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Robert Fyfe obituary

·4 min read

Robert Fyfe, who has died of kidney disease aged 90, was an actor who found fame in middle age as Howard Sibshaw, the henpecked husband furtively stealing away from his wife, Pearl, to enjoy bike rides with the flighty Marina, in the long-running BBC TV series Last of the Summer Wine.

Their sojourns provided viewers with panoramic views of the beautiful Yorkshire countryside. The characters also brought another layer of humour to the long-running sitcom, created by Roy Clarke, alongside the antics of three childlike old men led by Peter Sallis’s retired lino seller Clegg.

As Howard, Fyfe would furtively slip away from Pearl (played by Juliette Kaplan) to join Marina (Jean Fergusson), the object of his infatuation. They would sometimes don disguises in the hope of not being recognised, but Pearl was invariably one step ahead of their ploys.

Despite his timid nature, Howard was not backward in coming forward – Fyfe described his character as “something of a lothario” – although his trysts with Marina never went beyond hand-holding, the occasional kiss, and gasps of “Oh, Howard” and “Oh, Marina”.

From first being seen on screen doing a tango in a field, Fyfe and Fergusson’s escapades became increasingly slapstick. In one episode, the pair are in a rowing boat when Howard sees a periscope from a glass-bottomed underwater vessel built by Clegg, Compo (Bill Owen) and Seymour (Michael Aldridge), thinks it is Pearl and starts rocking the boat – until he and Marina topple over into the canal.

“It’s funny what you do for television,” he told Richard Webber, author of Last of the Summer Wine: The Best Scenes, Jokes and One-Liners (2009). “In real life, I don’t like heights – but, as Howard, have climbed on roofs and been in a tree house. I guess you’re concentrating so much on your lines and the action, you don’t have time to worry about such things.”

Fyfe and Kaplan joined the Last of the Summer Wine cast when they appeared in a Bournemouth stage version in 1984, 11 years after the programme began on television. Then, in 1985, Howard and the two women in his life were introduced to the TV series – gradually at first, before they became regulars, staying until the final episode in 2010.

Robert was born in Kirkcaldy, Fife, to Mary (nee Irvine) and Douglas Fyfe, a watchmaker. Classical music and opera were loves of his as a child, when he thrilled at the voices of Kathleen Ferrier and Isobel Baillie on visits to the town. He also had a love of acting that flourished at Kirkcaldy high school in plays such as Emlyn Williams’s A Murder Has Been Arranged (1948), when one local newspaper critic commented on his role as the murderer: “He seemed to me to live the part, which I think is the sign of the true artiste. He had the audience in stitches with his gestures and expressions.”

Although he began a degree in English literature at Edinburgh university, Fyfe abandoned it when he had the chance to train at Esme Church’s Northern Theatre School, in Bradford, graduating in 1954. He then toured with her Northern Children’s Theatre before stints with repertory companies, including three years at the Castle theatre, Farnham (1957-60).

Robert Fyfe as the school crossing patrol officer Malcolm Lagg, filming for Coronation Street, 2012 .
Robert Fyfe as the school crossing patrol officer Malcolm Lagg, filming for Coronation Street, 2012 . Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

Fyfe made his West End debut as Dai in Laurence Dobie and Robert Sloman’s “red brick” university play The Tinker, at the Comedy theatre (1960-61). Later, with the Royal Shakespeare Company, he played the horse dealer in Doctor Faustus in Stratford-upon-Avon and on tour (1975).

On television, his 25 years in Last of the Summer Wine was preceded by almost as long playing small character roles. From making his screen debut as a doctor, alongside Richard Hearne’s bowler-hatted bungler, in the children’s comedy Mr Pastry’s Progress (1962), he took dozens of one-off character parts, including three different roles in Dr Finlay’s Casebook (in 1962, 1967 and 1968), including that of the Scottish GP drama’s first patient.

He had two short stints in Coronation Street: as Sid, a heavy chasing Dennis Tanner for money he had swindled out of a casino (1966); and Malcolm Lagg, a retiring school crossing patrol officer who trained Dennis to take over from him outside Bessie Street school, then successfully led a protest march to reinstate Dennis after he resigned when Steve McDonald falsely accused him of being mean to the children.

Fame in The Last of the Summer Wine also led Fyfe to be cast as grandfather of the character played by Edward Petherbridge – a contemporary of his at drama school – in the 1989 suburban “sex, lies and Sellotape” sitcom No Strings, with Petherbridge and Jean Marsh drawn together when their respective partners have an affair.

In 1957, Fyfe married Diana Rush, a theatre set designer, who died in August. He is survived by their three sons, Timothy, Nicholas and Dominic.

• Robert Douglas Fyfe, actor, born 25 September 1930; died 15 September 2021

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