But Cadell was as much at home in serious theatre as in television comedy. If on the screen he specialised in characters whose very fallibility made them appealing, on stage he was an accomplished actor who never did straight "impersonations", which he believed were dull; rather, he tried to give the audience a sense of a fully-rounded character.
Playing the part of Noel Coward in Noel and Gertie, a show which was put together by Coward's godson, Sheridan Morley, and which opened at the Comedy Theatre in December 1989, Cadell said: "You have to take what you think of the man's personality as you perceive it, and use those things and lose the rest." Cadell was himself witty, urbane and a bon viveur.
Born in 1950, Simon Cadell came from a family with a rich theatrical tradition spanning three generations. His father, John Cadell, was the son of the West End actress Jean Cadell and a distinguished actor's agent, while Simon's mother, Gillian, was the Principal of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. His sister Selina is also an actress.
As a boy in his teens at Bedales School, in Hampshire, Simon was puppyish and chubby and disliked playing rugby. At the age of 16 he ran away because he could not stand the routine. This seemed to be a recurring theme throughout Cadell's career: he was always seeking new challenges and believed "for an actor, getting stale is the cardinal sin".
His first stage appearance was in 1967 with the National Youth Theatre in the original production of Zigger Zagger by Peter Tearson. He joined the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School the same year and got his first acting job in 1969.
Cadell's ability to make people laugh was, his fellow actor John Wells said, partly in his comic sense of timing and partly being able to keep a straight face. His natural sense of irony led him to see parallels between many of the parts he played. "Fairbrother was an honest academic out of his depth - Hamlet was just another character out of his depth," he said.
In the tradition of Bob Hope or Jacques Tati, he subscribed to the belief that "It is the clown, the failure, the good-natured, averagely attractive man whom British women feel at home with as an entertainment figure."
Playing the part of Fairbrother in Hi-de-Hi! (which was screened from 1980 to 1983 and had an extended run of 35 episodes), Cadell believed he looked every inch the innocent abroad: his thinning hair brushed back and parted on the side, dressed conservatively in tweed jackets, checked shirts and ties, always managing to look awkward among his team of self- confident "yellow-coats", and wearing an expression of consternation and embarrassment. Consistently the anti-hero, he was the only member of the cast not to have any jokes written into his script. "It is the most difficult way to be funny," he said, "and that's why I get a kick out of it. I like to do difficult things and then move on." It was on the set of Hi-de-Hi! that Cadell met his future wife Rebecca Croft, daughter of the show's producer, David Croft.
Life Without George (which ran from 1987 to 1989), the television series which further popularised Cadell, was co-written by Penny Croft, his sister- in-law. He felt a certain empathy with his character Larry Wade, a prototype new man: a sensitive, caring estate agent in his thirties. Cadell considered himself a "fairly old new man". He went on to play Dennis Duval, an egotistical womanising actor in an ITV comedy series, Singles (1991). "I enjoyed gently taking the mickey out of myself and every other actor I've met," he said.
In January 1993 he received an Olivier award for Best Comedy Performance, for playing the dual roles of Aunt Augusta and Henry Pulling in Giles Havergal's adaptation of Graham Greene's novel Travels with My Aunt (1992). He took as his model for Aunt Augusta an elderly aunt of his own in Bournemouth. He withered his left arm, jutted his jaw, pursed his lips and fiddled with an invisible string of pearls. He was delighted by one of the audience claiming, "I could see the pearls."
Privately, Cadell was a superb mimic, and could be both funny and moving. He achieved wonderfully realistic impersonations of John Gielgud and could also emulate Noel Coward's breathing and phrasing while singing.
He was the voice of Blackberry in the film of Watership Down (1978), the voice of the Old English Sheepdog in the long-running television advertisement for Dulux paint, and even worked on advertising voice-overs for a baked potato and fresh gooseberries (these voice-overs, he said, allowed him the luxury of turning down bad plays). A modest man, he had no idea of the extent of his own fame and all he would concede was that "it was nice to be working".
Simon Cadell was a self- confessed family man; he took his elder son, aged six, to the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and let him stand centre-stage, where Cadell watched his awed reaction as the stage lights came up and the curtain was pulled back, no doubt to give his son a sense of the theatrical tradition he belonged to.
In January 1993, Cadell suffered a near-fatal heart attack after giving a recital with Joanna Lumley at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, in London. The doctors singled out smoking as a contributory cause - at one stage Cadell smoked 80 cigarettes a day - but he was back at work playing in Travels with My Aunt four months after a triple by-pass operation. In September the same year, cancer was detected. Against doctors' expectations he completed work on a Screen Two film for BBC television in 1994. It was his ambition as an actor to go on improving: he vowed that he would play Hamlet again.
Simon John Cadell, actor: born London 19 July 1950; married 1986 Rebecca Croft (two sons); died London 6 March 1996.