“WELL . . . yes . . . I can do vicars,” the actor Frank Williams replied when his agent phoned him about a part in the BBC’s Home Guard comedy Dad’s Army. Thus began his lasting association in television and film audiences’ minds with the Revd Timothy Farthing, Vicar of Walmington-on-Sea (19??-??), though many would be surprised to learn that he wasn’t in the series from the start. He died last Sunday, aged 90.
Williams’s debut was, in fact, in “The Armoured Might of Lance Corporal Jones”, the first episode of the third series, and he soon became an established double act with the Walmington verger — who always called him “your Rev’rence” — played by Edward Sinclair: “the kindest of men and he and I became great friends”, Williams recalled in his memoirs (Vicar to Dad’s Army, Canterbury Press, 2002). When a new film spin-off appeared in 2016, Williams was the only member of the original cast to reprise his role. The series ran from 1968 to 1977.
His other work included a range of theatrical and film roles, as well as that of Captain Pocket in The Army Game, an ITV comedy pre-dating Dad’s Army. After Farthing, his TV appearances in clericals ascended in dignity, thanks to an archdeaconry (Vanity Fair, 1987) and a bishopric (You Rang, M’Lord?, 1990).
But it was an early and rather cushy role, extended over several weeks, as a patient in the hospital drama Emergency Ward 10, of which he reminded the General Synod when, as a longstanding London member of the House of Laity, he spoke in a debate, instigated by Margaret Brown in 1997, on moral standards in the media. Such had been the reticence of live TV drama in those days, he recalled, that he had been able to watch himself from home undergo an operation.
As a young actor, he and his friends had mocked censorship; but he had learnt since that bad language led to bad behaviour. And he regretted that so much that passed for satire nowadays was sniggering smuttiness.
A devout Anglo-Catholic traditionalist, he spoke up, too, when he saw the central doctrines of the faith as under attack from liberal theologians. In a debate in 1990 on another of Mrs Brown’s private member’s motions, concerning the resurrection and incarnation, he told the Synod: “Many of us are made to feel as if we are rather simple and totally incapable of understanding theological argument. . .
“Individuals may have reservations about this or that article of faith. The point at issue is not the private beliefs of individuals, but what the Church teaches and proclaims. For two thousand years, we have proclaimed belief in a supernatural God, a God who acts and who did so supremely in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of his Son. . . This is the faith that those outside the Synod want to hear proclaimed, and they want to hear it proclaimed clearly and without equivocation.”