Ge­of­frey Palmer in­ter­viewed by Va­lerie Grove

Ge­of­frey Palmer is ninety and has been amus­ing us for more than six decades, on TV, film and stage. Va­lerie Grove took him to lunch in High­gate

The Oldie - - NEWS -

Ge­of­frey Palmer is so in­stantly recog­nis­able, so fa­mil­iar, that I want to fling my arms around him on sight. He is wait­ing for me out­side High­gate Tube sta­tion – he was at the sta­tion’s open­ing, he tells me, in 1941— in a jacket and smart jeans, car­ry­ing the Times and a stick, though the stick proves purely dec­o­ra­tive. ‘Too geri­atric,’ he says, ‘even if it is for The Oldie.’

He turns ninety on 4th June. When peo­ple stop him on the Tube and say they ad­mire him, he tells them they must have a long mem­ory. But he has been amus­ing us for more than six decades, and we shall carry on watch­ing him on box sets for ever. As Time Goes By (67 episodes, 1992–2005) is my favourite.

Judi Dench once told me she could never have done that sit­com with­out Ge­of­frey. He tells me he couldn’t have done it with­out her. The story of their late-flow­er­ing love was en­tirely be­liev­able: in their quick glances of mutual af­fec­tion, and the way they laughed at one other’s jokes. (To see how much they laughed dur­ing record­ings, click on the out-takes on Youtube. Judi corpses and fluffs her lines; Ge­of­frey af­fects ex­as­per­a­tion at one point, ask­ing, ‘Is Eileen Atkins free? Mag­gie Smith, per­haps?’)

He at­tributes the se­ries’ suc­cess to its writer, Bob Lar­bey, just as he praises the late David Nobbs, cre­ator of Regi­nald Per­rin, in which Palmer played Leonard Ros­siter’s Right-wing brother-in-law Jimmy. Palmer and Dench were re­united again in a Bond film: To­mor­row Never Dies (1997), where he played Ad­mi­ral Roe­buck, M’s naval ad­viser.

I took him to lunch at Os­tuni, a cool, spa­cious, gas­tro­nom­i­cally so­phis­ti­cated Puglian res­tau­rant op­po­site the gates of his old school, High­gate. This seemed ap­pro­pri­ate be­cause Ge­of­frey Palmer has so of­ten per­son­i­fied the sto­ical, old­school-tie, of­fi­cer-class type. In wartime, he and his el­der brother were evac­u­ated with the school to West­ward Ho! in Devon, but wrote heart­break­ing let­ters to their par­ents and came home. In the clas­si­cal sixth in 1945, he was al­ready in of­fi­cer’s uni­form in the school pro­duc­tion

of R C Sher­riff’s Jour­ney’s End, play­ing Cap­tain Stan­hope. Christo­pher Mo­ra­han, the dis­tin­guished di­rec­tor who died last month, played Raleigh, and died in his arms (Mo­ra­han later di­rected Palmer in the John Cleese film Clock­wise.)

As an Old Cholmelian, while be­ing pho­tographed op­po­site the school chapel (see our front cover), Palmer sings us the school song about founder Sir Roger Cholme­ley, Lord Chief Jus­tice, rid­ing up High­gate Hill ‘se­date and slow’ in 1565.

It was af­ter ser­vice in the Royal Marines that Palmer made his es­cape from a hum­drum ac­coun­tants’ of­fice off Pic­cadilly. A girl­friend who did am-dram sug­gested he join her in the Wood­side Park Play­ers: a sub­ur­ban epiphany. It led him to lo­cal rep – the Q Theatre at Kew, the Grand Theatre, Croy­don – where he learned his craft, a train­ing lost to mod­ern young ac­tors. ‘We were so lucky, learn­ing slowly, over many years, what to do on stage, how to con­trol an au­di­ence.’

His dead­pan ex­pres­sion and in­vin­ci­bly mid­dle-class de­meanour en­sured him end­less roles in that caste: Ma­jor this, Mr Jus­tice that, Pro­fes­sor X, Doc­tor Y, and in­nu­mer­able Chief Supts. In Fifties and Six­ties sit­coms, such as Boot­sie and Snudge and the Army Game, he al­ready dis­played his ge­nius for comic tim­ing.

In 1963, the year of the first Dr Who, he mar­ried Sally Green (not a fel­low thesp; she was a health vis­i­tor) and they are still to­gether – ‘the great­est luck’ – af­ter 54 years, though lament­ing the dwin­dling of friend­ships. ‘All my school friends are dead. At our wed­ding in 1963, there were six ush­ers: they are all gone.’

He and Sally now live in Old Berkham­sted, Hert­ford­shire, in a house whose lo­ca­tion sounds like every oldie’s ideal: ‘A hun­dred yards from the high street, six min­utes’ walk from the sta­tion, doc­tor’s surgery di­ag­o­nally across the road, Waitrose no dis­tance.’

I won­der if read­ers re­alise that it was Ge­of­frey Palmer’s voice which said ‘Vor­sprung durch tech­nik’ in the Audi com­mer­cial 31 years ago? ‘The bril­liant’ John He­garty of Bar­tle Bogle He­garty re-cut the ad to fit Palmer’s voice.

‘You are the voice of Audi,’ the client com­pany told him, and of­fered him a car.

His brother, who knew about such things, told him to ask for an Audi 100. Palmer sold his Saab, and waited. Then they rang and said, ‘Oh dear, your Audi 100 has fallen off the jetty at Har­wich – would you mind an Audi 200 in­stead?’ ‘And they re­placed it every year. Those were the golden days.’

