony aunt, Marjorie Proops. In the chair sat a young, slim, handsome fellow with the alliterative name of Robin Ray.

The game itself was American by birth, created by that inseparable twosome of early television, Mark Goodson and Bill Todman. The words, all curiously unfamiliar but extracted from the Oxford English Dictionary, were illustrated by the newspaper cartoonist "Emmwood". Each team took it in turns to guess which member of the opposing side was defining the unusual word correctly. Sounds not much fun? Well, you try defining wistiti, potichomania and jarrah. In the event the show ran for 24 years before disappearing, but has recently been revived as a morning programme, in which the chairman and personalities involved are regularly undetailed by the currently uninformative Radio Times.

Robin Ray became every young lady's ideal chairman. The eldest son of the hugely popular radio comedian Ted Ray (real name Charles Olden), he was born in London in 1935. His brother is the actor Andrew Ray, and he married the actress and children's television presenter, Susan Stranks.

Educated at Highgate School, Ray showed an early interest in acting and an unexpected taste for classical music, both of which would play major roles in his future career. He studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and became their chief technical instructor from 1961 to 1965. Meanwhile he had made his London stage debut in the 1960 production of The Changeling. He later spent a while in America as an Associate Director for the Meadowbrook Theatre in Detroit.

Face the Music was introduced by BBC2 on 3 August 1972. The chairman, or more precisely piano-stool man, was Joseph Cooper, "giving you a not too serious opportunity to match your musical wits against the team", to quote Radio Times again.

Although lacking the conscious clutch of comedians that was a strong suit of Call My Bluff, the carefully chosen cast of the newsreader Richard Baker, Paul Jennings, a humorous columnist from Punch, and Joyce Grenfell, character comedienne of acknowledged brilliance, worked perfectly. Especially when from the third show Robin Ray made his debut as a panellist. His unexpected knowledge of classical music would dazzle viewers for year after year.

A chance meeting as panellists of Face the Music brought Ray and Andrew Lloyd Webber together, something that eventually led to Ray's authorship of Cafe Puccini. This, his first full-length play with music, about the life of Puccini, was written in a white-heat over eight days, and became an unexpected hit of 1986. Ray had also been the dramatic critic of Punch, then the nation's leading humorous magazine. Later came a number of books, including Time for Lovers (1975), Music Quiz (1978) and Words on Music (1984) .

Between 1966 and 1995 Ray reckoned that he had written and presented over 1,000 programmes for both the BBC and commercial radio, and in 1988 he was appointed musical adviser to Classic FM Radio. For that independent station he compiled a repertoire of 20,000 selected tracks from a library of 50,000 CDs representing 1,750 composers.

Other achievements include several runs as chairman of The Movie Quiz for BBC2, in which he exploited his hobby knowledge of cinema to the full, and the show Let's Do It, which he co-wrote and narrated at the 1994 Chichester Festival. Asked recently how he described himself on his passport, Robin Ray followed his father. "I call myself an entertainer," he said. By curious coincidence, Ted Ray is currently to be seen, hale, hearty and hilarious on Granada's revival of Jokers Wild. Dad and his lad would be proud of each other.

Denis Gifford

Robin Ray, broadcaster and writer: born London 1935; married 1960 Susan Stranks (one son); died Brighton, West Sussex 29 November 1998.