Tony Britton: Actor who became a familiar face of TV sitcoms

He starred in ‘Don’t Wait Up’ and ‘Robin’s Nest’, and also enjoyed a long career in film and on the stage

Anthony Hayward
Thursday 09 January 2020 17:30
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Britton in ‘Robin’s Nest’, a huge hit on ITV in the late 1970s and early 1980s
Britton in ‘Robin’s Nest’, a huge hit on ITV in the late 1970s and early 1980s

Tony Britton, who has died aged 95, was a stage and screen actor for more than half a century, most famous in television sitcoms for his roles as fathers embroiled in tricky relationships with their children.

Known for exuding charm on- and off-screen, he was paired with an actor who had perfected that persona when he and Nigel Havers were cast as Toby and Tom Latimer, Harley Street dermatologist and NHS GP, in Don’t Wait Up (1983-90).

The twist is that they are both facing the prospect of life after marriage. Right-wing Toby moves into liberal son Tom’s flat after leaving wife Angela (played by Dinah Sheridan), in the wake of Tom’s divorce from Helen (Jane How).

Over six series, the pair are in perpetual conflict, arguing over medicine, politics – “going private” is one issue that embraces both subjects – and life in general.

As Tom tries to bring his parents back together, he falls for his father’s secretary, Madeleine (Susan Skipper), whom he eventually marries. His efforts also succeed in reuniting Toby and Angela, who never reached the divorce court.

George Layton wrote Don’t Wait Up specially for Britton after scripting later episodes of the Brian Cooke-Johnnie Mortimer creation Robin’s Nest (1977-81), in which the actor played James Nicholls, father of Vicky (Tessa Wyatt). Despite disapproving of her chef boyfriend, Robin Tripp (Richard O’Sullivan), James invests money in their Fulham bistro.

Less successful, but with a similar premise, was Don’t Tell Father (1992), a rare miss from writer Roy Clarke. It featured Britton as ageing, egotistical actor Vivian Bancroft, unhappy with the new boyfriend brought home by his daughter, Kate (Caroline Quentin), while Susan Hampshire played his wife, Natasha.

Anthony Edward Lowry Britton was born in 1924 in an upstairs room at the Trocadero pub in Temple Street, Birmingham, run by his parents, Doris (nee Jones) and Leslie.

He attended Edgbaston Collegiate School but switched to Thornbury Grammar School, Alveston (now Marlwood School), when the family moved to a pub in Weston-super-Mare, Somerset.

Interviewed on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs in 1973, Britton told presenter Roy Plomley: “Ever since I was old enough to think, I’ve always wanted to be an actor. I couldn’t tell you why – it was just there.”

The ambition to perform was spurred on by seeing local acts singing on a small stage in the corner of the pub.

While working for an estate agent, then in an aircraft factory, Britton acted with an amateur dramatics group in the town.

At the age of 18, he made his professional debut there, at the Knightstone Pavilion, in the Esther McCracken play Quiet Weekend (1942), but his career was then interrupted by wartime service in the Royal Artillery – although he formed a drama group while in it.

On demob in 1946, he became an assistant stage manager at the Library Theatre, Manchester, where he soon had the chance to show his talents as an actor before moving on to other rep companies, including the Bristol Old Vic (1950-51).

Britton made his London debut in 1952 as the pharaoh Ramases in Christopher Fry’s biblical drama The Firstborn, at the Winter Garden.

Then, two seasons at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon (1953-54), saw him taking roles such as Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice, Lysander in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet and Thersites in Troilus and Cressida.

Four decades later, he played Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night with the Royal Shakespeare Company at both Stratford-upon-Avon (1994) and the Barbican Theatre, London (1995).

In between, he was lauded for his portrayal of Henry Higgins in the Alan Jay Lerner-Frederick Loewe musical comedy My Fair Lady both on tour (1964-66) and during a run at the Adelphi Theatre (1979-80).

The Stage regarded his second time in the part as the best performance of his career, “with resourcefulness being allied to sheer gusto” as he sang with confidence, developing Higgins “in strength and authority since he first played the role”.

He was also seen in the West End as Lord Illingworth in A Woman of No Importance (Vaudeville Theatre, 1967), Philip Markham in Move Over Mrs Markham (Vaudeville, 1971) and Jimmy Smith in No, No, Nanette (Drury Lane Theatre, 1973).

Britton’s civilised German commander, Colonel Rudolph von Schmettau, on the occupied Channel Islands in the William Douglas-Home play The Dame of Sark (Wyndham’s Theatre, 1974), was another triumph. He and Celia Johnson, in the title role, reprised their performances for a 1976 television version.

Writer Donald Wilson’s suspense serial The Six Proud Walkers (1954) had given Britton his first regular TV role, as a detective investigating a diamond necklace robbery.

He then starred in two Francis Durbridge thriller serials – as public school housemaster David Henderson, at the scene of a murder, in The Other Man (1956) and novelist Guy Foster, suspected of his wife’s murder, in Melissa (1964).

Before his string of sitcom parts, Britton also starred as downbeat backbench Labour MP Christopher Tomlinson in Arthur Hopcraft’s award-winning 1974 TV play The Nearly Man. When it was turned into a series the following year, Tomlinson became Collinson to avoid any connection with a real-life MP.

Britton’s 1948 marriage to Ruth Hawkins ended in divorce. He is survived by their children, writer Cherry and TV presenter Fern, as well as actor Jason, from his 1962 second marriage to Danish portrait sculptor Eva Birkefeldt, who died in 2008.

Tony Britton, actor, born 9 June 1924, died 22 December 2019

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