Ian Carmichael: Actor who played likeable toffs in golden age of British comedy

A career which began with a performance as a robot in the experimental RUR at the People's Palace, Mile End, followed by Julius Caesar on what was then the London "fringe" at the Embassy Theatre (both 1939) looked as if it was heading in distinctly unorthodox directions.

Yet after 1947, on returning to the stage after the war, Ian Carmichael never again appeared in London in a classic play (Shaw's Getting Married in a 1967 Strand all-star revival the sole exception). A career in light comedy, musicals and revue might be seen by some as a betrayal of his Rada training and talents, but Carmichael – Hull-born and from unlikely beginnings – in fact turned himself into the best player of light comedy of his generation, in the line of Hawtrey, du Maurier and Rex Harrison. His timing, rhythm and comedic energy all seemed effortless, with the relaxed ease within a formidably assimilated technique which stamps great acting of any kind.

He learnt all this the hard way, in the lost arts of intimate revue and light comedy. The sketch/song/sketch format of revue may look easy but it requires extraordinary discipline, versatility and technical virtuosity, not to mention the stamina for choreographic routines and multiple quick-changes. Most of Carmichael's revue scripts were topical and of necessity ephemeral, but occasionally more enduring material came his way. In The Globe Revue (Globe, 1952) – perhaps one of the best of those pre-Beyond the Fringe shows – he had some terrific chances, as part of a trio (made up by Dora Bryan and Graham Payn) performing Noël Coward's There are Bad Times Just Around the Corner with a defiantly gleeful refusal to cheer up against an Age of Austerity climate in which

"There are blackbirds over
The greyish cliffs of Dover,
And the rats are preparing to leave
The BBC"

Alan Melville's comedy Simon and Laura (Strand, 1954), set against the then novel background of the world of television, saw Carmichael perform miracles with relatively commonplace dialogue as a harassed producer dealing with a temperamental TV husband and wife team.

He often deftly drew continuous laughter from what on the page might inspire chuckles at best, in many now-forgotten light comedies such as comedy-thriller The Gazebo (Savoy, 1960) and the American import of Ira Levin's Critic's Choice (Vaudeville, 1961), a piece of Manhattan drollery in which he played a drama critic forced to review his wife's play.

Carmichael was by now an established star of the British cinema, the favourite of the Boulting Brothers team – Brothers in Law, Lucky Jim and I'm All Right, Jack remain some of his finest film appearances, all of them helped by his ability to play dramatists with telling economy. Unfortunately, very few after the 1950s were supplying his kind of vehicle and some plays by previous winners no longer found the right touch. Alan Melville's Devil May Care (Strand, 1963) put him in a witless farrago of Satanic reincarnation, while his Broadway excursion with Boeing-Boeing (Cort, NY, 1965) was a quick flop in a city where the old style of undemanding light comedy was likewise becoming redundant in an age of TV sitcom.

Carmichael was lucky with the inventive, accelerating farce of an adulterous quartet (with an onstage telephone box almost a fifth character) in Waterhouse and Hall's Say Who You Are (Her Majesty's, 1965) which seemed more in touch with contemporary mores and had some superbly-placed sight gags allowing Carmichael some of his classic double-takes.

Having toured in musicals in his early days, the demands of a two-hander show held no terrors for Carmichael. But I Do! I Do! (Lyric, 1968) a Broadway musical tracing the story of a marriage, although inventively directed by Gower Champion using many props (Carmichael played the trumpet at one point) was too sentimental to repeat its New York success.

Even more disappointing was Peter Ustinov's dismal effort to write a sophisticated light comedy in Overheard (Haymarket, 1981). This hapless piece was set in some Ustinovian state with Carmichael as the British ambassador opposite an uneasy Deborah Kerr as his wife, pursued by an impassioned dissident. Even Carmichael could do little to enliven this material.

Much of his finest television work coincided with a genuine Golden Age of British television comedy, not least in his unforgettable (and unsurpassed) portrayals of those great English archetypes, Lord Peter Wimsey and Bertie Wooster. The latter especially, in sublime partnership with the suavely unruffled Jeeves of Denis Price, saw Carmichael's ability to be simultaneously flabbergasted and in profound cogitation – monocle a-quiver, brow and gaze suggesting that Bertie's brain, like the dinosaur's, took a long time to assimilate information – most joyously used.

Awarded an OBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours List in 2003, Carmichael spent his later years living very happily with his second wife, the novelist Kate Fenton, back near his birthplace, in the idyllic North Yorkshire surroundings of Esk Valley.

Alan Strachan



Ian Carmichael, OBE, actor, born Hull 18 June 1920; married 1943 Jean Pyman (Pym) McLean (died 1983; two daughters); married 1992 Kate Fenton; died Esk Valley 5 February 2010

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
glastonbury
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Shock of the news: Jake Gyllenhaal in ‘Nightcrawler’
filmReview: Gyllenhaal, in one of his finest performances, is funny, engaging and sinister all at once
Life and Style
Taste the difference: Nell Frizzell tucks into a fry-up in Jesse's cafe in east London
food + drinkHow a bike accident left one woman living in a distorted world in which spices smell of old socks and muesli tastes like pork fat
Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington has been given a huge pay rise to extend his contract as Jon Snow in Game of Thrones
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Don’t send in the clowns: masks and make-up conceal true facial expressions, thwarting our instinct to read people’s minds through their faces, as seen in ‘It’
filmThis Halloween, we ask what makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?
News
peopleFarage challenges 'liberally biased' comedians to 'call him a narcissist'
Arts and Entertainment
Liam and Zayn of One Direction play with a chimpanzee on the set of their new video for 'Steal My Girl'
music
Arts and Entertainment
Young Fathers are the surprise winners of this year's Mercury Music Prize
music
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior IP Opportunity at Major Firm

vary Attractive Salary: Austen Lloyd: MANCHESTER - AN OPENING AT A VERY HIGH Q...

Nursery Manager

£100 - £110 per day: Randstad Education Ilford: Nursery Manager Long term Ran...

Sales Consultant – Permanent – West Sussex – £24-£25k plus commission and other benefits

£24000 - £25000 Per Annum plus company car and commission: Clearwater People S...

SEN Teaching Assistant

£45 - £65 per day: Randstad Education Bristol: Supply SEN Support Jobs in Bris...

Day In a Page

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

Fall of the Berlin Wall

It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

Frank Warren column

Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

Adrian Heath's American dream...

Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

Fall of the Berlin Wall

History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

Turn your mobile phone into easy money

There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes
Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs:

Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs

"I have never regarded anything I have done in "the media" as a proper job"