Ian Wallace Obituary

Opera singer and actor who went on to star in the BBC Radio 4 quiz show My Music

Ian Wallace, who has died aged 90, was an affectionately regarded example of a rare, versatile breed. An opera bass-baritone of distinction, he also helped popularise the Michael Flanders and Donald Swann revue number The Hippopotamus Song – "mud, mud, glorious mud" – and was a star of the BBC Radio 4 quiz show My Music. Wallace was as at home in pantomime as he was at Glyndebourne, while his London stage work included co-starring with Robert Morley in the musical Fanny at Drury Lane in 1956.

Rotund and good-natured, Wallace had a unique talent as a raconteur. He had an unerring eye for human weakness and absurdity, but was himself so unmalicious that he was able to tell stories that made even the "victims" laugh. One of his favourite anecdotes concerned the occasion when he felt faint on stage in opera and grabbed the soprano in front of him for support. Afterwards she thanked him for supporting her when she felt faint.

Just as Wallace seldom spoke ill of anyone, few spoke ill of him. As Jeanette Chalmers, his agent of many years, put it, he succeeded not only because he had talent but because he was very good with people – "he was very untheatrical … and very straightforward".

He was, however, capable of straight talking. When in the 1980s the BBC accountants prescribed the abolition of some of the BBC orchestras as part of a cost-cutting exercise, Wallace was one of the performers who took the risk of publicly opposing wholesale cuts, while other BBC stars found it politic to keep their mouths shut.

From the first, Wallace had an affinity with the lighter and funnier side of life, though he did suffer early setbacks despite coming from a privileged background. Born in London, he was the son of Sir John Wallace, Liberal MP for Dumfermline between the two world wars, who wanted his son to become a barrister. For this ambition, the portents were not good. Ian and his mother Mary were fascinated by the stage. The boy made his first stage appearance at the age of five in a school production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, playing Bottom the weaver. During the performance he was beset by fits of coughing and only afterwards was it realised that he had been suffering from whooping cough.

Though his father did not encourage his acting ambitions, he regarded them with tolerance. Ian was taken to variety performances at the London Coliseum, and saw the Houston Sisters, Layton and Johnstone and the clown Grock.

After Charterhouse school, in Godalming, Surrey, he read law at Cambridge, a course which his father thought would set him up as a barrister and, ultimately, a politician. After making more of an impact in amateur dramatics than in the law faculty, he emerged with a good third-class degree when – as he told it – his tutor was unable to get him a bad second.

The career dilemma was postponed by the war, in which he joined the Royal Artillery but was invalided out after a motorcycle accident. He returned to military service after he recovered, but as a lieutenant was invalided out again in 1944 with tuberculosis of the spine after spending a long time in a military hospital, where he entertained fellow patients with his own show, High Temperature, despite being in a plaster cast. "I've been here about 16 months and I got bored, so I asked if I could do this show. We're having a wonderful time," he told journalists who turned up at Horton emergency hospital in Epsom, Surrey.

In the dismal two years he spent virtually on his back, his thoughts turned more and more to the theatre. He first appeared on the professional stage at the Little Park Theatre in Glasgow, playing the nobleman in Ashley Duke's The Man With a Load of Mischief. He made a guinea (£1.05p) a week. One of the critics compared him with the distinguished actor Charles Laughton, and not only because he weighed 16 stone at the time. He never received any kind of formal instruction in acting.

After a play at the Citizens Theatre and some drama and school broadcasts for the BBC, he made his London stage debut in 1945 at Sadler's Wells in James Bridie's play The Forrigan Reel. It was produced by the actor Alastair Sim. Shortly afterwards, Wallace appeared in a singing role in The Glass Slipper at the St James's Theatre. He began to feel that his future might lie in doing character parts in musicals, regarding his voice as not good enough for opera.

