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Jones, Peter (1920-2000)

Actor, Writer

Main image of Jones, Peter (1920-2000)

As an actor, while also a playwright, scriptwriter and radio gameshow personality, Peter Jones brought a cheerful charm to his on-screen performances. His collection of harassed and, occasionally, seedy characters - shuffling lugubrious looks with an amiable manner and over-bright smiles - were made all the funnier with a complete lack of self-consciousness.

A long career in theatre (from the early 1940s, with George Bernard Shaw's The Doctor's Dilemma, Eliot's The Confidential Clerk, among many others) and in radio (BBC's long-running Just A Minute panel game and, in 1978, the reassuring voice explaining the bizarre with detached authority as The Book for Douglas Adams's The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and the later TV version) brought a deceptive sense of simplicity to his screen roles.

His association and friendship with actor-director Peter Ustinov saw him appear in the films Vice Versa (1947), Private Angelo (1949) and Romanoff and Juliet (1961). He also contributed memorable character parts for Norman Wisdom's The Bulldog Breed (1960), A Stitch in Time (1963) and Press for Time (1966), all directed by Robert Asher, and two Carry On films (Gerald Thomas's Carry On Doctor, 1967, and Carry On England, 1976).

On the small screen, he was perhaps best known to the 1960s TV generation for his beleaguered, shoulder-shrugging manager of a clothing sweatshop in the fondly-remembered sitcom The Rag Trade (BBC, 1961-63), which also featured Miriam Karlin, Reg Varney and Sheila Hancock. Jones and Karlin repeated their roles in ITV's lacklustre revival (1977-78).

He co-starred with Sheila Hancock in the class-rivalry sitcom Beggar My Neighbour (BBC, 1967-68) as an underpaid executive saddled with high-earning fitter Reg Varney as his chirpy neighbour. The office affairs sitcom Mr. Digby, Darling (ITV, 1969-71) saw Jones and Hancock as boss and devoted secretary working for a pest extermination company. From his own scripts, he gave a very amusing portrayal of a befuddled underworld boss in the patchy sitcom Mr. Big (BBC, 1977), co-starring with Prunella Scales. She had appeared with him some years earlier in The New Man (for Television Playhouse, ITV, tx. 15/9/1960), an early Jones TV script about shady door-to-door salesmen.

It's the restraint in comedy that matters. Like a good repertory theatre show, Jones always knew his place and his public and wasn't ashamed of either. It was a knowing mind at work, like a John Le Mesurier or a Denholm Elliott, that separated performance from pastiche.

Tise Vahimagi

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Selected credits

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TV adaptation of Douglas Adam's cult sci-fi radio show

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