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Goodbye to Gorden Kay

Acting is like a magic carpet: it can take you to some strange and unexpected places. Who would have guessed that a shy, overweight Yorkshireman from Huddersfield would end up internationally famous as a French café-owner pursued by beautiful waitresses during the Second World War?

But that’s what happened to Gorden Kay, who played the café-owner René Artois in the highly successful BBC sit-com ’Allo, ’Allo and who has just died at the age of 75. He owed the unusual spelling of his first name to a mistake at hospital, but he didn’t allow chance to govern his choice of profession. Like many others, he went into acting to improve his self-confidence and explore his own personality. And he did a lot better than most. Acting is competitive business, with many people chasing few roles. Kay won a part in Coronation Street at the end of the 1960s, playing the nephew of the long-running favourite Elsie Tanner, then became an increasingly familiar face in sit-coms and dramas during the 1970s, appearing everything from Till Death Do Us Part to All Creatures Great and Small.

But all of his appearances were minor and none hinted at the fame he would enjoy in the 1980s. The comedy writers David Croft and Jeremy Lloyd had already had a big hit with Are You Being Served?, the innuendo-laden, catchphrase-and-character-driven sit-com set in a London department store. They decided to try the same formula – lots of innuendo, catchphrases and memorable characters – in a new setting: a French café during the Second World War. And so ’Allo, ’Allo was born. Parodying the serious war-time series that had been popular in the 1970s, ’Allo, ’Allo was far from sophisticated and probably most people who watched the first episode thought it wouldn’t stay for long.

They were wrong, of course: it enjoyed ten years of top ratings and is still remembered with affection by millions of people not just in the UK but right around the world. It was a hit in France and Germany too, despite – or perhaps because of – the crude stereotypes it peddled of both those nations. As one of the performers said of the series: “The French were randy, the Germans were kinky and the English were stupid.” That was Vicki Michelle, who played the beautiful waitress Yvette Carte-Blanche and improbably pursued René through dozens of increasingly convoluted episodes. There were catchphrases galore: every week the resistance agent Michelle Dubois would turn up and announce, “Leesten vairy cairfully, I weel say zees only wance.” The British spy Crabtree would turn up too, disguised as a gendarme and greeting René with a cheerful “Good moaning” before becoming involved in a plot to “rib a bonk”.

One of René’s own catchphrases paid tribute to his Yorkshire roots: “Oh ’eck!” Disasters constantly threatened René and the café, but were always averted in the nick of time. But disaster struck for real in 1990: Gorden Kay was seriously injured when a piece of debris flew through the windscreen of his car during a storm. He had to undergo delicate brain surgery and it was feared that he might never have return to normal life, let alone to his leading role in ’Allo, ’Allo. But the programme actually helped him back to recovery: watching videos of his own performances helped him regain his memory and recover his acting skills.

Kay enjoyed two more series of hiding British airmen from the Germans, hunting the painting of The Fallen Madonna with the Big Bobbies, and evading the suspicions of his wife Edith. After ’Allo, ’Allo ended in 1992, he would never repeat the fame and success he had as René Artois, but he was perfectly content with that: “There is no other character I would rather have played,” he once said. He made millions of people laugh and will keep on doing so, because ’Allo, ’Allo is still popular. Gorden Kay was a big part of its success.