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The Guardian (06/Oct/1999) - Obituary: Noel Johnson

(c) The Guardian (06/Oct/1999)

Noel Johnson

He played two great radio heroes, Dick Barton and Dan Dare

"Six years of battle, murder and sudden death just spoil you completely for a nice, peaceful office job. Don't you agree, Snowey?" With these words Captain Richard Barton, MC, prewar pipeline constructor in Persia, wartime commando and postwar private detective, introduced himself at 6.45pm on October 7 1946 to a radio audience that would grow to 15m. "Snowey" was ex-platoon sergeant George White, played by John Mann, and Captain Barton, known to his chums as "Dick", was played by Noel Johnson, who has died aged 82.

Johnson played two of the world's greatest heroes spanning two decades - Dick Barton: Special Agent for the 40s, and Dan Dare: Pilot Of The Future for the 50s. Curiously, while the BBC Light Programme audience knew Johnson was Barton, a clause in his Radio Luxembourg contract compelled his role as Dare be kept secret. He came to feel the Barton image had ultimately spoiled his acting career and preferred to use his real name in the theatre, films and on television.

Johnson was born in Birmingham, went to Bromsgrove School in Worcestershire, and soon took up acting. At the outbreak of war he volunteered for the Royal Army Service Corps, was evacuated from Dunkirk and spent a year in hospital before being invalided out in 1941. He returned to local repertory and married Leonora Peacock, a scenic artist, in 1942.

He joined the BBC Drama Repertory Company in 1945. Norman Collins, the novelist, was controller of the new Light Programme and had asked his assistant, John McMillan, to research the idea of a daily "cloak-and-dagger soap opera." McMillan had produced hundreds of sponsored programmes for Radio Luxembourg from 1934 to 1939, but the BBC had kept secret the fact that he had also pioneered the daily thriller serial Vic Samson: Special Investigator for Luxembourg before the war.

McMillan wrote the synopsis and biographies of Barton and his pals, but it was Collins who finally chose the name, from a list including Michael Drake. Edward J Mason and Geoffrey Webb were assigned to the scripts. They also gave Barton a 13-rule code of conduct, running from: "He relies as much upon brain as upon brawn" to "neither Dick, his colleagues or opponents, may use cut-throat razors for the purposes of intimidation." Producer Neil Tuson found a signature tune in The Devil's Galop by Charles Williams.

Johnson was given a trial run of six programmes, recorded in Birmingham. The first review appeared in the Daily Worker 12 days later: "It is so bad as to be almost beyond belief." The paper branded Barton as a crypto-fascist. Two months later, in a letter to the Times, a listener claimed: "Our poor children worried more about Barton than the future of England."

Not until the Saturday morning omnibus edition was introduced on January 4 1947 did the world discover that Noel Johnson was Dick Barton, although by then the serial was considered purely a programme for children, and BBC censors were continually altering the scripts. Billed as "Radio's Dick Barton", Johnson took the character to a summer show in Blackpool, and he was approached by Marylebone Pictures to make a film. In the end, however, Dick Barton: Special Agent (1948) starred a handsome and more muscular actor, Don Stannard. Two more films were made before he died in a car crash.

Johnson soon began to feel that he was being underpaid for such a popular radio personality, and resigned in 1949 after being refused a rise by the BBC. Within two years, however, he was starring - although unbilled - in Radio Luxembourg's adaptation of the Eagle comic character Dan Dare, in a series that ran five days a week for five years from July 2 1951.

In films Johnson played Frank Conway, special agent, in the Margaret Lockwood/Dane Clark thriller, Highly Dangerous (1950), was briefly in the David Niven/Glynis Johns comedy Appointment With Venus (1951), and fared better in Little Red Monkey (1954) playing a Scotland Yard sergeant. Latterly, he found more frequent work in television, playing the Duke of Norfolk in An Age Of Kings (1960), and roles in two A For Andromeda serials (1961-2). He had a small part in Alfred Hitchcock's Frenzy (1972), then character parts from films (Withnail And I, 1986) to TV (A Touch Of Frost, 1997).

Perhaps his most intriguing curtain call came in 1982 in the BBC2 play The Combination. Set in 1951, the story told of two 10-year-old boys who come to London for the Festival of Britain but wind up in court. Johnson played the magistrate, admonishing the boys thus: "If I had to point the finger at any single responsible body, it would be the BBC for churning out Dick Barton every solitary night of the week. If anything was guaranteed to warp the spirit of the young, it's that perverted rubbish!"

Johnson's wife predeceased him. He is survived by a son.

Noel Johnson, actor, born December 27 1916; died October 1 1999