Obituary: Ray Lonnen, actor

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Born: 18 May, 1940, in Bournemouth. Died: 11 July, 2014, in London, aged 74.

Ray Lonnen played secret agent Harry Brown in the acclaimed 1982 mini-series Harry’s Game. The eponymous hero was a British army officer who goes undercover in Belfast to track down an IRA assassin.

Lonnen had already played another secret agent in three seasons of the TV series The Sandbaggers and he even got to play James Bond in screen tests opposite potential Bond girls.

But the ready association with secret agents, and also with police officers, deflects from an impressively varied career that included stage farces, a recurring role on Coronation Street, voice work for the animated television adaptation of Sarah Ferguson’s literary masterpiece Budgie the Little Helicopter and a starring role in the David Nobbs sitcom Rich Tea and Sympathy, with Patricia Hodge.

However, some will argue that his funniest role was as “Flora Man” in a gloriously chauvinist advert that is still available on Youtube. Flora Man stands outside a shop desperately signalling through the window to his rather dim-witted wife inside that she should buy some Flora, as it is, after all, “the margarine for men”.

He was born Raymond Stanley Lonnen into a solidly working-class family in Bournemouth in 1940. His father was a carpenter and his mother had been in service. Passionate about films as a boy, he always wanted to be an actor, but his parents insisted he do a secretarial course first.

He went on to drama school in his home town and then worked in provincial theatres in various cities, including Belfast, an experience that would serve him well when it came to casting for Harry’s Game, and in York, where he was seen by a casting director who got him a small role in the hospital soap Emergency Ward 10.

By the mid-1960s Lonnen was appearing fairly regularly on television. He had a regular role as a market trader on Market in Honey Lane, a soap opera set in London’s East End that proved to be ahead of its time, and by 1970 he was sufficiently well-known to get a gig as the storyteller on Jackanory.

Lonnen made guest appearances on various popular shows, including The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Who, and he played an oil-rig worker who pretends he is an economist to impress Deirdre on Coronation Street. The storyline ended up with a bust-up between him and Deirdre’s colleague Ray Langton, who suddenly realises he is in love with her – Ray and Deirdre married a few weeks later. The Sandbaggers, an intelligent espionage series set during the Cold War, was the show that really established Lonnen as a television star. It was followed by Harry’s Game, which proved both popular and influential in its seemingly realistic approach to undercover work and its downbeat ending. The haunting theme song gave Clannad a Top Ten hit.

The Sandbaggers and Harry’s Game brought Lonnen international fame and established his image, for a while at least, as a modern action-man hero. He was often recognised by fans around this time, including on one occasion on a small boat when he was horribly seasick and was trying to vomit as discretely as possible, so as not to spoil their expectations.

On another occasion he had a big emotional breakdown scene on stage when someone in the audience shouted: “Come on, Sandbagger One, pull yourself together.” Throughout his career he continued working in theatre and he appeared at the Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh in the musical Guys and Dolls over Christmas and New Year 1980-81.

On television he was mixed up in espionage yet again in The Brief, this time as a lawyer defending a British soldier accused of spying for “the other side”, and he played another policeman in the series Yellowthread Street, which was set in Hong Kong.

But in retrospect Harry’s Game was probably the high point of his career. However, he continued to work regularly on television, radio and theatre, which afforded him the chance to travel and tour abroad, and his distinctive, velvety tones brought him a lot of voice work.

He appeared on several episodes of The Bill in 2001, playing the father of the policeman Nick Klein (Rene Zagger). Subsequently he made a guest appearance in Midsomer Murders, had a small part in the film Run for Your Wife, with Danny Dyer and Denise Van Outen, and recently shot a supporting role in the low-budget snooker film Extended Rest with his wife actress Tara Ward.

Lonnen and Ward had been introduced by a mutual friend, shortly after both had split from previous partners. The friend thought they were just right for each other. They were married for 20 years and the friend claimed she was due a matchmaker fee.

Shortly before his death Lonnen sent a cheque to the friend who introduced him to Ward for two shillings and six pence “in full and final payment” for services rendered.

He was diagnosed with cancer three years ago, but his personal motto was Carpe diem and he was determined to go on working as long as possible.

He was known for his sense of humour, and for a delight for limericks and puns. As well as his wife, he is survived by two sons and a daughter from previous relationships.