I don’t think I have ever been so nervous before a telephone call. I had written to Ian Carmichael, via his agent, to ask if I could interview him for an article I was writing on the late Dennis Price, who had played Jeeves to Carmichael’s Bertie Wooster in the 1960s BBC series The World of Wooster.
Carmichael had written back to say that he’d ‘try to oblige’ if I telephoned him at his North Yorkshire home. ‘I don’t think I’ll be very much help,’ he added. ‘Dennis was a very private man.’ Hardly encouraging.
I was nervous because Carmichael, like Price, was a hero of mine. I had been brought up watching his films, and although too young to remember The World of Wooster, I had loved his portrayal of the detective Lord Peter Wimsey on television in the 1970s.
Suppose Carmichael — the epitome of cheerful affability on screen, turned out to be an old curmudgeon in real life?
I needn’t have worried. Carmichael, from the minute he picked up the phone to the time he put it down, almost an hour later, could not have been friendlier. We chatted not only about poor Dennis Price, who had died a bloated alcoholic at the age of 58, but films, the weather (it was snowing heavily that day) and cricket (one of Carmichael’s great passions).
Carmichael was incredibly easy to talk to — it really did feel as if I was chatting to someone I had known all my life, which in a way of course, I had. We kept in contact, and after my article on Price was published I received a very generous hand-written letter from him saying how much he had enjoyed it. But with characteristic modesty, he declined the opportunity of an article about himself — one I would dearly love to have written. ‘I’d rather not go in for an article about my own life,’ he told me. Can you imagine any actor saying that now?
Carmichael’s long life sadly ended last week. And though the phrase ‘end of an era’ is often overused, I think it is entirely appropriate in this instance. For Carmichael was a product of a kinder, gentler and more decent Britain. We simply don’t make people of his calibre any more.
His heyday — the days when he received star billing in a succession of films, was the 1950s and early 1960s. It was a period of rising living standards — when the ordinary person had never had it so good — but also a time when the old aristocratic elite still lingered on in the corridors of power.
In those days, Carmichael usually played the likeable but accident-prone romantic lead: his most memorable roles included the naive university graduate Stanley Windrush, who unwittingly causes a major industrial dispute in the Boulting Brothers’ classic satire I’m All Right Jack, and Henry Palfry, who is one of life’s serial losers until he enrols in Alistair Sim’s ‘School of Lifemanship’ in School for Scoundrels and gains revenge on his caddish rival, played by Terry-Thomas.
As he got older, so his roles became more aristocratic. P.G. Wodehouse regarded Carmichael’s Bertie Wooster as ‘the definitive version’. And although Dorothy L. Sayers was not around to see Carmichael’s portrayal of her great detective Lord Peter Wimsey in the BBC series of the mid-1970s, it’s likely she would have been similarly impressed.
Carmichael regarded Lord Peter as a hero — according to the Daily Telegraph he ‘envied him his aristocratic insouciance, style and intellect’. Carmichael and Wimsey certainly had much in common. Both were bon vivants and connoisseurs of fine wines — Carmichael, when asked what he would do if he won a million pounds, said that he’d improve his wine cellar with a lot of ‘absolutely spiffing clarets’.
Like Wimsey, he was a man of effortless charm. ‘He had that love of life and love of people; he gathered people around him like other people gather butterflies or postage stamps,’ was one of the many tributes paid to him over the weekend.
He was also, like Lord Peter, an immaculate dresser. ‘He had a lot of style. He belonged to an age of elegance,’ said the actress Anne Reid. In one of the last interviews he gave, Carmichael lamented the dress sense of modern celebrities who ‘go on chat shows in scruffy open-neck shirts’. ‘I don’t think that’s right,’ he added. ‘You should always appear respectably dressed.’
Despite his considerable achievements, Carmichael was immensely unassuming. Although he had received the OBE, the headed notepaper he used simply had the words ‘Ian Carmichael’ on it. ‘He was never pushy. He sort of wandered through the world of film,’ recalls Richard Briers.
Carmichael was a product of a society where it was considered ‘jolly bad form’ to boast or to use one’s elbows to get to the top. He was from an age when the British were known the world over for their good manners — for apologising even when there was nothing to apologise for. It was an era when loyalty — to one’s country, one’s family and one’s comrades — came before personal advancement or monetary gain. Carmichael always turned out, whatever the weather, for the Remembrance Day service at Helmsley, where his old regiment — the 22nd Dragoons — was billeted at Duncombe Park.
Sadly, the Britain of good manners, loyalty and self-effacement, the Britain personified by Ian Carmichael, has been destroyed by 40 years of ‘me first’ social and economic libertinism.
The old elite which Carmichael so often portrayed — the elite of well-meaning but often bumbling toffs and aristocratic amateurs — has been replaced by a new, more hard-boiled and far less likeable ruling class who have only one motivation: making money. The new age of materialism — enthusiastically encouraged by the new elite — has coarsened our everyday lives. Today’s icons are not self-effacing actors like Ian Carmichael, gentleman footballers like Tom Finney, or mild-mannered singers like Matt Monro, but charmless, foul-mouthed vulgarians like Alan Sugar, Gordon Ramsay and Amy Winehouse.
On Saturday night, I tuned in to the main BBC1 news bulletin to see what clips of Carmichael’s films they would show. And how did our national broadcaster mark the death of one our country’s best-loved actors? By ignoring it all together. Perhaps the BBC bigwigs decided not to feature Carmichael’s demise on their main evening bulletin because they thought younger people wouldn’t have heard of him. Or perhaps this very old-fashioned figure didn’t fit in with their brave new dumbed-down world. Either way, we should remember Ian Carmichael, not just because of his wonderful performances on film and television, but because this most delightful of men reminds us of the country we once were.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated February 13, 2010