Scots actor best known for Dear John

Born: December 8, 1948;

Died: July 21, 2018

PETER Blake, who has died aged 69, was an actor who, with his jet-black hair, baritone voice, tall, rangy frame, and flexible mouth stretching into a wide grin, brought a touch of rock and roll to the acting profession. On stage for decades in musicals, he attained a wider public as the leather-jacketed star of a Grease-styled commercial for “Lip-smackin’” Pepsi Cola in 1976, and as a cocksure, boastful poltroon styling himself Kirk St Moritz in the BBC sitcom Dear John.

Fellow actor Julian Dutton remembers him as “like a strutting cockerel, very confident, always entering a room with a swagger. There was always a laugh when he was around…He was always full of life, bursting into green rooms with a shout and a laugh - a true bon viveur.”

He was born John Beattie Dempsey on 8th December 1948, in Selkirk, his mother’s home town and where she had met his father, Staff Sergeant ‘Jack’ Dempsey, during his training. They would always address their son as Ian, due to its being the Gaelic form of John, and he termed them “a Border Maiden” and “a Scottish Soldier”.

After the family moved to Worcestershire, annual returns home for the Selkirk Common Riding were a highlight. Dutton recalls “He was very proud of his Scottish heritage, and was always singing Scottish folk songs.” Blake maintained his facility with accents “was honed in an atmosphere of self-preservation – school playgrounds”.

While training at what is now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, in Glasgow, he made his debut in Frank Dunlop’s production of The Winter’s Tale at the Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh, in 1966). Three years later saw him as a “Stage Manager – not a part!” in strip clubs in Soho, before an Amsterdam production of Hair led to its West End version at the Shaftesbury. Pharaoh in Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (Albery, 1973) and Pontius Pilate in Jesus Christ Superstar (Palace, 1974), followed.

A satirical revue for the Bicentennial, What’s A Nice Country Like US Doing In A State Like This? (May Fair, 1976), was produced by arch-farceur Ray Cooney. A season at Chichester Festival Theatre the following year saw Blake make a charismatic Devil in a musical, Make Me A World, before Murder In The Cathedral, staged by Patrick Garland in Chichester Cathedral.

Blake’s first sitcom as a regular was the then ground-breaking Agony (LWT, 1979-81), in which he was in swaggering mode as a lecherous, egotistical DJ with the catchphrase “Hea-vee”; the series starred Maureen Lipman as an agony aunt. The premiere of Cooney’s Run For Your Wife, at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford in 1982, starred the playwright himself, with Blake as a police sergeant. The latter repeated when it transferred to the Shaftesbury the following year toplining Richard Briers, and again at the Criterion in 1986.

Still with West End musicals and agony aunts, Blake was Jane Lapotaire’s boyfriend in Dear Anyone (Cambridge, 1983). With hair dyed blond, as an escaped spy, he was one of what publicity termed “An All Star Cast in Philip King’s Famous Farce See How They Run” in 1984, again under Cooney’s auspices at the Shaftesbury, and again with Lipman.

Blake played Kirk in Dear John while wearing an outfit derived from Saturday Night Fever, and convincingly sounding like a Londoner. On BBC2, from Reggie Perrin creator David Nobbs, Dogfood Dan And The Carmarthen Cowboy (1988) cast Blake as the second-named, and more eager, of a titular pair of long distance lorry drivers who unknowingly conduct affairs with each other’s wives, and allowed him to add Welsh to his accents.

In 1988 several of the Dear John cast appeared in a touring production of Alan Ayckbourn’s Absent Friends. Blake’s understudy was Dutton, who recalls that while playing dates in the South-West and hearing of an uncle’s death: “Peter insisted on travelling all the way up to the Highlands of Scotland between shows for the funeral, arriving back in the nick of time for that night’s performance. He literally arrived in the wings with seconds to spare. I was ready to go on. He hadn’t slept a wink in 48 hours. He smiled, winked at me, adjusted his costume, patted me on the shoulder, and made his entrance. After the show did he slink off to his hotel for a well-earned rest? No – we were out on the town again, and many a toast to his departed uncle was made with a bottle of single malt.”

Having taken over as Frank-N-Furter during The Rocky Horror Show’s original run, at the King’s Road Theatre in 1976, he returned to it for a 1992 tour and at Bournemouth in 1994, though now irked by audience throwing objects, “it was more like being a lion-tamer than an actor”. Split Ends (ITV, 1989) was a failed sitcom, but Blake re-teamed with its star Anita Dobson in The Snow Queen (Yvonne Arnaud, 1994) and Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs (Orchard, 1997), both adapted by Agony and Dear John co-star Peter Denyer.

A musical of Hard Times (Theatre Royal, Haymarket, 2000) was not a long-runner, but both Money To Burn (The Venue, 2003), with Blake as a murderous, Rabelaisian Lord, and Mike Read’s Oscar Wilde (Shaw, 2004), in the title role, had the unfortunate distinction of closing after their opening night.

Blake enjoyed donning black leather trousers again, as a King Rat owing something to Elvis, in Dick Whittington at the Forum, Hatfield in 1993 and the Marlowe, Canterbury in 2002. Latterly, he lived in France. The marriage to his second wife Kim ended in divorce in 2011.