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Obituary: Peter Byrne – ‘his underplayed style served him well in light comedy’

Peter Byrne

Peter Byrne’s early ambition was to be a heavyweight tragic actor but, as he told The Stage:
“I realised I was too much of a bantam.”

His underplayed, naturally accented style served him well in light comedy and, with flashes of leonine muscle and steel, gave him his career-defining role as the policeman Andy Crawford, rising through the ranks from lowly constable to detective inspector in BBC Television’s era-defining Dixon of Dock Green for two decades from 1955.

In a long association with producer Paul Elliott, Byrne also proved a shrewd businessman, the pair co-founding E and B Productions in 1969, although he amicably departed not long after, insisting: “Producers produce, actors act, and I’m an actor.”

Born in Forest Gate, east London, he won a scholarship to the Italia Conti Stage School and made his professional debut, aged 16, in John Ramsay’s Where the Rainbow Ends in Weston-super-Mare. There, he was spotted and signed to appear on radio’s The Will Hay Programme in 1945.

He followed Hay on to film as one of his put-upon teacher’s mischievous pupils, and appeared with the comic actor in the revue For Crying Out Loud at the Stoll Theatre.

After national service, he found work in rep companies in Farnham, Margate, Nottingham, and at the Connaught, Worthing, where, in 1951, he was cast as a young police constable alongside Jack Warner in Ted Willis’ stage adaptation of his hit crime film The Blue Lamp (in which Warner had played the soon-to-be eponymous Sergeant Dixon).

When Warner reprised his film role in Dixon of Dock Green, Byrne joined him, remaining with the programme and increasingly becoming its principal focus until leaving the year before it ended in 1976.

Byrne maintained a theatre profile even at the height of his television fame. The year he first appeared at Dock Green station, he played Phil Archer in an adaptation of BBC Radio’s recently launched The Archers in a season at the Blackpool Grand.

He returned often to the Connaught, Worthing, where he was seen in 1956 as the soldier-hero in Allon Bacon’s musical adaptation of a Victorian comedy, She Smiled at Me, transferring with it to the St Martin’s Theatre. Later West End appearances included Boeing-Boeing (Duchess Theatre, 1966), Terence Frisby’s There’s a Girl in My Soup (Globe and Comedy theatres, 1968) and, in its 50th year, The Mousetrap (St Martin’s Theatre, 2001). He also directed The Mousetrap in 2004.

Other stage work included tours of Anthony Shaffer’s Sleuth with Richard Todd (1975), Leslie Darbon and Peter Whelan’s Double Edge with Margaret Lockwood (1976) and Kate O’Mara (1977), Agatha Christie’s The Unexpected Guest (1978) and Paul Elliott’s debut play, There’s No Place Like a Home, alongside Gordon Kaye on tour in 2006, and at the Mill at Sonning in a 2013 revival.

An occasional director, he was in charge of productions for the Palace Court Theatre, Bournemouth in 1965-66 and directed a substantial number of pantomimes for E and B Productions.

His television work also included Blake’s 7 (1981), 23 episodes of Carla Lane’s Bread – in which he was the “fancy man” of Jean Boht’s Nellie Boswell (1988-91) – and, in his final small-screen
appearance, a 2012 episode of Holby City.

Peter James Byrne was born on January 29, 1928, and died on May 14, aged 90.

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