Peter Bowles obituary | Television

Bounder, criminal, villain. Dandy, duke or diplomat. Peter Bowles, who has died aged 85 of cancer, could be all of these incarnations and often two or three of them at once.

Always distinguished and highly regarded, Bowles himself ruefully admitted that he wasn’t a “star” until, aged 43, he played Richard DeVere, the former costermonger turned supermarket tycoon, in the BBC’s hit comedy series To the Manor Born (1979-81 ), written by Peter Spence, in which he contested the affections, and the superior social status, of Penelope Keith’s not so merry widow Audrey fforbes-Hamilton.

The sure-fire premise of a classic class-conscious comedy was that Audrey, beset with debts and death duties, was obliged to downsize and set up home in the lodge on her own estate, now in the ownership of a monstrous arriviste. The ripples of resentment, compromise and green shoots of affection were the fuel of two brilliant comic performances; while Keith had already achieved national stardom in The Good Life – Bowles had turned down the role taken in that series by Paul Eddington – this was his moment di lui, and he seized it with relish.

Peter Bowles, left, with Leo McKern in Rumpole of the Bailey, 1978. Photograph: Fremantle Media / Shutterstock

Thereafter, he appeared sporadically on the West End stage as an authentic leading player, and initiated, often as a co-deviser, or “original idea” supplier, a string of major television serials including Only When I Laugh (1979-82), in which he starred with James Bolam and Christopher Strauli as one of three troublesome hospital patients under the supervision of Richard Wilson’s irascible doctor; The Irish RM (1983-85), in which he played a tetchily disposed army major serving as a resident magistrate in Ireland (“Bowles Saves Channel 4” ran one headline after it opened to rave reviews and large viewing figures); and Perfect Scoundrels (1990-92), with Bowles and Bryan Murray playing likable conmen, latter-day Robin Hoods choosing only deserving victims.

The phenomenon of a posh villain or cultured cad was nothing new. But Bowles could suggest complications beyond the superficially suave. He often paraded his charm di lui as a veil for true menace or nastiness, as well as spivvery, and there was always a hint of phoniness around the smooth-talking self-assurance. Even off-stage or off-set he was always impeccably dressed in pronounced pin-stripes and high, starched collars.

This was a result of his background. Both his parents of lui were in domestic service, but only, as they used to say, to the quality. An only child, Bowles was born in Upper Boddington, Northamptonshire, 12 miles from Banbury, to Sarah Jane (nee Harrison) and Herbert Bowles. Herbert was valet to Drogo Montagu, son of the Earl of Sandwich, while Sarah was nanny to Lady Jeanne Campbell, Lord Beaverbrook’s granddaughter, whose mother married the Duke of Argyll.

Peter Bowles and Judi Dench in Hay Fever at the Theater Royal, London, in 2006.
Peter Bowles and Judi Dench in Hay Fever at the Theater Royal, London, in 2006. Photograph: Ferdaus Shamim / WireImage

In 1940, the Bowleses moved to a two-up, two-down (with outside lavatory) in Nottingham, where Herbert now worked for Rolls-Royce and Peter was educated at High Pavement grammar school, alma mater too of the comedian John Bird. Encouraged by his own aptitude di lui in school plays, and the example of two former pupils, Philip Voss and John Turner, who had both entered the acting profession with success, Bowles secured a scholarship to Rada in London.

He shared a flat with Albert Finney (other contemporaries included Peter O’Toole, Richard Briers and Alan Bates) and he won the Kendal prize; he and Finney were promptly signed by the top US talent agency MCA.

Bowles made his professional debut in Julius Caesar at Nottingham Rep in 1955 and debuts in London and New York the following year in Romeo and Juliet (in the small role of Abraham) with the Old Vic, where he made fast friends with his future colleagues James Villiers and Bryan Pringle.

He thought he had found his pathway to classical theater distinction at the Royal Court in 1960, when he appeared in John Arden’s This Happy Haven (as the only unmasked character) and with Rex Harrison in Chekhov’s Platonov. The Arden play was directed by William Gaskill, who also led classes in movement, masks, improvisation and play construction that Bowles relished. When Gaskill was appointed an associate director at the new National Theater by Laurence Olivier, Bowles begged Gaskill to take him with other Royal Court actors, such as Joan Plowright, Robert Stephens and Colin Blakely, but Gaskill refused.

