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The Guardian (09/Aug/2006) - Obituary: Patrick Allen

(c) The Guardian (09/Aug/2006)

Patrick Allen

Versatile actor blessed with a distinctive voice and considerable business acumen

by Dennis Barker

Though he always maintained that he was first and foremost an actor - for television and films, as well as for the Royal Shakespeare Company and the West End - Patrick Allen, who has died aged 79, spent the second half of his career primarily as the self-styled "grandfather of the voice-over" for TV commercials. This led him to the more profitable role of businessman, as part-owner of a Soho studio specialising in production services in that field.

Tall, gravel-voiced and with a jutting jaw, during the 1970s Allen was the visible voice of the helicopter pilot extolling the virtues of Barratt Homes, and the invisible voice behind commercials for, among others, Aquafresh, Boots the Chemist, the Sunday People and the Ministry of Defence. The MoD thought him the ideal voice to have on 20 Protect and Survive videos to be shown on television when a nuclear attack was imminent, giving viewers advice on such things as laying in three weeks' supply of food.

The child of a privileged background, Allen confessed that much of his motivation for avoiding the financial unpredictability of acting came from a wish to preserve the style of life he had as a boy. But though his childhood was prosperous, it was not particularly comfortable or conventional. His father, Edward Allen, was of Irish extraction, and involved in founding the House of Bewlay pipe and smoker's equipment firm, which, in the days when smoking was the norm, had a big chain of shops. At the time of Patrick's birth in the British protectorate of Nyasaland (now Malawi), Edward was a tobacco farmer, but he and his wife divorced while their son was still young. Patrick's mother took him back to Britain, where she eventually became the Marchioness of Downshire.

Patrick was evacuated to Canada at the start of the second world war, and studied medicine at Magill University, Montreal, for two years, until he suffered a skiing accident and began working for the campus radio station. Having played many parts in school drama - most of them, he would later joke, as girls - he revealed a talent that soon took him on to presenting work with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Abandoning his studies, he took off for Chicago, becoming one of the earliest actors in its television studios. He then headed for Hollywood.

While working in jobs that left him free for daytime auditions - as a hotel night clerk, an ice-cream salesman or a night-club photographer - Allen ran into trouble with the local mafia, who objected to some of his photographs. To get away, he borrowed money from the police and went off to earn an anonymous living as a lumberjack.

He arrived back in Britain in 1953, and promptly landed a small role in Alfred Hitchcock's film Dial M for Murder. Various stage and film roles, as heroes and villains, followed - he was particularly successful in conveying an air of slight menace - until, in 1961, he joined Peter Hall's Royal Shakespeare Company, playing both at the Aldwych theatre in John Whiting's The Devils and at Stratford as a smouldering and enigmatic Achilles in Troilus and Cressida. He returned to the company in 1972 as King Arthur in the post-Roman epic Island of the Mighty, a production disowned by its writers John Arden and Margaretta D'Arcy.

While Allen was an effective presence in such films as The Night of the Generals (1967), Alistair Maclean's Puppet on a Chain (1970) and Who Dares Wins (1982), his was not the sort of personality that led to conventional stardom. On television, he added to his off-centre appeal as an adventurer and intelligence freelance in the series Crane (1963), as a tycoon in the series Brett (1971) and as Dickens' fact-bound schoolmaster and MP Thomas Gradgrind in Hard Times (1977).

But it was his commercial involvement, including in the US and the Middle East, that enabled him to prosper, especially in times when the entertainment industry sought safety in banal, rather than striking, personalities. Allen saw himself as an acting professional who could hire out his skills to the job of selling. In the mid-1970s, for instance, he accepted honorary membership of the Society of Snuff-Grinders, Blenders and Purveyors, having lectured more than 1,000 people on the joys of taking snuff as the result of an association with Fribourg & Treyer, the oldest snuff shop in London.

His financial acumen earned him Rolls-Royces, Bentleys and, at one time, homes in London (in a mews near Hyde Park Corner), Brighton (a five-storey Regency property) and Portugal. To create the London home for himself, his actor wife, Sarah Lawson, whom he married in 1960, and their two sons, he knocked two houses into one, working to his own plans rather than an architect's, and doing much of the work himself.

Allen never lost his niche as a voice of authority and reassurance, even if the contexts for his utterances changed. He was a narrator for the first Blackadder series in 1983; the following year some of his lines from the Protect and Survive campaign helped take the Frankie Goes to Hollywood single Two Tribes to number one in the pop charts; he provided the voice-over for Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer in their television series The Smell of Reeves and Mortimer (1993-95); and last year he became the voice of Channel 4's digital offshoot E4.

His wife and children survive him.

John Keith Patrick Allen, actor, born March 17 1927; died July 28 2006