The forerunner to Jeremy Beadle, Jonathan Routh was prankster-in-chief on Candid Camera, the television programme that tricked members of the public with its jokes and hoaxes – from a car running downhill into a garage forecourt, where the mechanic was perplexed to find no engine when he opened the bonnet, to Routh dressing as a tree, standing at a bus stop and asking: "Does this bus go to Sherwood Forest?"
Candid Camera (1960-67) borrowed its format from an American show of the same name and was first presented by the comedian Bob Monkhouse. Routh and, initially, Arthur Atkins, were the frontmen for the hidden-camera tricks, which were meticulously planned.
It was one of the earliest examples of reality TV, exploiting the public's gullibility in unbelievable situations, and attracted up to 15 million viewers. However, some of the duped failed to see the joke and the former heavyweight boxer Sid Richardson once gave Routh a black eye, adding: "I think it's a rotten programme."
The British series ran for seven years giving Routh such notoriety that the the programme returned a decade later as Jonathan Routh and Candid Camera (1976), following an earlier revival in 1974 presented by Peter Dulay and with only Arthur Atkins from the original.
Born John Routh in Gosport, Hampshire, in 1927, he was the son of a British Army colonel and spent some of his childhood in Palestine. After winning a scholarship to Uppingham School, he read history at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where he was editor of the student magazine Granta and gained acting experience in the Footlights revue but left without taking a degree.
Routh's hoaxes and pranks began during his time at university, when he took a group of undergraduates to "measure" Bletchley for a bypass, then collected signatures protesting at the fake proposal.
Changing his forename to Jonathan, Routh went in to journalism and became show-business editor of Everybody's Magazine. The spoofs and hoaxes continued when he presented Candid Microphone on Radio Luxembourg – based on the American radio show that transferred to television as Candid Camera – and he started to play pranks in public, which earned him more publicity.
His subsequent fame from the British television version of Candid Camera led to Routh being cast in two films. He appeared in the James Bond spoof Casino Royale (1967) and as Captain Gore-Taylor in 30 is a Dangerous Age, Cynthia (1967), a comedy written by Dudley Moore, John Wells and Joe McGrath, with Moore starring as a musician who is determined to get married and compose a hit musical before he turns 30 – in six weeks' time.
Routh then returned to television with Nice Time (1968-69), a programme in which he, the disc jockey Kenny Everett and Germaine Greer, then a lecturer at Warwick University, persuaded the public to do silly things. However, his screen appearances thereafter became fewer.
He had already started writing books, going all the way back to his 1953 autobiography, The Little Men in My Life. He later produced the humorous books The Good Loo Guide: where to go in London (1965), The Guide Porcelaine: the loos of Paris (1966), The Better John Guide: where to go in New York (1966) and The Good Cuppa Guide: where to have tea in London (1966).
In 1970, the bohemian Routh began painting and accepted the hospitality of friends, staying in their houses around the world, from London to Sardinia and Rome. Adopting a naïve style, he painted nuns in unorthodox situations and reproduced some of them in an illustrated series of "Nuns" children's books, including The Nuns Go To Penguin Island (1971) and The Nuns Go Car Racing (1973). Similarly, he featured Queen Victoria in a string of paintings – one of them featuring the "unamused" monarch water-skiing – and the book, The Secret Life of Queen Victoria (1979).
The life of Routh, who spent many of his final years in Jamaica, seemed to be devoted to carrying out pranks and witnessing the reactions of those he had hoodwinked. Writing in The Independent in 2003, Miles Kington recalled Routh joining a Punch magazine staff outing to Margate as a guest and insisting that everyone should visit the home of Edward Heath's parents, at the time he was Prime Minister.
Kington wrote: "We should, he said, pretend we were a coachload of French tourists who had come for that sole purpose, and make inquiries for their whereabouts at Broadstairs Tourist Office".
"I will take someone with me, preferably a French-speaker," said Routh. I volunteered. "Leave all the talking to me, Miles," said Routh. "Pretend you don't understand any English. Talk to me in French if you like. I shall talk to them in English with a heavy French accent. But listen carefully. After a few sentences I will talk to them in plain English without an accent, and they will never notice. They never do."
"Yes, sir," said the polite tourist official, when we got to the counter.
"We are a group of French tourists who 'ave come to visit ze 'ouse of ze parents of Monsieur 'Eass, your Prime Minister. Please, where ees eet?"
"Oh, good God," said the man, sotto voce and looking a bit faint. "Brian, can you come and help? There's a bus-load of French tourists who . . . It's not open to the public, monsieur!"
"No matter," said Routh. "We will just have a look. And have our photographs taken."
"Oh no, you can't . . . they might not like that, you see, it's a private house . . . Brian! Can you come and help?"
As the conversation progressed, Jonathan got less and less French, and more and more English, until he had reverted to his normal speech. Neither Brian nor the other official noticed that he was no longer French – they talked loudly, and slowly, and heatedly, and addressed him as "Monsieur", until he went away.
John Reginald Surdeval Routh (Jonathan Routh), television presenter, writer and artist: born Gosport, Hampshire 24 November 1927; married 1948 Nandi Heckroth (died 1972, two sons), 1975 Shelagh Marvin; died 4 June 2008.