Ron Pember obituary

Actor whose TV roles ranged from a resistance radio operator in Secret Army to a variety of spivs and seedy operators

The actor Ron Pember, who has died aged 87, was familiar to television audiences thanks to his wiry physique and his long, thin and cadaverous face, often moustachioed. His prominent cheekbones, domed forehead and darting eyes were excellent tools for conveying wily factotums, jobsworth officials, dodgy spivs and seedy operators on both sides of the law.

Hard-working, natural and versatile, he swung happily from good value cameos to leading character parts, with his role as radio operator and resistance member Alain Muny in Secret Army (1977-79) cementing his place as a television favourite. Now often unjustly languishing in the shadow of the sitcom ’Allo ’Allo, which plundered it for comic effect, Secret Army was a respected, sophisticated drama that brought nuance to its depiction of a fictional resistance movement in German-occupied Belgium during the second world war, regularly drawing audiences of 16 million.

He was also a deft comedy turn. Recurring appearances in the Dick Emery Show (1975-81), the Two Ronnies (1980-84), and in the sitcom Sink Or Swim (1980-81) augmented many memorable guest roles, including as tenants’ association chairman Baz in Only Fools and Horses (1983) and a sadistic taxman in Red Dwarf (1988).

Born in Plaistow, then in Essex, Ron was the youngest of five children of Gladys (nee Orchard), a waitress at a Lyons’ Corner House, and William, a painter and decorator. He was educated at Eastbrook secondary modern school in Dagenham, where his family had moved during the second world war. His love for theatre blossomed when his father regularly took him to the People’s Palace entertainment venue in Mile End, and he was soon performing with amateur groups and helping out backstage at local theatres.

Ron Pember as Stan in The Flaxton Boys, 1973
Ron Pember as Stan in The Flaxton Boys, 1973 Photograph: ITV/Shutterstock

He left school at 14, doggedly writing to theatrical greats for advice (they all replied encouragingly) and joining an Arts Council theatre company performing Shakespeare in pubs across County Durham in 1949.

National service (1952-54) took him to Egypt with the Royal Air Force and touring the Middle East with the RAF Show Band. He then worked in variety theatre and was part of a comedy and singing trio before joining the Penguin Players repertory company at Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex, in 1957.

Two years later a cold, dishevelled Pember doorstepped the actor and producer Bernard Miles, who ran the Mermaid theatre in London, asking for work and explaining that he had come from Dagenham. “You look like you’ve walked here,” sniffed Miles. “I have,” came the rejoinder. Impressed, Miles cast Pember in Treasure Island, beginning a long, fruitful series of collaborations, with Pember acting in and/or directing many Mermaid productions, including Enter Solly Gold (1970) and Shakespeare’s Rome (co-directed with Miles, 1981).

Despite his TV ubiquity, theatre was his first love – in 1974 he co-wrote and composed the musical Jack the Ripper, which debuted at the Players’ theatre in London before transferring across the city to the Ambassadors. He enjoyed a lengthy association with the Royal Shakespeare Company – he was the Porter in Trevor Nunn’s 1974 Macbeth and a sardonic, rasping, cockney Feste in Twelfth Night the same year.

He was also part of the early National Theatre company (1964-66), and rejoined the NT later, performing in a number of its productions every year between 1981 and 1988 and proving invaluable to directors such as David Hare, Richard Eyre and Alan Ayckbourn. He considered his NT performance as Sganarelle in Don Juan at the Cottesloe theatre in 1981 as his best.

Pember’s prolific TV career, starting in 1961, included roles in Nicholas Nickleby (1977), The Gentle Touch (1980), HG Wells’s The Invisible Man (1984) and Rumpole of the Bailey, as career criminal Den Timson ((1987-92). His film career included supporting roles in Oh! What a Lovely War (1969), Death Line (1972), The Land That Time Forgot (1974), Aces High (1976) and Personal Services (1987) – and he was front-billed as batman Dobbs in the ill-fated Bulldog Drummond pastiche movie, Bullshot (1983).

When he was playing Scrooge in his own adaptation of A Christmas Carol at the Mermaid theatre in 1992 (a show he had devised three years earlier at the Birmingham Rep), he suffered a stroke. This compelled him to retire, and in 1998 he moved to Southend-on-Sea.

In 1958 he met Yvonne Tylee when she visited Bexhill as a summer show dancer, and they married the following year. She survives him, as do their children, Pauline, David and Catherine.

• Ronald Henry Pember, actor, born 11 April 1934; died 8 March 2022


Toby Hadoke

The GuardianTramp

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