Obituary: Tony Britton, character actor who was a well-known TV face – and father of presenter Fern

Tony Britton, who has died aged 95, in 2010. (Picture: PA)
Tony Britton, who has died aged 95, in 2010. (Picture: PA)
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Tony Britton, actor. Born: 9 June, 1924, in Birmingham. Died: 22 December, 2019, aged 95.

Handsome, charming and talented, Tony Britton attracted glowing reviews as a serious stage actor in ­Edinburgh and in London before pursuing the fame and fortune that a film career promised.

Unfortunately the British film industry had rather lost its way, failing to attract much of an audience for such dreary fare as The Birthday Present (1957), in which Britton played a salesman who brings a watch back from a trip to ­Germany, fails to declare it for customs duty and ends up in prison. Oddly, audiences ­preferred American imports like ­Gunfight at the OK ­Corral and Jailhouse Rock and ­Britton’s film career foundered.

He later found a more ­enduring success as a sitcom father – playing Tessa Wyatt’s dad in six series of Robin’s Nest between 1977 and 1981 and then Nigel Havers’s father in six series of Don’t Wait Up between 1983 and 1990. Britton and Havers’s characters ended up as flatmates after splitting up with their respective spouses. In real life Britton was the father of TV presenter Fern Britton, though he and her mother divorced when she was still very young.

Anthony Edward Lowry ­Britton was born in Birmingham in 1924. Despite the rather distinguished-sounding name and the later urbane image, he had relatively ­humble beginnings as the son of a hotelier.

As a child he was fascinated by the ever-changing cast of touring actors who would come and stay at his father’s hotel and he decided that was the life for him. His fledgling acting career was interrupted by service in the Royal Artillery during the Second World War, which he later described as “a bloody nuisance”.

After the war, he acted with companies in Manchester and Edinburgh, appearing at the old Gateway Theatre on Leith Walk. “I was there for a season and I remember it was run by a wonderful feisty woman who drank quite a lot,” he said in an interview with The Scotsman in 2006.

He married for the first time in 1948, to Ruth Hawkins, a former model. The early years were tough, although the family’s income was enhanced from modelling assignments by Fern’s sister Cherry.

Britton’s stage career gathered momentum in 1952 when he played Rameses in Christopher Fry’s The Firstborn at London’s Winter Garden Theatre, which led to him being cast in the lead role in Christopher Hassall’s play The Player King, which premiered at the Edinburgh Festival a few months later. Glen Byam Shaw, director of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre company (the predecessor of the Royal Shakespeare Company), saw Britton in The Player King in Edinburgh, was suitably impressed and ­persuaded him to join the company. Over the next few years he played Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice, Lysander in A ­Midsummer Night’s Dream, Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet and Cassio in Othello.

Critics have argued that Britton could have gone on to become a major Shakespearean actor. Instead he chose movies and appeared in ­Loser Takes All (1956), The Birthday Present (1957), Behind the Mask (1958), as a surgeon ­trying to protect a colleague following a fatal error, and Operation Amsterdam (1959), with Peter Finch.

He and Finch were close friends and drinking buddies. Britton appeared on Finch’s edition of This is Your Life in 1961 and Finch reciprocated when it was Britton’s turn 16 years later. However, it was not just Britton’s film career that collapsed at the end of the 1950s. He hit the headlines when his wife cited sculptor Eva Castle in divorce proceedings. Britton subsequently married Castle and they had a son, Jasper, who also became an actor.

Although his days as a leading man in movies were behind him, Britton had major supporting roles in There’s a Girl in My Soup (1970), with Peter Sellers, and the award-winning drama Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971), with Glenda Jackson and Peter Finch. He was also the inspector foxed by the assassin in The Day of the Jackal (1973).

On television, he had a recurring role in the sitcom Father, Dear Father (1972-73) and starred as a middle-class, centrist Labour MP clashing with the lefties in the TV play The Nearly Man in 1974 and the subsequent series the following year. Britton was nominated as best television actor in the Bafta awards, losing out to John Hurt’s performance in The Naked Civil Servant. But it was with Robin’s Nest and Don’t Wait Up that he reached his widest audience.

In Robin’s Nest, Richard O’Sullivan reprised his character from the earlier sitcom Man About the House, Wyatt was his girlfriend and Britton her rather disapproving father, who is also O’Sullivan’s business partner in the restaurant of the title. Britton found another suitable vehicle for his banter across the age divide with Don’t Wait Up.

He went on acting into his 80s, in film, theatre and television. He was another father disapproving of his daughter’s boyfriend in Don’t Tell Father (1992), but it failed to replicate the success of Robin’s Nest.

He was Lord Alfred Grendall in a BBC adaptation of Trollope’s The Way We Live Now (2001), he played his real son ­Jasper’s screen father in an episode of My Dad’s The Prime Minister (2004) and he was back on stage in Edinburgh in 2006 when he appeared with Kate O’Mara in Agatha Christie’s The Hollow at The King’s.

His second wife predeceased him and he is survived by his three children.

Brian Pendreigh