Norman Lumsden

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The Independent Online

Norman Thompson (Norman Lumsden), opera singer and actor: born London 16 September 1906; married 1952 Irene Palmer (one son); died London 28 November 2001.

In 1983, a television commercial for Yellow Pages caught the public's imagination and helped to boost Norman Lumsden's fledgling career as an actor. He was then in his mid-seventies, having spent almost 50 years as an opera singer.

The advertisement made such a mark that a recent Channel 4 viewers' poll ranked it as the 13th most popular commercial of all time. The old man played by Lumsden was seen trying to track down from his armchair a much-wanted out-of-print book, Fly Fishing, by J.R. Hartley, with the aid of the British Telecom directory. After tirelessly phoning around antiquarian bookshops, he was finally successful and was asked in what name he would like to reserve it. "J.R. Hartley," he replied. The commercial resulted in Lumsden being offered more character roles as distinguished old gentlemen on television and in films.

He was born Norman Thompson in London in 1906, the son of a butler, and started his working life as a commercial artist. He designed book jackets for the publishers Hodder & Stoughton, including those for Leslie Charteris's "Saint" series. Thompson first found success on stage after surviving emphysema and being advised by his surgeon to take up singing to revive his lungs.

He changed his name from Thompson (as there was another singer already using the same name) to his mother's maiden name, Lumsden, and made his first BBC radio broadcast in the 1930s, singing negro spirituals and Czech songs by Dvorak. He became a regular performer alongside the violinist and orchestra leader Albert Sandler in the series Grand Hotel.

Benjamin Britten recognised in Lumsden the qualities that led one critic to describe him as "that rare British product, a true bass". Britten wrote the role of Peter Quince in his production of A Midsummer Night's Dream (Aldeburgh Festival, 1960) specially for Lumsden, who had previously performed in Britten operas such as Albert Herring (Glyndebourne, 1947) and Billy Budd (Covent Garden, 1951). He took part in Britten's first 13 Aldeburgh Festivals (1948-60).

For a while, Lumsden and his wife, Irene Palmer, a soprano, sang together in cabaret, performing numbers from popular stage musicals. He gained acting work after appearing in a commercial for cracker biscuits in the 1970s. He had already taken bit parts in programmes such as The Sweeney (1978) and the 1982 television film of The Hunchback of Notre Dame when fame came to him as J.R. Hartley.

So popular was the J.R. Hartley television advertisement for British Telecom that public requests for "the book" resulted in the character's fishing memoirs being ghostwritten by Michael Russell under the title Fly Fishing (1991). Lumsden himself became in demand as an after-dinner speaker at angling functions and learnt the sport of fly-fishing. Later, in 1997, he revived J.R. Hartley in another Yellow Pages commercial, set on a golf course, where he often spent his spare time in real life.

Anthony Hayward