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Palmer, Geoffrey (1927-)


Main image of Palmer, Geoffrey (1927-)

With the guarantee of a lazily assured performance and a string of appearances as dead-pan comic foil on the receiving end of some formidable television actress (Wendy Craig, Penelope Keith, Judy Dench), Geoffrey Palmer appears to have perfected the art of the telling understatement.

His first TV role in comedy was ITV's popular The Army Game (1957-61), featuring a platoon of misfit national service soldiers, but as a jobbing actor through the 1960s he appeared as doctors, policemen and professors in multiple episodic dramas: including No Hiding Place (ITV, 1959-67), The Avengers (ITV, 1961-69) and Z Cars (BBC, 1962-78). An early performance of note was his urbane, liberal-minded resident of a suburban community who suddenly finds himself leading a vigilante group against some local hooligans in Julian Symons' dark and revealing play Tigers of Subtopia (ITV, tx. 21/10/1968).

Although David Nobbs' The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin (BBC, 1976-79) was very much the domain of its star Leonard Rossiter, as the titular fantasising, middle-aged office slave, Palmer's appearances as Perrin's military-minded brother-in-law Jimmy, forever on the scrounge, remain memorable (particularly his catch-line, "Bit of a cock-up on the catering front"). When the cast (minus Rossiter) returned for The Legacy of Reginald Perrin (BBC, 1996), beginning with Reggie's funeral, Palmer's role was expanded to head the line-up, presenting the Perrin mixture much as before, with the usual frustrations and mix-ups but without the Rossiter raison d'ĂȘtre.

Between the Reginald Perrins, he developed into a familiar prime-time face, starting off with Carla Lane's comedy-drama Butterflies (BBC, 1978-83), about a housewife hovering on the brink of adultery. The lugubrious Palmer TV image was brought to the fore here as Wendy Craig's boring but safe husband, oblivious to the needs of his romantic wife. With Craig's emotionally-defeated wife and mother, given to sudden outbursts of screwed-up intensity even over an evening meal, all Palmer could do was react with casual bafflement.

While Butterflies was quite a success during its run, Lane's The Last Song (BBC, 1981; 1983) was more irritating than interesting. Here he was cast as a 50-year-old doctor trapped between his nagging wife and his nagging young mistress, with little to do except look like a depressed bloodhound.

Thankfully, Fairly Secret Army (Channel 4, 1984-86) and Hot Metal (ITV, 1986; 1988) arrived to liven things up. In the former, written by Nobbs, he was Major Harry Truscott, an extension of Reggie's brother-in-law character who embarks on a madcap scheme to raise a secret army to save Britain from various imagined threats. The familiar Nobbs style was in evidence, with Palmer delivering his dialogue in short telegraphic bursts, like a pea-shooter.

Hot Metal was a zany Fleet Street spoof set in a fictitious newsroom and revolving around the friction between the deposed old-style editor Palmer and Robert Hardy's sleazy, downmarket new editor/proprietor. In a manic satire parodying the more outrageous tabloids, the leading players seemed unsuitably cast, with Palmer the baffled foil to Hardy's over-the-top grotesque. Nevertheless, he played the editor in rich style, achieving precisely the right suggestion of a mannered insolence still intact, but beginning to fray badly at the edges. He also got many of the best lines in a script which veered erratically between dialogue that was funny, and lines that tended to undermine the series' pretensions to serious social satire. Richard Wilson replaced him for the second series.

He returned to middle-class situation comedy in partnership with Penelope Keith for the unenterprising Executive Stress (ITV, 1986-88). Bickering between professional married types in the workplace seemed to be the main theme, with Palmer as an experienced publishing executive whose wife becomes his business equal.

Bob Larbey's sitcom A Fine Romance (ITV, 1981-84), featuring Judi Dench and Michael Williams as a couple of adults stumbling their way towards a relationship, was hauled virtually intact into the 1990s under the title As Time Goes By (BBC, 1992-2002). Here, Dench and Palmer were the couple who re-kindle their wartime romance in later life. Their bumpy on-off courtship, full of minor misunderstandings, relied on the will-they, won't-they get together formula (as if the outcome was ever in any doubt). The series, however, was neatly made and nicely acted, and was likely to appeal because it fitted a familiar niche in programming rather than for any intrinsic merit.

Throughout his television work, the imperturbable Palmer continues to be the real strength behind each programme, often doing some fine rescue work on otherwise forgettable scripts.

Tise Vahimagi

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