His friends disagreed and persuaded him to audition, with the result that he got the part of Schaunard in La Bohème for the New London Opera Company. Princess Elizabeth was in the royal box on the opening night in 1946. Wallace worked for the group for two years. The musical director was Alberto Erede, and the singers were half British and half Italian.

From there he went, in 1948, to Glyndebourne, the opera house near Lewes, in East Sussex, appearing in comic roles as principal buffo at the Edinburgh Festival and broadcasting many of the productions for the BBC: his association with the company lasted till 1961. He also appeared in revue, sang under Sir Malcolm Sargent in The Mikado and Iolanthe, and performed the comic songs of Flanders and Swann. In 1953 he was in the Royal Command Variety Show at the London Palladium as well as singing in opera in major houses in Europe and beyond, and, in 1962, his stage "after-dinner entertainment" 4 to the Bar – arranged with a cast of four after he had modestly declined to bear the responsibility of a one-man show – was well received. It lampooned the then "hot" Irish playwright Brendan Behan by showing him singing about "Mountains of corn/Sweeping down to the sea". Wallace later relented and devised a one-man show, An Evening With Ian Wallace.

My Music (1967-94) always ended with singing from Wallace and John Amis, accompanied by Steve Race, who devised the questions put to them and the comedy writers Denis Norden and Frank Muir. It was just one of the programmes on radio and television that made Wallace a popular figure without his ever losing authority as an opera singer. In the late 1960s he appeared regularly with Scottish Opera in roles such as Leporello in Mozart's Don Giovanni and Pistola in Verdi's Falstaff, and 1987 saw him both as a classical singer for Victoria Wood: As Seen on TV, and as the college Praelector in the Cambridge spoof Porterhouse Blue on Channel 4.

Wallace had a handsome home in Highgate, north London, and a Norfolk cottage which was useful to a man who liked sailing, golf, photography and walking. In 1983 he was appointed OBE, and in 1991 made honorary doctor of music by St Andrews University.

In 1948 he married Patricia Black, from Fife in Scotland, and they had two children, Rosemary and John.

John Amis writes: There were many pleasurable things about being in My Music on radio, and briefly on television. One was that I was actually paid every week to listen to Ian's singing: ballads, folksongs, straight songs and opera, he sang them all so that you could savour the words, and the actual sound was thrilling, a high bass-baritone with a marvellous, sonorous top F, a sound that went to the heart. I heard him first in Jay Pomeroy's New London Opera company at the Cambridge Theatre, London, then at Glyndebourne, where he sang Doctor Bartolo in Rossini's Barber of Seville. His big E flat aria was a highlight – his voice was so strong and lyrical that it could match any native Italian. He also excelled in the same composer's Comte Ory and Cenerentola.

Funnily enough, he never bothered to learn to read music, which made for slow learning. But once he had learned something it was there in his head forever. Ian was not a complicated man, certainly not an intellectual. He was kind, completely lacking in malice: what you saw was what you got, a really nice guy. And that quality came across. His one-man shows were a delight, with audiences eating out of his hand.

He was London Scottish so it wasn't quite true when he began one of his shows:

We were eleven in the family,

Quite a quiverful.

We left Scotland

And went to Liverpool.

On My Music he proved to be a good raconteur, regaling us with stories of the stage, working with Robert Morley in musical comedy (before it became musical), and explaining: "We basses and baritones never get the girl. We always have to play a drunken monk or someone's uncle. The nearest we ever get to kissing the soprano is giving her a chaste peck in Act 3 for something the tenor did to her in Act 1."

He was happily married to Pat, a nurse, and a good friend who cared for him when latterly he seemed to have two sorts of asthma, which affected his heart. He occasionally betrayed a Scottish sense of looking after the "bawbies" when he once said: "Pat has been a wonderful wife: she doesn't care at all for jewels or perfume."

• Ian Bryce Wallace, singer, actor and broadcaster, born 10 July 1919; died 12 October 2009


Dennis Barker

The GuardianTramp

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