Obituary: Nicholas Smith, actor

Nicolas Smith, actor who played store manager in long-running BBC sitcom Are You Being Served? Picture: PA
Nicolas Smith, actor who played store manager in long-running BBC sitcom Are You Being Served? Picture: PA
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Born: 5 March, 1934, in Banstead, Surrey. Died: 6 December, 2015, aged 81.

Dome-headed, jug-eared, gap-toothed, Nicholas Smith was never going to be any film producer’s idea of a romantic lead. But after more than a decade of bit parts on television he found the perfect role as the indecisive, ineffecutal department-store manager Mr Rumbold in the sitcom Are You Being Served?

Smith effectively made a career out of Cuthbert Rumbold, who was actually nicknamed “Jug Ears”. He first played the role in 1972 in a one-off instalment of Comedy Playhouse, a testing ground for possible new series that also gave the world Till Death Us Do Part and Last of the Summer Wine.

Smith appeared in all 69 episodes of Are You Being Served? from 1973 to 1985. He appeared in a stage version in 1976 and a feature film the following year when the staff go on holiday to the Costa Plonka.

And he reprised the character in the early 1990s in two series of Grace and Favour, in which the former employees of Grace Brothers reunite to run a country hotel, after the aged Young Mr Grace is killed scuba diving and the store closes down.

Are You Being Served? was savaged by critics when first broadcast. Gay activists dismissed the character of Mr Humphries (John Inman), with his mincing walk, as a malicious stereotype, while feminists hated the dim-witted Miss Brahms (Wendy Richard) and Mrs Slocombe (Mollie Sugden), and her endless updates on the state of her pussy.

Even the BBC was embarrassed by it and dithered over whether to broadcast the initial show until the interruption of the Munich Olympics by the kidnapping and murder of Israeli competitors by terrorists left the corporation with gaps to fill.

It was however a huge hit from the outset and attracted 22 million viewers at its peak in 1979, according to official BBC figures. It proved popular all over the world and continues to play regularly on cable television. It has much in common with the Carry On films and has experienced a similar critical reassessment.

Smith was the last surviving member of the original core cast, following the death two years ago of Frank Thornton, who played Captain Peacock.

The son of a chartered surveyor, Smith was born in Surrey in 1934 and had a good singing voice as a boy. But Smith really wanted to act rather than sing.

His father was opposed to his career choice, but said that if he could get into RADA, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, then he would pay the fees – on condition that if Smith did not get into RADA he would opt for a more sensible career. He got in.

In his early years, Smith worked mainly in theatre, and he had stints with the Royal Shakespeare Company and in The Mousetrap in London’s West End. Over the years he played dames in panto and sang in Gilbert and Sullivan, including the role of the major-general in Pirates of Penzance.

But it was with television that he would reach his widest audience. He was a miner enslaved by the Daleks in an early Doctor Who story in 1964 and he was the British spy Roger Cly in a BBC adaptation of A Tale of Two Cities the following year. His features suited comedy and he became a regular on The Frost Report. He made guest appearances on The Avengers and The Saint and played a friar in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1972 film of The Canterbury Tales.

After years of one-off supporting roles, suddenly two recurring characters came along at once, the slow, methodical PC Jeff Yates in Z-Cars and Mr Rumbold on Are You Being Served? David Croft, who created the show with Jeremy Lloyd, spotted him making a guest appearance on Up Pompeii!.

Smith made occasional appearances as Yates in the long-running police series from 1972 to 1975. Z-Cars was already a hit when he got involved and Are You Being Served? initially looked like it might not make it onto television at all, but ultimately was to prove the more lucrative show for Smith.

Mr Rumbold served as a sort of counterpoint to the flamboyance of Mr Humphries and Mrs Slocombe. “My first thought was that he was an idiot,” said Smith. “But I thought that would be boring, so I made him very eager. He engages his mouth before his brain. He’s nothing like me but it was the first time I had used my own accent in a role.”

Smith never found another role to rival that of Mr Rumbold, although he was Mr Spottletoe in a BBC adaptation of Charles Dickens’s Martin Chuzzlewit and he voiced the minister in the Wallace and Gromit film The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. He also wrote poetry and nonsense verse and composed music.

His wife predeceased him. He is survived by his daughter Catherine Russell, who followed him into acting and plays the surgeon Serena Campbell on Holby City.