John Ringham: Actor best known as Penny's father in 'Just Good Friends'

Tuesday 06 January 2009 01:00
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As Norman Warrender in the popular sitcom Just Good Friends, John Ringham played the father of the witty, sophisticated Penny, who took back her ex-fiancé Vince Pinner, five years after he had left her standing at the altar. Penny's parents' middle-class background was diametrically opposed to that of the lovable wide-boy Vince, whose father was a rough-and-ready scrap-metal dealer who drove his wife around in a flashy car, with rock'n'roll music booming out.

The class difference and sniping between the families was a sourceof much comedy and Ringham's dithering as the hen-pecked husband of snooty Daphne (Sylvia Kay) wasone element that made Just Good Friends (1983-86), written by John Sullivan, more than just a starring vehicle for Jan Francis and Paul Nicholas. In it, Ringham displayed the qualities as a supporting actor that were tosustain him through scores of television programmes over five decades, covering the whole range from comedy to drama.

He even claimed to be pleasedthat he had been dropped from Dad's Army after the first episode (1968), in which he had been cast as Adam Bracewell, who was intended to be a regular character, when it was decided there were too many in the platoon and Bracewell too similar to Godfrey in his polite manner.

"When my agent told me that I had an offer to play a rather stupid, middle-aged man who was 'something in the City' for a new comedy series called Dad's Army, I was chuffed," recalled Ringham. "Then I discovered my character, Bracewell, was to be a regular, running through the series. This raised some doubts in me. We hadn't even begun yet but, if the series was to prove successful, I could find myself typecast, and I'd always managed to avoid that so far. I'm a jobbing actor."

Ringham's desire to step into and out of programmes was fulfilled when he was brought back for four episodes as Captain Bailey (1969-70), an army officer with jurisdiction over the platoon's Captain Mainwaring (Arthur Lowe). He also acted Captain Turner in two episodes (1974, 1975) of the sitcom's radio run.

John Ringham was born in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire in 1928 and was just 17 when his father, a travelling book salesman, died of cancer. As a teenager, he joined a local drama group in an attempt to meet girls, but found he had a real talent for acting. However, his career was put on hold while doing National Service with the Army in Palestine. He subsequently spent four years with the Compass Players travelling theatre company (1948-52), before acting in repertory in Manchester, Bristol, Northampton and Coventry.

Eventually, television beckoned and Ringham first played Trebonius in Julius Caesar ("BBC Television World Theatre", 1959) and took a bit-part as the Brickmaker in the final episode of a BBC serialisation of Bleak House (1959), in which his first wife, the actress Elizabeth Shepherd, also appeared.

A year later, Ringham was elevated to the role of the Duke of Gloucester in An Age of Kings (1960), a 15-part anthology of Shakespeare's history plays – and, in those days of live television, had to draw on that previous repertory experience to keep his cool when an actor missed a cue to step into a scene. He ad-libbed for 90 seconds with Edgar Wreford, who played the Archbishop of York, and described it as his "apocalyptic moment", adding: "God knows what gibberish we talked, nor do I know if the gibberish was in Shakespearean iambic pentameter. It seemed interminable. It's a very long time when you know 10 million people are watching."

Television roles then came fast and furiously for Ringham. He took character parts in dozens of popular series, even playing multiple roles in the police dramas Z Cars (1962-74), Dixon of Dock Green (1965-75), Softly Softly (1967-74) and Barlow at Large (1973-75). He also acted Dr Forrest in the BBC's 1968 serialisation of The Railway Children, Laurence Hyde, Earl of Rochester, in The First Churchills (1969) and the lawyer Finney in The Barchester Chronicles (1982), and he switched to comedy as Major Maxwell in The Piglet Files, a sitcom starring Nicholas Lyndhurst as a spy (1990-92).

Ringham will be remembered by young audiences for appearing in the children's programmes The Flaxton Boys (1971), Flambards (1979), Woof! (1989-93) and The Secret of Eel Island (2005-07), as well as by Doctor Who fans. He appeared in three serials of the cult sci-fi programme, playing a bloodthirsty priest, Tlotoxl, in "The Aztecs" story (1964), the revenue officer Blake in a 17th-century pirate adventure, "The Smugglers" (1966), and Ashe, the leader of colonists on a desert planet, in "Colony in Space" (1971).

The actor performed on stage with the National Theatre company in A Jovial Crew and The Shape of the Table (both 1991), and wrote two plays, From Where I'm Standing and Herr Bach and Mr Handel, which were performed at regional theatres.

Anthony Hayward

John Henry Ringham, actor: born Cheltenham, Gloucestershire 10 February 1928; married 1959 Elizabeth Shepherd (marriage dissolved 1962), 1966 Hedwig Felizitas Nowacki (two sons, two daughters); died London 20 October 2008.

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