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Ian Lavender was plucked from obscurity to star in Dad’s Army

Ian Lavender has died aged 77 (Ian West/PA)
Ian Lavender has died aged 77 (Ian West/PA)

As the gormless Private Pike of Dad’s Army, Ian Lavender was anything but officer material.

Yet his bungling soldier routine in the Home Guard comedy brought him fanmail from all over Britain – especially from women who wanted to mother him.

“I get letters from schoolgirls and middle-aged ladies who want to mother me. I miss out on ladies my own age,” he joked once.

Ian Lavender death
Arthur Lowe (foreground) and (back, left to right) John Le Mesurier, Clive Dunn, James Beck, John Laurie, Ian Lavender and Arnold Ridley, in a scene from one of the famous episodes of the Dad’s Army (BBC)

Lavender was the youngest member of Dad’s Army – the much-loved BBC series (even the late Queen used to tune in) which ran for 10 years.

He used to drive Captain Mainwaring mad with his whining and relied on his Uncle Arthur, played by John Le Mesurier, to keep an eye on him.

With a scarf wrapped permanently around his neck – his over-protective mum worried about his weak chest – Private Pike was the last man in Britain to strike terror into the hearts of invading Germans.

Birmingham-born Lavender once said it was the luckiest day of his life when he was plucked from obscurity to play 17-year-old Frank Pike.

Ian Lavender, Clive Dunn, James Beck, Arthur Lowe and John Le Mesurier in Dad’s Army (BBC)

He was earning £9 a week during a six-month stint at Canterbury Rep when someone came up to him and said he looked stupid enough to do Pike.

“I was a complete beginner and I suddenly joined what was probably Britain’s most experienced team of character actors,” he said.

“I was in a state of shock finding myself suddenly among so many great actors. When the moment came for me to speak, that funny voice of Pike just came out in a moment of panic.

“Since then at the start of every new series it has been one hell of a job trying to conjure it up again.

“But Private Pike took me from obscurity into the TV big time. I could never have achieved that if I hadn’t learned to say: ‘Ooh Captain Mainwaring, my mum said even if the Germans come I mustn’t catch cold.’”

He was generally referred to as “stupid boy” by the exasperated Mainwaring (Arthur Lowe), but the two actors built up a special relationship away from their screen roles, despite a 30-year difference in age.

In the Dad’s Army episode The Deadly Attachment, Lavender’s character was a key part of one of the most famous moments in British TV comedy, after Captain Mainwaring urges his young charge not to give his name to a German officer with the unforgettable line: “Don’t tell him, Pike!”

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Ian Lavender in 2015 (Yui Mok/PA)

Although once described by The Times as a “masterpiece”, Dad’s Army took four years to take off. The first reviews dismissed it and the series was almost ended three or four times.

But it won the hearts of 12 million viewers and the BBC called it one of their biggest comedy successes. It became so popular it was turned into a West End stage show and film.

His downtrodden character was the baby of the series but his hair started to go prematurely grey, a family trait, and he had to plaster it with cream to give it a dark oily look suitable for a teenager in wartime Britain.

Lavender, a policeman’s son, was not even around during the Second World War – he was born a year after the war ended in 1946.

He handed in his Home Guard uniform after the last series in 1978 – and went on to play soppy Ron in The Glums, a 1979 ITV series. And he was the youthful idiot in Mr Big, a BBC comedy about a small-time crook called Ginger.

“I just like making people laugh,” said Lavender, who trained at Bristol Old Vic and did his share of Shakespeare, including The Merchant of Venice, starring Dustin Hoffman.

The actor also played Derek Harkinson, a gay friend of Pauline Fowler (Wendy Richard) from 2001 to 2005 in BBC One soap EastEnders.

He returned to Walford from 2016 to 2017 but left after he became ill with sepsis.

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Ian Lavender had a prominent role in EastEnders (Jack Barnes/BBC)

But his 10 years with Dad’s Army were one of the most important periods of his life.

During this time he wed actress Sue Kerchiss – they met in Canterbury Rep when he played a valet and she was the maid – had they two sons, Daniel and Sam, before splitting up after seven years of marriage.

In 1975, Lavender moved in with choreographer and stage director Michelle Hardy, who he married quietly in 1992 after tests revealed he had cancer.

They told close friends about his illness and then invited them to a register office wedding near their home in Saffron Walden, Essex.

Lavender was the last surviving member of the Dad’s Army cast. Clive Dunn, who played Lance Corporal Jones, died in 2012, while Bill Pertwee (air raid warden Hodges) died in 2013.

Arthur Lowe died from a heart attack in 1982 and John Le Mesurier, the long-suffering Sergeant Wilson, died the following year.

Lavender made a cameo appearance as Brigadier Pritchard in the 2016 Dad’s Army film, which starred Toby Jones and Bill Nighy.

In the film, The Inbetweeners star Blake Harrison played Private Pike.