The actor Frank Williams, who has died aged 90, was best known as the Rev Timothy Farthing in Dad’s Army, one of the BBC’s most popular TV series. Although this mild-mannered vicar was a bit of a joke and a ditherer, Williams himself was a deeply religious man, an Anglican churchgoer.
Indeed, in his later years he served three terms (1985-2000) as a representative of the diocese of London in the General Synod, where he expressed opposition to the ordination of women – he left the vote, which went against him in 1992, in tears – but never left the church, and often spoke up for better treatment of gay people.
He joined Dad’s Army, which ran from 1968 to 1977 (and has rarely been off the screen since), at the start of the third series, in 1969, when the vicar’s church hall in Walmington-on-Sea was commandeered by the elderly platoon for drill and strategic planning. It was not an arrangement Farthing welcomed.
Apart from Ian Lavender as the “stupid boy” Pike, Williams was the youngest member of the cast and recorded the friendships and camaraderie of the series, together with tales of location shooting in Thetford, Norfolk (where the actors used the Bell Hotel as a home from home) in his memoir, Vicar to Dad’s Army (2002).
It amused him that, having once donned the dog collar, he progressed on other screen outings through the clerical ranks: as an archdeacon (“at last!”) in the final episode of the BBC’s 1987 Vanity Fair serialisation, then as a bishop in You Rang, My Lord? a comedy series set in the 1920s that ran for three years (in 25 episodes of 50 minutes each) from 1990, written by the Dad’s Army team of Jimmy Perry and David Croft.
Born in Edgware, north London, Frank lived there all his life, buying a house one and a half miles from his parents’ home (he was an only child) in 1956. His grandfather had owned a large drapery business in Wales. His father, William Williams, a Welsh nonconformist, married to Alice (nee Myles), who gave Bible classes, started other small businesses and, inheriting money, retired before Frank was born.
During the war years Frank went to a school temporarily housed in St Andrew’s Church, Edgware, before attending two private schools and boarding for two years at Ardingly college, West Sussex, in his early teens before returning to Hendon county school where, in his final year, he played the lead role in The Ghost Train by Arnold Ridley, an eventual friend and colleague as Charles Godfrey in Dad’s Army.
His life from then on was either in the church – he worshipped at St Margaret’s, Edgware, switching later to John Keble in Mill Hill – or on the amateur stage. He made his film debut, as a soldier in the trenches, in The Shield of Faith (1956) for the Rank Organisation’s religious department, following with a commercial debut as a cameraman in The Extra Day (1956), a film about making a film, with Sid James and George Baker.
As a young man, he was a regular audience member at the Watford Palace. Having befriended Jimmy and Gilda Perry, who ran the Palace as a repertory theatre in the 50s (a friendship that led eventually to his time in Dad’s Army) before it became a civic theatre under Giles Havergal, he both acted with the company and wrote plays for them.
Although his several thrillers – they all featured the word “Murder” in the title – were popular with amateur companies, they never made his name. That happened on TV, as he popped up first as a dying patient in Emergency Ward 10 and then, crucially, as Captain Pocket in The Army Game (1957-60), a Granada TV comedy series starring Bernard Bresslaw (“I only arsked”), Bill Fraser and Alfie Bass, written by Sid Colin (with contributions from Barry Took and Marty Feldman) and set in an army surplus depot and transit camp at Nether Hopping, somewhere in Warwickshire.
In this period he also played stooge characters in several Norman Wisdom films including The Square Peg (1958) and The Bulldog Breed (1960), before moving on to more “respectable” movies such as Anthony Asquith’s The VIPs (1963), Peter Yates’s Robbery (1967) and Otto Preminger’s The Human Factor (1979), the latter with a screenplay by Tom Stoppard from the Graham Greene novel.
His sporadic stage appearances included a 1965 season at the Royal Court in NF Simpson’s The Cresta Run and with Vienna’s English Theatre, the oldest such organisation in mainland Europe, in two plays by Simon Gray in the 70s. A stage version of Dad’s Army, directed by Roger Redfarn, surfaced at the Shaftesbury theatre in 1975, with interpolated music hall sequences featuring Bill Pertwee, the ARP warden, as Max Miller and Arthur Lowe, Captain Mainwaring, as Robb Wilton, and then on tour.
In what turned out to be his farewell performance in 1996, he was inspirationally cast by Jonathan Miller as old Peter Quince in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Almeida theatre in Islington in 1996, apologising to Snug with an “Oops, sorry love”, when he overlooked him in the prologue to the Pyramus and Thisbe play and mouthing everyone else’s lines anxiously in the wings.
By the time of the 2016 film version of Dad’s Army, Williams was the only actor reprising his original role. Lavender was in the cast too, but now as a brigadier.
The most important people in his life were his parents and a churchgoing friend, Betty Camkin, who died in 1992, so he always valued the “family life” with his colleagues, especially those in Dad’s Army. In later years, he was a prominent member of the Council of Equity, the actors’ union, and also served on the panel of the Olivier Awards.
• Frank John Williams, actor, born 2 July 1931; died 26 June 2022