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Obituary: Ian Carmichael

Ian Carmichael as Lord Peter Wimsey
Ian Carmichael: A class act

The words "absolutely spiffing" and "old bean" may not trip off the tongue so easily these days but, as Britain's favourite upper-classers Bertie Wooster and Lord Peter Wimsey, the actor Ian Carmichael made them his own.

The young actor had turned his back on his family's shopkeeping business in Hull to attend the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, and to sing in talent contests at the Hammersmith Palais de Danse.

Wartime duties interrupted Carmichael's career but, fortunately for him, his regiment was stationed at Whitby.

There, he was responsible for arranging troop entertainment and, in the Spa Ball Room at Scarborough, he met his first wife Pym.

A string of buffoons

The end of the war brought Carmichael a lot of work. As well as playing television roles at the BBC's Alexandra Palace, he toured in revue and enjoyed a string of West End successes.

An early role for Ian Carmichael in Privates Progress
A leading role in Privates Progress

His agent claimed that Carmichael "carried a look of enough perpetual worry for three men and a boy".

The young Yorkshireman drew on his public school background to play a string of buffoons.

But, behind the twittery, his colleagues admired a master of exquisite comic timing, and Carmichael soon came to the attention of the Boulting brothers.

Under the auspices of this young production team, Carmichael was propelled to stardom in a series of hit films. These included Privates Progress (1955), Lucky Jim (1958) and I'm All Right Jack (1959).

Although he made a dozen films in six years, Carmichael always lamented that he suffered from typecasting.

"The definitive Wooster"

He complained, "People expect you to be a bit of a fool, and I long to be serious."

Ian Carmichael as Bertie Wooster
Carmichael's foppery brought him fame as Wooster

Nevertheless, he continued to play the upper class twit to great effect, this time on television.

As well as portraying the elegant sleuth of Dorothy Sayers' novels, Lord Peter Wimsey, he starred for nine years in The World of Wooster.

Although P G Wodehouse called Carmichael's portrayal of Bertie "the definitive version", the actor still bemoaned that "Bertie had only one facet - he was a complete bloody idiot".

During the 1970s, he appeared in the film remake of The Lady Vanishes, and toured with Stewart Granger in the stage production of Somerset Maugham's The Circle.

Nostalgic appeal

Later, Carmichael employed his distinctive tones on the audio books of Wind in the Willows, and of Lord Peter Wimsey.

In 1991, he made a television comeback after 13 years to play the antagonistic laird Sir James Menzies in the television drama Strathblair, following this with a role in Wives and Daughters.

Ian Carmichael in Strathblair
Laird of the manor: Carmichael in Strathblair

Living in Mill Hill for 19 years, Carmichael was never far away from his beloved cricket and was a long-time member of the Lords Taverners charity.

When he moved back to Yorkshire, where he lived with his second wife, novelist Kate Fenton, he remained hooked on the game.

This very English pastime seems entirely appropriate for a modest actor, whose success relied on the portrayal of native eccentricity.

And although Ian Carmichael regretted that "they only ever saw me as the buffoon", his appealing combination of aristocratic charm and flannelled foolishness brought enduring pleasure and nostalgia for a bygone age.

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