Geoffrey Palmer’s face is what we’ll miss the most. It was a reassuring sitcom face. When it appeared on-screen, everything was alright with the world.
Jowly and lugubrious, it offered quiet avuncular warmth, a bulldog-esque stoic Englishness and a visual guarantee that what we were watching was going to be high-quality, witty and well-observed.
Those phlegmatic features were built for long-suffering sighs or drolly deadpan one-liners. Palmer was never ostentatious or try-hard, but relied on low-key charisma and acute timing. One withering glance could illustrate what the audience were all thinking.
"I am not grumpy," he once insisted. "I just look this way.” Even when he said that, you were never quite sure how seriously to take him. More versatile than he might initially appear, Palmer could switch from manic satire to world-weary everyman, from viciously petty bureaucrat to loveable romantic lead.
Now he has died peacefully at home aged 93, it puts into perspective what a magnificent career Palmer carved out. His CV reads like a greatest hits of British TV.
Indeed, pub quizzers might be interested to learn that in a BFI-compiled list of the 100 best British TV programmes ever, he’s the only actor to appear in each of the top three. First, he played a property developer in Ken Loach’s landmark Wednesday play Cathy Come Home.
Secondly, he took three separate roles in Doctor Who - in The Silurians, The Mutants and Voyage of the Damned. This is a rare honour in the Whoniverse and one which embedded Palmer in the hearts of the sci-fi institution’s devoted fanbase.
Thirdly, he played hotel guest Doctor Price in the blackly comic Fawlty Towers episode The Kipper & The Corpse. As a beleaguered GP determined to get breakfast amidst the chaos caused by the death of a guest, Palmer was the still centre around which Basil, Sybil, Polly and Manuel manically whirled. He ended up cooking his own sausages before realising that they’d gone off. Rarely have some past-their-best pork products elicited such pathos.
Palmer was undeniably brilliant at comedy but a fine straight actor too. Other early TV roles included The Army Game, The Saint and The Avengers. He alternated screen with stage work, including being directed by Laurence Olivier in JB Priestley’s Eden End. With refreshing unpretentiousness, however, Palmer admitted that he found the play so boring that it put him off a stage career for good. Theatre’s loss was television’s gain.
It's for a trio of classic suburban comedies for which Palmer will be best remembered - and which cemented his reputation as a wry master of everyday, invincibly middle-class, quintessentially British comedy.
First came The Fall & Rise of Reginald Perrin, in which Palmer played Leonard Rossiter’s brother-in-law Jimmy. His hapless catchphrase was: "Bit of a cock-up on the (insert disaster here) front.” Another running gag saw Jimmy’s lines made inaudible by aircraft noise from the nearby Heathrow flight path.
In Reggie Perrin creator David Nobbs, Palmer found a comedic soulmate and continued to appear in productions written by him. Their last collaboration was the museum-set radio sitcom The Maltby Collection.
Overlapping with Perrin in the late Seventies was Carla Lane’s midlife crisis masterpiece Butterflies. Palmer played decent-but-dull dentist Ben, husband of dissatisfied Cheltenham housewife Ria Parkinson (Wendy Craig) and eye-rolling father to layabout teen sons Russell and Adam (Andrew Hall and Nicholas Lyndhurst). Ben’s hobby was collecting butterflies, hence the show’s title and bittersweet lepidoptery-themed title sequence (“Love is like a butterfly, soft and gentle as a sigh”).
Between 1992 and 2005, Palmer completed his classic sitcom hat-trick alongside Dame Judi Dench in autumn years romance As Time Goes By. Playing wartime sweethearts Lionel and Jean, who unexpectedly reconnected and married 38 years later, theirs was a quietly gorgeous tale of late-flowering love.
Palmer was entirely believable in all his roles - regardless of the character, you believed every word that came out of his mouth - but especially here. The couple’s mutual affection, ease in each other’s company and warm laughter was utterly convincing. In the process, Palmer became a sort of accidental heartthrob for the silver-haired.
His close friend Dench said she could never have done the show without Palmer. He said he could never have done it without her. The ever-modest Palmer always put the show’s success down to Dench and its writer Bob Larbey, not him.
The venerable thesps even transferred their chemistry to the big screen, reviving their partnership in Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies. Always an actor who exuded officer-class, Palmer played Admiral Roebuck, naval advisor to Dench’s M.
They also acted together in historical drama Mrs Brown, with Palmer playing Sir Henry Ponsonby to Dench’s Queen Victoria. For a while in the Nineties, it seemed that Palmer and Dench came as a sort of superior two-for-one package.
It wasn’t just Palmer’s wonderfully world-weary face which was distinctive. His gloomy-but-twinkling voice was too. He lent those unmistakable tones to the narration of BBC series Grumpy Old Men, to the “slam in the lamb” ad campaign for the Meat & Livestock Commission - and, most memorably, to the long-running Audi commercials which popularised his sign-off slogan “Vorsprung durch Technik”.
Ad agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty re-cut the ad to fit Palmer’s voice. “You are the voice of Audi,” the motoring company told him and offered him a car. Palmer would enjoyably relating the anecdote that his brother, who knew about motors, told him to ask for an Audi 100. Palmer sold his Saab and waited.
Audi eventually rang him and said: “We’re afraid your Audi 100 has fallen off the jetty at Harwich. Would you mind an Audi 200 instead?” “They replaced it with a new one every year,” Palmer would chuckle, marvelling at the luxury. “Those were the golden days.”
He was made an OBE in 2004 for services to drama. In his later years, Palmer popped up in Paddington, Parade's End and played Stanley Baldwin in WE, directed by Madonna. On-set, the pop queen addressed him only as “Mr Baldwin”.
Palmer could also have played the Archbishop of Canterbury in Netflix’s royal saga The Crown – “my agent said the money would be good and I hadn’t heard those words for 30 years” – but he thought the script wasn’t good enough. He was honest and unpretentious to the end. Palmer could make disappointment and eternal pessimism somehow adorable.
Having amused us for more than six decades, Geoffrey Palmer leaves behind a wonderful legacy. He wasn't grumpy. He just looked that way.