High­gate in his youth had no fancy restau­rants (‘It was wartime, there was ra­tioning, for God’s sake’). Un­til the Tube

came, he trav­elled there by steam train, ‘as in the Rail­way Chil­dren’. In The Grove, the vil­lage’s posh­est ad­dress, lived fa­mous ac­tors and writ­ers: Dame Gla­dys Cooper, Ray­mond Massey, J B Pri­est­ley. More re­cently, res­i­dents come from the worlds of pop and fash­ion: Sting, Kate Moss and – as we see from a greensward decked in flow­ers, ted­dies and bil­lets-doux say­ing ‘We love you, Ge­orge’ – a shrine to the lately de­ceased res­i­dent Ge­orge Michael.

As we walk past this rather sickly dis­play, Palmer is recit­ing to me a much-an­thol­o­gised Ed­ward Thomas poem of 1915: ‘As the team’s head brass...’, and giv­ing me a schol­arly ex­e­ge­sis of the land­scape and pe­riod it evokes. It is easy at such mo­ments to slip into Grumpy Old Men mode – a pro­gramme for which he was an ob­vi­ous choice to do the voiceover. Though, in fact, as he has said: ‘I am not grumpy. I just look this way.’

He says he is too deaf to go to the theatre any more. That day’s Times car­ried a re­view of a newly re­vived play, ru­ined by its in­ex­pe­ri­enced cast of young TV stars – just as Palmer pre­dicted.

‘And that’s an­other thing: who can one trust to tell the truth about a pro­duc­tion? Won­der­ful Mr Bailey of The Oldie,’ he tells me, ‘is the one I turn to. He cuts through the crap.’ Un­like an­other na­tional pa­per critic, who ‘should not be al­lowed out at night. I keep plan­ning to write a let­ter from An­gry of Berkham­sted’.

When our pho­tog­ra­pher, Dafydd Jones, ar­rived, Palmer praised his pic­ture of race­go­ers at Chel­tenham in the May Oldie. He told us he had been to Chel­tenham last year, the first race meet­ing in his life be­cause he owns ‘the fet­lock’ of a five-year-old race­horse called West End Story, who won his first race by six lengths.

Over our pasta and Prim­i­tivo, I men­tion his pub quiz ac­co­lade: he is the only actor who was in each of the top three of the 100 best Bri­tish TV pro­grammes ever (in the BFI list). In Cathy Come Home, he was a prop­erty de­vel­oper (‘Oh yes – half-a-day’s work, three lines’); in Fawlty Tow­ers, he was the un­for­get­table ho­tel guest Dr Price, in­sist­ing on his break­fast sausages while Basil tries to con­ceal a corpse; and in Dr Who, he can’t re­mem­ber whom he played. ‘I know I’ve died three times in sep­a­rate Dr Who se­ries. Once I died com­ing through the bar­rier at Maryle­bone Sta­tion. Once I col­lapsed in the phonebox. Most re­cently, in David Ten­nant’s Christ­mas edi­tion.’

He has re­sisted all blan­dish­ments to write a book. ‘Oh, come on,’ he says. ‘ “Sit­com actor writes mem­oirs.” Deeply bor­ing.’ But his ca­reer spans a mo­men­tous era. Hav­ing seen Giel­gud’s Ham­let as a school­boy, he was di­rected by him in Pri­vate Lives, and vis­ited him at his home (now Tony Blair’s) when he was fad­ing. ‘Good­bye, dear boy,’ whis­pered Sir John, ‘we must work to­gether again soon.’

As a young man, he shared a Chelsea flat with the play­wright Peter Ni­chols, ‘in the only slum in Car­lyle Square, one door from Sir Os­bert Sitwell’. In 1977, he played Warwick to Eileen Atkins’s won­der­ful St Joan. ‘I re­mem­ber the Evening Stan­dard head­line: “Great­ness re­turns to the Old Vic”.’ Olivier di­rected him in Pri­est­ley’s Eden End, play­ing a ‘crash­ing bore’ named Ge­of­frey, which put him off the stage and steered him to­wards in­nu­mer­able movie roles: Sir Henry Pon­sonby to Judi Dench’s Queen Vic­to­ria in Mrs Brown; Stan­ley Bald­win in WE, di­rected by Madonna, who ad­dressed him only as ‘Mr Bald­win’; Head Geog­ra­pher in Padding­ton Bear.

He could have been Arch­bishop of Can­ter­bury in The Crown – his agent said the money would be good ‘and I hadn’t heard those words for thirty years’ – but he thought the script not good enough. ‘Well, of course,’ said Eileen Atkins, who hap­pily took on Queen Mary.

It seems en­tirely in char­ac­ter that, when he was a cast­away, his Desert Is­land book was the Ox­ford Book of English Verse; his lux­ury was a fly­fish­ing rod. He is de­voted to the con­tem­pla­tive gen­tle­man’s pas­time.

‘Once I was of­fered a su­per part in a film – but the date clashed with fish­ing in Scot­land. ‘My son Char­lie said, “Dad, you’ve been work­ing for sixty years – do the fish­ing.” So I did. And the film wasn’t any good, any­way.’

And that’s where he will be found on his nineti­eth birth­day: at a fish­ing lodge in dis­tant Suther­land, with wife, son and daugh­ter, equipped with rods, flies and waders – a world away from the film and TV screens he has dom­i­nated so ef­fort­lessly for nearly sev­enty years.

Palmer and Dench in As Time Goes By

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