The opening Winegum post of 2022 paid affectionate tribute to that omnipotent repertory company of actors without whom the British television landscape of the 1960s, 70s and 80s would’ve been considerably colourless; as I said at the time, they were the actors whose faces were more familiar than their names – and it’s only because the output of this era has provided the backbone of my viewing experience over the past few years that I’ve come to know those names. I cited the likes of Ron Pember (who sadly passed away barely a week ago) as a great example of an actor who made an immense contribution to the rich tapestry of one-off characters to grace the small screen and infuse it with the kind of lived-in authenticity sorely absent in our own on-demand age of faux-cinematic melodrama. I pointed out that a small number of this rep company eventually graduated to top-of-the-bill status, including the likes of Martin Shaw and Bob Hoskins, both of whom routinely popped-up in the period’s mainstay series long before the name matched the face in the nation’s households.
Added to this small circle of actors who made the leap from chorus line to leading man could be that embodiment of caddish charm and upper-class rakishness, Peter Bowles, whose death at the age of 85 was announced yesterday. As was stated in the aforementioned post, each of these actors were called upon to portray a particular archetype recognisable to the viewer from real life – stern authority figure, small-time villain and so on; and like many of the supporting cast that gave British television its uniquely appealing depiction of reality, Bowles gradually settled into playing variations on the same character as his lengthy career progressed. And it was a character he played with such effortless ease that his name would probably be top of the list whenever the director required a smooth, somewhat shifty gentleman, capable of charming the birds out of the trees whilst simultaneously making off with their life savings. His was the kind of character that now only exists as a vintage cultural figure, like the spiv or the avuncular Bobby-on-the-beat – the kind that can no longer be found beyond the confines of the cathode ray tube.
As with Paul Eddington and Fulton Mackay, Peter Bowles was a drama student at the television university who went on to achieve household name status via the sitcom. His early TV appearances are almost exclusively in dramatic productions, often playing a slightly swarthy villain with the kind of ‘foreign’ accent actors weren’t afraid to have a crack at in the era before their wings were clipped by the curse of ‘cultural appropriation’. He was especially active in the engaging roll-call of escapist ITC dramas produced on glossy film in the 60s, regularly showing his distinctively-shaped face in the likes of ‘The Saint’, ‘The Baron’, ‘Danger Man’, ‘Department S’, ‘The Persuaders’ and ‘The Protectors’; he also made a quartet of memorable appearances in ‘The Avengers’ and was equally effective in an episode of ‘The Prisoner’. He was even cast as the aristocratic assassin Toby Meres in the original ‘Armchair Theatre’ pilot of ‘Callan’, though when the series was commissioned he was replaced in the part by Anthony Valentine.
Into the 70s, the acquisition of the moustache that remained crucial to his persona thereafter pushed him more into the cad-like roles he played with such immaculately-tailored panache. In an episode of ‘Public Eye’ from 1975 he is cast as a philandering middle-class businessman who impregnates a younger woman and then abandons her, leaving her with a mountain of bills to pay as he returns to his wealthy wife; when his trail of devious deception is uncovered by Alfred Burke’s inquiry agent Frank Marker, Bowles’ character denies any wrongdoing and makes it clear he has no intention of honouring his debts. In many respects, this particular part seems to epitomise the character Bowles began to nail in the first half of that decade. However, in 1975 he also played the more sympathetic part of Carolyn Seymour’s husband in the first episode of Terry Nation’s apocalyptic classic, ‘Survivors’, succumbing to the plague halfway through the story when viewers didn’t expect him to die. The following year he was to be found amongst the unforgettable ensemble cast that portrayed Ancient Rome with the kind of bloodthirsty relish unseen since in ‘I, Claudius’.
By the late 70s, Peter Bowles was entering his 40s as an established character actor who was part of television’s dramatic wallpaper. His highly entertaining appearance as a camp thespian conman in one of the best ‘Rising Damp’ episodes gave TV audiences a rare opportunity to see his versatility as an actor, though his comic timing had been apparent to casting directors in his early career on stage; he was earmarked for the part of Jerry Leadbetter in ‘The Good Life’ before his turning down the role left the field clear for Paul Eddington. However, he eventually ended up sharing the screen with Penelope Keith in an even more successful sitcom (certainly in terms of its staggering viewing figures) from 1979-81, ‘To the Manor Born’. Bowles played Richard DeVere, a flashy, nouveau riche millionaire who purchases the estate of struggling aristocrat Lady Audrey fforbes-Hamilton whilst she is reduced to living in the neighbouring lodge house; rooted in the classic class conflict so intrinsic to British sitcoms of the era, the series finally made Bowles a household name.
The year before ‘To the Manor Born’ began Bowles had first appeared in the part that is my own personal favourite of his roles, that of the pompous QC Guthrie Featherstone in ‘Rumpole of the Bailey’; Bowles was a semi-regular throughout the series’ impressive 14-year run. As with many members of Rumpole’s chambers, Featherstone regularly mocks the shabby, eccentric Rumpole until confronted by a crisis and then realises, for all his lack of social graces, Rumpole is the only character he can turn to and trust. Although a drama, ‘Rumpole of the Bailey’ was never short on comic relief, and Bowles provided a fair proportion of it in his preordained progression to the judge’s bench.
By the turn of the 80s, Peter Bowles was one of the most in-demand actors on TV. He continued to add to his sitcom CV with ITV’s hospital-based ‘Only When I Laugh’, appearing alongside other stalwarts of the genre like James Bolam and Richard Wilson, as well as ‘The Bounder’, which co-starred George Cole. He also starred in one of Channel 4’s early successes, playing another upper-class role (Major Sinclair Yeates) in the comedy drama, ‘The Irish R.M.’. Despite now being known for mostly comedy portrayals, Bowles showed he could still do drama in ‘Lytton’s Diary’, a series he himself devised about a Fleet Street gossip columnist; he also co-created (and starred in) the comedy drama series, ‘Perfect Scoundrels’, in which he played to his strengths as a well-spoken and well-turned-out confidence trickster.
Even though his days as a leading man in a hit series slowly came to an end as the 1990s wore on, Bowles’ regular earner as a guest artiste in various shows continued; often called upon to give a touch of class to such programmes, Bowles always delivered and the sight of him never failed to provide the viewer with a warm awareness they were in a safe pair of hands. The last series I can recall spotting him in was ITV’s soapy portrait of the young queen, ‘Victoria’, in which he played the ageing Duke of Wellington; it featured a rare instance of the actor revering to his original clean-shaven persona, and wasn’t a bad way to sign-off a small screen career that stretched all the way back to the medium’s monochrome origins. It can’t be denied Peter Bowles had a jolly good innings; 85 is a fine age to bow out and he left behind a wonderful body of work which he illuminated with beautiful comic timing and an ineffable sense of very English style.
© The Editor