John Bluthal obituary

Stage and screen actor who appeared in popular sitcoms including Never Mind the Quality, Feel the Width and The Vicar of Dibley

The actor John Bluthal, who has died aged 89, forged a long and successful acting career in Britain that began in the golden age of television in the 1960s, when he provided a foil to the comedy legends Michael Bentine, Eric Sykes, Peter Cook and, over several decades, Spike Milligan.

Bluthal soared to the top of the bill when he starred alongside Joe Lynch in the sitcom Never Mind the Quality, Feel the Width (1967-71), the pair playing respectively the Jewish jacket-maker Manny Cohen and the Irish trouser-maker Patrick Kelly running a business in the East End.

In the series created by Vince Powell and Harry Driver, which had an audience of up to 20 million, Manny sees Patrick as a bigoted Catholic while Patrick regards Manny as an ignorant heathen. Tailoring is the only thing that binds the two men together. There was also a 1973 film spin-off.

John Bluthal, left, with Spike Milligan 1965.
John Bluthal, left, with Spike Milligan 1965. Photograph: ITV/Rex/Shutterstock

Two decades later, Bluthal provided support to Dawn French’s woman priest Geraldine Granger in another popular sitcom, The Vicar of Dibley, created by Richard Curtis. In both series (1994-98) and in various specials until 2013, he played Frank Pickle, the parochial church council secretary at St Barnabas fastidiously taking the minutes. When Pickle comes out as gay after 40 years in the closet, no one hears this revelation because he makes it on a local radio station – and listeners turn off in advance because of his reputation for being boring.

For another sitcom, Home Sweet Home (1980-82), Bluthal returned to Australia – his home for more than 20 years before settling in Britain – to star as Enzo Pacelli, an Italian immigrant taxi driver. It was another culture-clash comedy, with the ham-fisted Enzo keen to champion his Italian values while his three Australian-educated children embrace the culture of their adopted country.

John was born Isaac Bluthal in the southern Polish town of Jezierzany, in Galicia (now Ozeryany, in Ukraine), to Israel, who worked in the family wheat mill, and Rachel (nee Berman). In 1938, a year before Hitler’s invasion, the nine-year-old Isaac, his sister Nita and their Jewish parents left behind antisemitism in Poland and fled to Australia, where he became known as John.

John Bluthal as Manny in Never Mind the Quality, Feel the Width, 1969.
John Bluthal as Manny in Never Mind the Quality, Feel the Width, 1969. Photograph: Fremantle/Rex/Shutterstock

He was educated at University high school, Melbourne, and showed a talent for accents and impersonations. In 1947, he began training in speech and drama at the Melbourne Conservatorium. Two years later, he appeared at the Budapest youth festival, then moved to London to perform in variety venues and in plays at the Unity theatre.

For several years, he moved between Britain and Australia, before spending the rest of the 1950s building a solid CV in theatres in Melbourne and Sydney. He appeared alongside Bentine in the revue Colored Rhapsody (Tivoli theatre, Melbourne, 1955) and with Leo McKern in The Rainmaker (Elizabethan theatre, Sydney, 1956). Bluthal also performed with Bentine’s fellow Goon Show star Spike Milligan in the 1958 Australian TV special The Gladys Half-Hour and the first two series of The Idiot Weekly (1958-59) on radio.

In 1960, a year after settling in Britain, he played Charlie in the Ray Galton and Alan Simpson-scripted sitcom Citizen James, starring Sid James. He followed this with episodes in the comedy series Sykes and a…(1961), and provided one of the radio voices in the classic Hancock TV series episode The Radio Ham.

He reunited with Bentine in two series of the madcap sketch show It’s a Square World (1961 and 1963) and joined Cook and Dudley Moore in a 1965 episode of Not Only … But Also.

However, Bluthal’s most prolific work with this new generation of groundbreaking writers and performers was alongside Milligan; he was a supporting player in a string of radio programmes, such as The Omar Khayyam Show (1964) and The Milligan Papers (1987), and in TV series including the long-running, surreal sketch show Q… (1969-80), its 1982 sequel, There’s a Lot of It About, and in the series Milligan in … (1972-73). Bluthal and Milligan also appeared on stage together in the satire The Bedsitting Room (Mermaid and Duke of York’s theatres, 1963), written by Milligan and John Antrobus, and in the film The Great McGonagall (1975).

John Bluthal, left, wtih Peter Sellers in The Return of the Pink Panther, 1975.
John Bluthal, left, wtih Peter Sellers in The Return of the Pink Panther, 1975. Photograph: Everett/Alamy

“Working with Spike is agony because he is impetuous and chaotic,” Bluthal explained of Milligan, who was prone to manic depression. Milligan was reputed to have said of his fellow actor: “I love John, but he’s so temperamental.”

On British TV, Bluthal also voiced Commander Wilbur Zero and other characters in Gerry Anderson’s puppet series Fireball XL5 (1962-63). In Australia, he starred as JJ Forbes in the 1981 comedy drama And Here Comes Bucknuckle.

He appeared in many British comedy films of the 60s and 70s, with parts in Carry On productions, the Doctor pictures, and Pink Panther films as well as the Beatles movies A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965). He went to Hollywood for the first time in his mid-80s to play a Marxist professor alongside George Clooney in the film Hail, Caesar! (2016).

However, Bluthal declared theatre to be his first love. He succeeded Ronald Moody in 1961 as Fagin in the original production of Lionel Bart’s hit musical Oliver! in the West End (New theatre) and had many roles with the National Theatre company.

Bluthal returned to Australia to live in Sydney, near his family, in 1999. In 1956, he married the actor and singer Judyth Barron. Although they eventually separated, the couple remained friends; she died in 2016. He is survived by their daughters, Nava, a singer, and Lisa, an actor and singer.

John Bluthal (Isaac Bluthal), actor, born 12 August 1929; died 15 November 2018

Contributor

Anthony Hayward

The GuardianTramp

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