Warm, debonair, Ray Lonnen was a valuable presence on stage and television, always reliable at playing humane detectives, and precise as a comedy player. His great gift was subtlety, exemplified in his biggest television role, playing undercover army officer Harry Brown, posted to Belfast to hunt down an IRA assassin in YTV's first-class dramatisation of Gerald Seymour's novel Harry's Game (1982). That success made his lack of film roles not only regrettable but baffling.
Born in Bournemouth in 1940, he became fascinated by acting after regularly sneaking into the cinema he passed each evening on his way home from attending Stourfield School. He failed his 11-plus, and left school at 15: at his parents' insistence he learnt shorthand typing to have "something to fall back on" before enrolling at the Hampshire School of Drama. At nineteen, he joined the company at the Belfast Arts Theatre, an apprenticeship which proved useful 20 years later when he needed a convincing Ulster accent for Harry's Game.
After Belfast he repped in York, where he was Fabian in Twelfth Night and accompanied John Alderton in the revue Three for Luck (1961). He left York in 1962 with a wife (one of three marriages within the company that season!) to star in a summer run of What a Racket with Albert Modley and John Inman at the Arcadia, Scarborough, and went on to the Connaught, Worthing, where he tackled The Claimant, a play based on the Tichborne affair. (A Victorian brouhaha in which a wealthy family disputed a lowly Australian immigrant's claim to be their missing heir.)
He had a busy time at the refurbished Palace, Watford, which was becoming a buzzy place under the direction of Giles Havergal. Lonnen's Banquo was warmly praised in a Macbeth classed as "a stand-out production amidst a boldly uncommercial season" in 1965. The same year the company presented a James Bond spoof, From Rush Hour with Love, a cheeky musical of the then-still-banned Fanny Hill, and decamped to the Theatre Royal, Stratford, for A Christmas Carol, in which he was Bob Cratchit.
Television was cottoning on to him by now, and he won a role in a new ATV soap opera, Honey Lane (1967-69). After that, small-screen work came thick and fast: he was a favourite for coppers and military types, and was a semi-regular in Z Cars for five years from 1972.
He auditioned unsuccessfully for the role of Mike Baldwin in Coronation Street in 1976, but two years on won a leading role in YTV's espionage thriller, The Sandbaggers (1978-80). These were wonder years for Yorkshire Television's drama department, which was headed by the skilful David Cunliffe, and The Sandbaggers was one of their most accomplished successes. Staggeringly bleak and playing no favourites when it came to bumping off leading characters, the series was dubbed "the best spy series in television history" by the New York Times in 2003. It also left ripples of unease after the alleged vetoing of one episode and also the inexplicable disappearance of its creator, Ian Mackintosh.
The series led directly to Lonnen being cast in Harry's Game. Beautifully gilded by the lamenting theme music courtesy of Clannad, it was a mature, poignant thriller, every promise of violence and every growling pursuit misting over with a sense of sadness at the perpetual stalemate of the conflict, and it deservedly won the Golden Leopard's Eye at the Locarno International Film Festival.
Lonnen's crucial next move was something of a disappointment. The Brief (1984) was a major step for TVS in being their first prime-time drama series, but its tales of a British barrister dealing with courts martial of servicemen in Germany didn't catch on, and although he maintained a steady career in television, it never again gave him roles as meaty as those which the theatre he returned to served him up.
He got to show off his skills in musical theatre throughout the 1980s; after Guys and Dolls at the Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh (1981) he returned to his alma mater, the Palace, Watford, in 1986 for a revival of Wonderful Town alongside Maureen Lipman that transferred to the Queen's ("Ray Lonnen showing off an excellent voice in the Broadway manner," wrote one critic), and he was equally praised in Bells are Ringing at Greenwich in 1987. In Rattigan's In Praise of Love at the Apollo in 1995 he "manfully overcame the deficiencies" inherent in the imbalanced script, and at the Manchester Royal Exchange in 1996 he delivered a terrific Clark Gable in Misfits, a fun imagining of the behind-the-scenes horrors on the titular film 35 years earlier.
His Z Cars co-star Douglas Fielding directed him in a Far East tour of the comedy-thriller Catch Me if You Can in 1997, and says in memory of his friend: "Ray was so elegant on-stage and off. He was a tower of strength to any company he was a member of. Everything was so lovingly understated with him, no histrionics, just a lovely acting style." Lonnen himself was philosophical about the ups and downs of acting. He once said, "I've tried to keep a sense of humour about it and not be cynical and bitter as that's a very unattractive path to go down. No one promised us an easy ride".
His ride may have had the odd bump, but he never lost that attractiveness.
Raymond Stanley Lonnen, actor: born Bournemouth 18 May 1940; married 1962 Jean Conyers (marriage dissolved), secondly Lynn Dalby (marriage dissolved; two sons, one daughter), 1994 Tara Ward; died London 11 July 2014.Reuse content