Frank Thornton
The role of Captain Peacock was ideal for Thornton,(pictured right, with John Inman on the right) a gifted comedy straight man. (Photo: BBC) BBC

Frank Thornton, better known as his on-screen persona of Captain Peacock in Are You Being Served? has died at the age of 92.

With its camp humour and saucy innuendo, the BBC comedy was a huge ratings hit from 1972 to 1985, often pulling in audiences of over 20 million.

Thornton played the role of a pompous department store manager, who tried and often failed to keep discipline among his staff.

The cast of Are You Being Served? included John Inman, a camp store assistant with the legendary catchphrase of "I'm free!" delivered in a knowing, falsetto voice and a twinkle in his eye.

The role of Captain Peacock was ideal for Thornton, a gifted comedy straight man. His military bearing and old-fashioned morals made him a good foil for characters such as Mrs Slocombe (Mollie Sugden), who embarrassed and alarmed poor old Peacock with the daily habits and mishaps of her pussy.

Born on 15 January 1921 in south London, Thornton was enraptured by watching the comedy stars of the silent film at a local cinema, and aspired to act from early childhood.

However, his father wanted a more secure profession for his son, and insisted that Thornton went into insurance. Not to be put off, the young Thornton began attending evening drama classes at the London School of Dramatic Art.

At the outbreak of World War II, Thornton was evacuated to Oxfordshire where he found his first job in a touring production.

During his time in the RAF entertainment unit, Thornton met up with other actors and comedians such as Dick Emery, Peter Sellers and Tony Hancock.

Many roles followed, and Thornton appeared in comedies such as Last of the Summer Wine, Hancock's Half Hour, No Sex Please, We're British and Gosford Park.

The actor's career that spanned more than 50 years and he was regarded as one of the finest British character actors.

He is survived by Beryl, his wife of 67 years, daughter Jane and their three grandchildren.

Thornton's agent David Daly said: "I have been Frank's agent since 1986 and he has been the most wonderful client as well as being a great friend. He will be sorely missed."

The veteran actor died peacefully in his sleep at his home in Barnes, London, on Saturday.

Many tweets expressed sadness at Thornton's death. TV Producer Paul Duane said: "Lovely old Frank Thornton, of Are You Being Served? has died. He was a terrifically nice chap to work with."