I'd be a fool to have regrets - Ian Lavender

When Ian Lavender signed up in 1968 to play guileless Private Frank Pike in a new BBC sitcom called Dad's Army, he had no clue he was stepping into TV history.

None of the cast could have predicted the huge success of what must have seemed at the time a rather innocuous World War Two comedy about a bumbling band of Home Guardsmen.

At just 22, Birmingham-born Lavender was still wet behind the ears in terms of his acting career.

He was not long out of drama school and had made just one previous TV appearance. In contrast, the rest of the Dad's Army crew were comic veterans.

What was expected to be an eight-week job turned into one lasting 10 years - a decade over which Lavender helped create a comedy classic that would still be on TV screens more than 40 years later.

After his service with the Walmington-on-Sea Home Guard, Lavender appeared on stage - memorably with Dustin Hoffman in The Merchant of Venice and also in Sister Act: The Musical.

The cast of Dad's Army
The unforgettable Dad's Army with Lavender, aka Pike, second from right

Other parts in such TV comedies as Yes Minister and Keeping Up Appearances came his way. He also appeared in a number of films and made a a cameo part in the 2016 Dad's Army film.

He also made a memorable foray into Albert Square as Derek Harkinson, Pauline Fowler's gay friend in EastEnders.

Yet nothing could eclipse Lavender's years as Pike. Throughout his life, fans continued to call out his fictional name.

As the last surviving member of the old guard, he came to be regarded as the lantern bearer for the memory of their favourite show.

No regrets

Lavender admitted Pike had somewhat limited his wider career.

"I've certainly been typecast, but nobody expects you to come up with that character," he told The Independent in 1998.

"People don't want Frank Pike, but they do expect you to be funny."

Nonetheless, he remained immensely proud of the role that made him a household name.

"If you asked me, 'Would you like to be in a sitcom that was watched by 18 million people, was on screen for 10 years, and will create lots of work for you and provide not just for you but for your children for the next 40-odd years'… I'd be a fool to have regrets," he told The Guardian in 2014.

Lavender was born and bred in the city of Birmingham and attended Bournville Boys Technical School. From there he went on to the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School.

Ian Lavender and Suzanne Kerchiss in 1968
Ian Lavender's first wife was Suzanne Kerchiss

His policeman father gave him a passion for cricket; his mother brought him music. The acting bug took hold in school productions, while a trip to see the Buster Keaton film The General ignited a life-long obsession with the comedy legend.

After graduating from drama school, Lavender went into regional theatre before taking a role in the TV play Half Hour Story: Flowers at My Feet.

'I was so green'

When his agent rang to tell him he'd successfully auditioned for Dad's Army, written by the comedy kings Jimmy Perry and David Croft, Lavender accepted more as a way to avoid going into repertory theatre than a way to chase fortune and fame.

He soon found himself on a bus to Norfolk, where much of Dad's Army was filmed, along with a bunch of ageing, respected thesps.

Ian Lavender and John Le Mesurier in Dad's Army
Lavender (in purple and blue scarf) with co-star John Le Mesurier

"I was so green, I didn't even know we weren't coming home that night," he remembered in 2014. "I had to nip home quickly and pack a bag; I'd never stayed in a hotel before."

The cast included Arthur Lowe, John Le Mesurier, Clive Dunn, Bill Pertwee and John Laurie. "They looked after me… literally I would sit at their feet," Lavender recalled.

Each episode took six days to make, including rehearsals. A series took 10 weeks to film, meaning the cast had to find other work in between.

The show was slow to take off and the first reviews were "damning with very faint praise". But gradually the audience grew, and at the height of its popularity it was pulling in more than 18 million viewers.

Pike was the "stupid boy" (after Captain Mainwaring's constant put-down) in a woolly purple and blue scarf (a nod to Lavender's home team Aston Villa) who became the butt of many of the comedy's most memorable gags.

The "Don't Tell Him, Pike" scene generated one of the show's most oft-repeated lines.

Lavender's chief friend and mentor amongst the cast was John Laurie, the Scottish actor who played the dour undertaker Frazer.

When the cameras weren't rolling they would sit together for a good chat, often doing a cryptic crossword - a skill Laurie taught Lavender to master.

"If I could choose one member of the cast to survive it would be John," Lavender told the Telegraph in 2018.

"I loved him, actually. He was naughty, he was impish and he suffered no fools."

There was a spin-off film in 1971, with most of the original cast, and a stage show in 1975 with sketches and music.

Michele (Miki) Hardy was a choreographer on the show and became Lavender's second wife. His first marriage to actress Suzanne Kerchiss ended in 1976 after nine years and two children.

Lasting affection

When Dad's Army came to an end in 1977, Lavender was left with a burning question.

He went to David Croft and asked straight out if Uncle Arthur (played by John Le Mesurier) was Pike's father. "He looked at me and said 'Of course he is.' I never knew until then. I just said the lines," he said in 2014.

Lavender constantly denied rumours of a feud within the cast and said they had all remained friends. In 2008 there was a reunion of the surviving cast for the show's 40th anniversary.

Ian Lavender with the cast of Sister Act: The Musical
Lavender was in the cast of West End show Sister Act: The Musical

The success of the show, which continues to be repeated, never ceased to amaze him.

Even when overseas, people would recognise him despite the inevitable physical changes brought on by age. He would also make the odd star appearance at fan conventions.

Then there was the second movie in 2016 starring, among others, Toby Jones, Bill Nighy and Blake Harrison as Pike.

Lavender was invited to play Brigadier Pritchard - "the highest rank I have ever reached", he told the Birmingham Mail.

"It was great fun and I was given such a great welcome," he continued. "A lot of people were saying it was a bad idea to remake Dad's Army, but I don't think that at all."

Yet despite his enduring pride and affection for Dad's Army, Lavender felt his finest hour came playing George in a stage version of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 1998.

"But I wouldn't have done it or lots of other things if I hadn't done Dad's Army," he acknowledged.

Theatre and Albert Square

That same year he directed the pantomime Aladdin, in which he played Widow Twankey.

On TV he appeared in comedies including Rising Damp and dramas such as Casualty.

Ian Lavender with Jonathan Ross in 2008
Jonathan Ross reminisces with Ian Lavender about his Dad's Army days

He also worked regularly in theatre, touring with The Rocky Horror Show and appearing in The Shawshank Redemption on the Edinburgh Fringe.

But his most high-profile role post-Dad's Army was undoubtedly in EastEnders.

Lavender played Derek between 2001 and 2005, reviving the role in 2016 before leaving the following year.

"I enjoyed it immensely," he told the Radio Times. "I've got nothing but admiration for all the soaps, for the getting on the screen of three and four episodes a week. The pure discipline of that; everybody's got their job."

He said he would go back but ill health prevented it. He became seriously ill with sepsis while filming Channel 5's A Celebrity Taste of Italy, from which he took a long time to recover.

He had previously overcome cancer, a heart attack and two thromboses.

Summing up his Dad's Army days, Lavender said teamwork and chemistry was key to the show's success. "We got on, with ourselves - and the audiences." he said.

"I am glad to be remembered for it. I have never understood why actors say, 'It's not the only thing I've done.'"