Newly married, in 1961, to the actor Susan Bennett, and soon to start a family, he plunged into film and television, abandoning the theater for 11 years after brief appearances with Coral Browne (in Bonne Soupe at Wyndham’s in 1961) and in a Séan O’Casey play at the Mermaid. He signed up as a movie gangster in Ken Annakin’s black-and-white The Informers (1963), followed by four major screen projects: Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966), co-starring with David Hemmings (who played a photographer) and Vanessa Redgrave; Tony Richardson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968), also with Hemmings and Redgrave, as well as Trevor Howard and John Gielgud; Richardson’s Laughter in the Dark (1969), adapted by Edward Bond from Vladimir Nabokov, in which a blinded art dealer’s wife gets her lover di lei to move in with them (Nicol Williamson replaced a sacked Richard Burton during the shoot); and Peter Medak’s film of Peter Nichols’s A Day in the Death of Joe Egg (1970) in which he lent notable support as a well-meaning old schoolfriend to Alan Bates and Janet Suzman as the parents of a disabled child.

Peter Bowles in The Entertainer at the Shaftesbury theater, 1986.
Peter Bowles in The Entertainer at the Shaftesbury theater, 1986. Photograph: Alastair Muir / Shutterstock

His last major film was Sidney Lumet’s The Offence (1973), in which Sean Connery gave a great performance as a flaky police officer interviewing a child abuse suspect (Ian Bannen) in a psychodrama adapted by John Hopkins from his own stage play This Story of Yours.

Two decades of television stardom were prefigured by the start, in 1976, of a 16-year association with Rumpole of the Bailey as Guthrie Featherstone QC MP and a much-loved episode of Rising Damp, starring Leonard Rossiter, in 1977, in which he wafted through as a cravat-wearing playwright called Hilary, dividing his flirtatious “rehearsal” attentions between Frances de la Tour and a long-haired Richard Beckinsale.

He returned to the theater in Alan Ayckbourn’s Absent Friends (1975) at the Garrick, humiliated by his wife (Pat Heywood), pushed to the limit by a bereaved and boring friend (Briers), and in 1976 filled his lunchtimes for six months with a hilarious turn as a north country Labor MP in Tom Stoppard’s Dirty Linen at the Almost Free in Rupert Street before it transferred – to run for seven years – at the Arts.

He played another, more unctuous, Labor MP in Nichols’s Born in the Gardens at the Globe (now the Gielgud) opposite Beryl Reid as his bereaved mother, and won resounding plaudits as Archie Rice in John Osborne’s The Entertainer at the Shaftesbury in 1986, even if the character’s nasty edge was slightly blunted.

He was much more at home as the macho medallion man Vic Parks, an armed robber turned television celebrity, in Ayckbourn’s Man of the Moment at the Globe (now Gielgud) in 1990, memorably crossing paths with the have-a-go hero of his crime in a suburban bank branch, Michael Gambon’s lolloping clerical nonentity.

The morning after the transmission of Running Late (1992), a fine Simon Gray drama in which he played a television inquisitor unraveling in his personal life, Bowles bumped into the director Peter Hall, who invited him to join his company in a 1993 revival of Terence Rattigan’s Separate Tables at the Albery (now Noël Coward). His double of Rattigan’s wrecked newspaper columnist in one play and furtive groper of women in cinemas (“It has to be in the dark, and with strangers”) in the other attracted huge critical praise and heralded nine seasons of outstanding work with Hall’s company, playing major roles in Molière and Shaw, Coward and Chekhov, at the Theater Royal, Bath, and in the West End.

He also, in this Indian summer of his stage career, appeared for the producer Bill Kenwright in two popular warhorses, Anthony Shaffer’s Sleuth and Frederick Knott’s Wait Until Dark, re-imagining both leading roles as more sinister aspects of his smooth and menacing default setting .

It was as though he had at last fully recovered from the disappointment of not joining the National 50 years earlier. He even resumed mild hostilities with Penelope Keith in a Hall revival of Sheridan’s The Rivals at the Haymarket in 2011; while Keith fired off her malapropisms imperiously, he glided elegantly around the stage in sleek gray silks as a forbiddingly dyspeptic, rakish Sir Anthony Absolute. There was a slight tailing off in his last stage appearance as Father Merrin in a pointless but ingeniously staged version of The Exorcist at the Phoenix theater in 2017. The schlock horror of the 1973 movie and Bowles’s own decent performance were all upstaged by the overwhelming, pre-recorded voice of Ian McKellen as the Demon.

Bowles, who collected British art and kept fit, he said, with “physical jerks”, was voted the Variety Club’s ITV personality of the year in 1984 and awarded an honorary doctorate by Nottingham Trent University in 2002. He published an anecdotal memoir, Ask Me If I’m Happy (2010), and a handbook on what he called “the job of acting”, Behind the Curtain (2012).

He is survived by his wife, Susan, and their three children, Guy, Adam and Sasha.

Peter Bowles, actor, born 16 October 1936; died 17 March 2022

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