Michael Coveney: Roger Lloyd Pack triggers fond memories
Our chief critic pays tribute to a naturally funny man who learned to accept his indelible association with Only Fools and Horses
Brave faces all round at the Arcola last night as friends and colleagues of Roger Lloyd Pack, who died on Wednesday, gathered for the opening of the Spanish Golden Age season coming to town from last October's first airing at the Theatre Royal, Bath.
One close friend in particular, William Hoyland, had the possible advantage of having to get on with his performance as a tetchily protective and demanding father figure in Don Gil of the Green Breeches. But his wife, Carole De Jong, told me how hard Bill had taken the news, even though he was one of the few people who knew Roger had been suffering from pancreatic cancer for 18 months.
It's interesting how many people are affected by the death of a much-loved actor, or a great writer, as opposed, say, to the death of a famous sportsman or leading politician. As Hamlet says, an actor is the abstract and brief chronicle of our time, and (as Hamlet doesn't say) a gifted writer its recording angel; they each bear witness to our common humanity, so something of ourselves dies with them, too.
Lloyd Pack had to live with his status as a national treasure on account of his performance as the road sweeper Trigger in Only Fools and Horses, one of the most popular, and best-written, television sit-coms of the past 50 years; he found this difficult to cope with, and also knew he'd only be remembered for that role. But he never stopped admiring the writer, John Sullivan, or his fellow actors including David Jason, Nicholas Lyndhurst and John Challis. And he always embraced his own luck.
I was hoping he was going to come and watch the first day of the Ashes cricket series with me last summer in the apartment of a friend, the agent Susan Angel, whose balcony looks right over the Lord's ground. He was all set, but rang up a day or so beforehand to say that he'd been invited to a box inside the ground by the BBC commentator and former Leicestershire and England fast bowler Jonathan Agnew.
He did this so lightly and un-self-importantly, that I felt as if I'd committed a social solecism in the first place and that he, on his part, was agonising unnecessarily, but agonising nonetheless, about accepting the obviously more attractive offer.
He was a regular in the Test Match Special commentary box (and a member of the MCC), talking about his love for the game, and related show business matters, with a characteristic modesty and driest of wits. Agnew and colleagues, especially Henry Blofeld, a PG Wodehouse specialist, love theatre and especially comedy, and there's a great affiliation between theatre and cricket anyway: playwrights Tom Stoppard, David Hare, Howard Brenton and lyricist Tim Rice are all fanatics, as were Harold Pinter and Simon Gray.
But actors, perhaps, have a special feel for the dramas, dangers and exhilarations of the game, and Roger was very good at discussing those, as indeed was Rafe Spall when he was a guest on TMS last summer.
Lloyd Pack, whose father, Charles Lloyd Pack, was an extremely well-known actor in his day, had a rich and rewarding career in the theatre, working at the RSC and the National, as well as with Bill Gaskill and Max Stafford-Clark's Joint Stock company (precursor to Out of Joint, a sort of Royal Court in exile) in the mid 1970s.
But you rarely saw much evidence of what the Telegraph calls this morning - and on the front page, too - his "comedy genius," as we did in the television sit-coms Only Fools and The Vicar of Dibley; in the first, he was a gormless, lovable downbeat loser who had raised lugubrious, hang-dog dim-wittedness to an art form; in the second, as the small-time farmer, Owen Newitt, with an unlikely (and obviously unreciprocated) crush on Dawn French's ball-breaking vicar, he implied a somewhat over-ambiguous relationship with his own livestock.
He was simply funny in the bone, and in the water; he couldn't help but be funny. And he at last translated this "comedy genius" into his stage work last year when he played Andrew Aguecheek in the Shakespeare's Globe candlelit Twelfth Night both on the South Bank and in the West End (he also played Buckingham to Rylance's Richard III, but he was slightly hobbled by a pair of squeaky shoes which took the edge off his unaccustomed nastiness, at the Globe at least).
Trigger became such a by-word in the nation's sense of humour that the outstanding Irish footballer, Roy Keane, named his dog after him, as I'm sure thousands of others must have dubbed a particularly much-loved floppy old mutt. I can't imagine many dogs running around called Clooney, or Gambon (well, perhaps a horse called Gambon) or even a Jack Russell Beale.
And here's another thing. In death, Roger suddenly became hyphenated, in some quarters at least. He was always no more Lloyd-Pack than Andrew was Lloyd-Webber, one of the very few things he had in common with the great composer. Perhaps, if he'd been given a peerage, he would have had to pierce the names with a dash as ALW now does when pre-fixed a Lord. But that's strictly a ruling of protocol and tradition, not of punctuation observance.
Perhaps he should be so elevated in retrospect, not least for popularising so many of Sullivan's great lines and exchanges, many of which have gone viral on the internet. My favourites include the exchange between Del Boy and Trigger when thwarted on a late-night trip to the rubbish dump: "You said this place was open 24 hours a day!" "Yeah, but not at night"; and with Del recalling his youthful promise as a footballer: "We had Denzil in goal, we had Monkey Harris at right back, we had...we had camaraderie..." "Was that the Italian boy?" They don't write them like that any more; and they don't often act them, either.