Bill Treacher, actor who appeared the epitome of Cockney decency as Arthur Fowler in EastEnders – obituary
Bill Treacher, who has died aged 92, played Arthur Fowler in the BBC One soap opera EastEnders for 11 years from 1985 and was the first person to land a part in the show.
Invariably known as “Arfur”, Treacher’s character was in the first scene of episode one, broadcast on February 19 1985, when he, the cafe owner Ali (Nejdet Salih) and the publican “Dirty” Den Watts (Leslie Grantham) kicked in the battered door of a council flat to find the cantankerous Reg Cox (Johnnie Clayton) slumped in his chair.
The sprawling Fowler family were the undoubted stars of the show, and at first Arthur, although long-term unemployed, seemed the epitome of Cockney decency. But during his time in Albert Square he started pilfering, and Treacher skilfully piloted the henpecked character through countless scams that yielded easy money, but which eventually resulted in the first of two short prison sentences for thieving.
One of his most shockingly memorable scenes was at Christmas 1986 when, in the throes of depression, he completely broke down, and smashed up the family sitting room. Another moment of heartrending drama came when Leonard Fenton’s Dr Legg calls on Fowler, who is in the depths of clinical depression, and has withdrawn to a garden shed. After a roundabout monologue Fowler grabs Dr Legg’s lapels and, in floods of tears, implores: “For God’s sake, help me!”
Shabby and put-upon, Arthur also turned out to be an unlikely adulterer, in a dalliance with Mrs Hewitt dubbed by the tabloids “Bonk of the Year” in 1992. He met his end on screen when he collapsed on his allotment and died only days after being released from his second jail term in 1996. For one television critic, Arthur’s traditional East End funeral left pressing questions dangling: “Where was Mrs Hewitt? How could Arthur ever have looked like ‘a young Frank Sinatra’?”
Not only had Treacher appeared in the opening scene of EastEnders, but he was also the first actor the creators had in mind when casting the show. Julia Smith and Tony Holland had worked with him on Z Cars and considered the experienced and intelligent character actor perfect for the tricky part of Arthur Fowler, because he had “warmth, directness and an ability to be convincingly ordinary without being dull”. But Treacher hesitated, worried that it would mean prolonged spells away from his home in Suffolk, finally signing up after a family conference around his kitchen table.
When Treacher turned up at his casting interview smiling in a smart suit, he learnt that his character Arthur Fowler was suffering from depression after being made redundant from his factory job and would eventually have a nervous breakdown. Although he suspected that Arthur would be a depressing man to play, Treacher was interested and promised to consult his wife and children about the punishing work schedule.
The son of a butcher, William Charles Treacher was born on June 4 1930 in Romford, east London, into a family of six boys and two girls, and grew up in Hackney, Bethnal Green and Mile End. After the wartime Blitz he was evacuated to Gloucestershire. He did his National Service in the RAF, then worked as a ship’s steward with P & O in the Far East to save enough money to attend drama school.
During his two years at the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art he tried hard to lose his Cockney accent, something he came to regret because he played Londoners for most of his career. Having made his West End debut in 1963 with the comedy Shout for Life (Vaudeville), he joined the Brian Rix Theatre of Laughter company, appearing in farces including One For The Pot and Let Sleeping Wives Lie, and for four years played Sidney the milkman in Mrs Dale’s Diary on radio.
Moving into television drama, he took bit parts in a range of popular programmes including Grange Hill, Dad’s Army, Bless This House, Minder, The Sweeney, The Professionals, Dixon of Dock Green and Z Cars. But it was EastEnders that made him a national star.
In character as Arthur, he had to contend with his teenage daughter Michelle’s pregnancy and his son Mark’s HIV diagnosis, not to mention a midlife affair which almost sank his marriage to Pauline (the glamorous Wendy Richard). In 1995 Treacher asked to be written out of the series, complaining of real-life depression. “By the time I finished, even the sound of the theme music was making me feel ill,” he admitted. He left EastEnders a year later.
In 2003, in a BBC documentary featuring past stars of EastEnders, Treacher said age had caught up with him, and that doctors had warned him that the continuing stress of a gruelling six-day-a-week schedule would kill him. He subsequently appeared in episodes of the ITV police drama The Bill and the BBC’s Casualty.
In 2015 Treacher announced that he had retired because he was suffering from ataxia, a degenerative disease that impairs balance and the ability to walk. He added that he no longer watched EastEnders, calling it “a load of old rubbish these days”.
Bill Treacher appeared in several feature films, including Pop Pirates (1984), The Musketeer (2001), Tale of the Mummy (1998), and George and the Dragon (2004).
He married, in 1971, Kate Kessey, his stage wife in Let Sleeping Wives Lie. They had a son and a daughter.
Bill Treacher, born June 4 1930, died November 5 2022