Together with his friend and writing partner John Bird, John Fortune, who has died aged 74 after a long illness, was a distinguished member of the Oxbridge generation of comedians who revolutionised British entertainment in the early 1960s. Other notable members of this talented generation would include Peter Cook, Jonathan Miller, Alan Bennett, David Frost, Eleanor Bron and John Wells.
From his earliest days on Ned Sherrin's Not So Much a Programme, More a Way of Life, the successor in 1964-1965 to the satirical television magazine That Was the Week That Was, through to the comedy shows with Rory Bremner in the 1990s and beyond, he was a fixture of barely surprised indifference, with a wonderful line in deflationary, logical understatement.
Tall and gangly, with a warm and ready smile but a performance default mode of aghast, beady-eyed inquiry, he seemed to make his points almost by accident; especially so when quizzing Bird’s brilliantly evasive all-purpose civil servant, think-tank person or fat-cat businessman, Sir George Parr, in their improvised sketches on the state of politics and the economy.
These hilarious and deadly duologues appeared first in 1992 on Rory Bremner's show on BBC. In 1993 the trio moved to Channel 4, and then Bird and Fortune had their own series, The Long Johns (1995-1997). The three joined forces again in Bremner, Bird and Fortune from 1999 onwards, the last full series coming in 2008.
Fortune was the son of Hubert William George Wood, a commercial traveller, and his wife, Edna Maude Fortune. He was educated at the cathedral school in Bristol and King’s College, Cambridge, where he read English, attended lectures by the critic FR Leavis and performed in, and wrote, revues with Cook and Bron at the Footlights club.
On graduating, he thought of working in adult education, but decided to help Cook open his Establishment Club in Soho instead. From 1961, he worked there, and then in the theatre and television for more than 50 years. He appeared in Alan Bennett’s On the Margin sketch show in 1966 and in the same author’s Forty Years On when it was revived much later on.
With Wells he wrote an outrageous comic novel, A Melon for Ecstasy (its title derived from a Turkish proverb, “A woman for duty, a boy for pleasure, but a melon for ecstasy”), and transformed his student-days friendship with Bird into a 1976 BBC sitcom, Well Anyway.
He and Bird appeared as the poet and the painter in Jonathan Miller’s 1981 BBC television version of Timon of Athens. He joined Warren Mitchell and Ken Campbell in the 17th takeover cast of Yasmina Reza’s Art, in which he played, gloriously deadpan, a dermatologist who has bought a blank white canvas for 200,000 francs.
He appeared in two Nigel Cole films, Saving Grace (2000) and the triumphant Calendar Girls (2003), and played John the chauffeur in Woody Allen’s Match Point (2005). But he will be remembered best for his upright resistance to the flim-flam of public life, as when asked: while suffering a cardiac arrest, what is the first thing you need when you get to the hospital? “That’s right, a parking space.”
He gave his hobby in Who’s Who as “lounging about” and collected ethnic textiles as well as political gaffes and banalities. He was married first to Susannah Waldo in 1962 (the marriage was dissolved in 1976), with whom he had a son and a daughter; they, and his second wife, Emma Burge, whom he married in 1995, and their son, survive him.