Obituary: Gorden Kaye
Despite its setting in Nazi-occupied France and gleeful revelling in wartime irreverence, double entendres, homophobia and racial caricatures, David Croft and Jeremy Lloyd’s ’Allo ’Allo was a huge hit for much of the 1980s, regularly drawing television audiences of 16 million and more.
It made a star out of Gorden Kaye, who played the libidinous, hen-pecked cafe owner Rene Artois – perpetually caught between domestic drudgery, thwarted carnality and Gestapo menace – in all 85 episodes from 1982-92 and a one-off special in 2007.
So popular was the show – its many catchphrases included Rene’s own “You may wonder what I am doing…” as he directly gave the audience the narrative backstory of each show as it opened – that Kaye went on to repeat the role in more than 1,200 performances of the stage version. First seen at the Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, it transferred to the West End’s Prince of Wales Theatre in 1986.
Revived a further five times, on its first return at the London Palladium in 1988, it took more than £1 million in advance bookings. It was seen again at the Palladium in 1989, the following year at Blackpool’s North Pier Theatre and subsequently at London’s Dominion Theatre (1992) and the Pier Theatre, Bournemouth in 1996.
Kaye had been fortunate to enjoy ’Allo ’Allo’s continuing success. In January 1990 he narrowly avoided death when a storm-damaged billboard smashed through the windscreen of his car and impaled itself in his skull. In a coma for two weeks, he took months to recover before rejoining the show in Blackpool later that year.
Born in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, he claimed to know from an early age that he was gay – an unthinkable admission at the time – and played the class fool to distract the attention of bullies. After school and college he worked in a variety of manual jobs and in Bradford developed an interest in amateur theatre.
A spell on hospital radio led to Alan Ayckbourn casting him in a BBC radio play, after which he was smitten by acting. In the late 1960s he joined the rep company of the Octagon Theatre, Bolton, from where he was recruited on to television to play Elsie Tanner’s geeky student nephew in Coronation Street for eight months after being spotted by actor Pat Phoenix.
A smattering of guest appearances followed – including first brushes with Croft and Lloyd in a 1977 episode of It Ain’t Half Hot Mum and subsequently the pair’s sci-fi comedy Come Back Mrs Noah (1977-78) – before attracting attention in Douglas Livingstone’s black comedy about feuding south London families, Born and Bred (1978-80).
Dividing his time between television and the stage, Kaye was seen as the roadie Plugge in CP Lee’s “snuff rock” musical Sleak at the Royal Court Theatre, London (1970), as Mole in Toad of Toad Hall (Leeds Playhouse, 1972), in Barrie Keeffe’s Better Times (Theatre Royal Stratford East, 1985) and alongside Madge Hindle in Christopher Wood’s comic two-hander Elsie and Norm’s “Macbeth” (Gateway Theatre, Chester, 1989).
In 1993 he appeared with Jean Boht and Gwen Watford in Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads in a touring production directed by the playwright.
At the Shaftesbury Theatre in 1995, he proved to be an amiable Elwood P Dowd, the adult innocent pursued by a 2 metre-tall invisible rabbit, in Mary Chase’s Harvey.
Later touring appearances included Giles Havergal’s adaptation of Graham Greene’s Travels With My Aunt (1997), Ray Cooney’s Out of Order (2000), John Chapman and Jeremy Lloyd’s Business Affairs (2001) and a first play by the producer Paul Elliott, There’s No Place Like a Home (2006).
Kaye also made several music hall appearances, occasionally singing songs by Stephen Sondheim, at the City Varieties, Leeds.
After ’Allo ’Allo finished in 1992, Kaye’s television profile all but disappeared, save for the one-off wartime comedy-drama The Bullion Boys (1993) and as the Farmer in the star-studded but unsuccessful sketch show Revolver (2001-04).
He published his autobiography, Rene and Me, in 1989, in which he attributed the singular spelling of his name to an error on a hospital medical chart. It was, he later declared, “evidence of a misspelt youth’.
In 1998 he was elected King Rat of the entertainers’ charity the Grand Order of Water Rats.
Gordon ‘Gorden’ Fitzgerald Kaye was born on April 7, 1941 and died on January 23, aged 75.
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