Bill Treacher was the actor best known for his role as Arthur Fowler in EastEnders, the eternally popular and long-running BBC One soap.
Treacher, who has died aged 92, was one of the original cast members of the programme in his role as the head of the Fowler family for more than a decade.
William Treacher was born in Romford (then in Essex), the son of Minnie and William Treacher, a roofer. He grew up in Waltham Cross, Hertfordshire, where he attended Kings Road JMI School, leaving at the age of 14. He took work as a railway porter before joining up for national service with the RAF.
Enrolling with P&O as a steward for four years, Treacher saved enough money to pay his way through drama school. He joined the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art, one of the leading schools of its time, and soon after made his West End debut in 1963, in the comedy Shout for Life at the Vaudeville Theatre. He would go on to play bit parts in many of the Seventies television classics, including Z-Cars, Dad’s Army, The Sweeney, Minder and The Professionals.
His big break came in 1984 when he was cast as the first member of a new soap opera conceived by Julia Smith and Tony Holland, whose Arthur Fowler character was written specifically with Treacher in mind. Colin Brake, a former scriptwriter on the soap, recalls that Smith and Holland wanted to start the serial “with a bang, throwing the audience into the middle of life in [the fictional setting of] Walford”.
Treacher debuted on EastEnders in its 19 February 1985 premiere as Arthur Fowler, the role he would play for the next 11 years. The cast’s first storyline involved the “cantankerous” Reg Cox, found almost dead in his flat by Den Watts, Ali Osman and Fowler.
This melodramatic introduction would set the scene for an on-screen life in which he would work his way through a steady stream of odd jobs, while also enduring unemployment, two short jail sentences, his daughter Michelle getting pregnant at 16, his son Mark being diagnosed with HIV and an affair with the divorcée Christine Hewitt, which almost broke up his marriage. The revelation of the affair to his wife Pauline led to the unforgettable TV moment where she hit Fowler over the head with a frying pan before unceremoniously throwing him out onto the street.
However, despite all his trials and tribulations, Fowler remained a popular character with EastEnders viewers. And although more than a decade in any role would be considered a significant success, during the mid-Nineties Treacher had decided that he needed a change. “By the time I finished, even the sound of the theme music was making me feel ill. I felt depressed,” he later commented.
Having asked to be written out of EastEnders, Fowler’s departure scene saw him collapsing suddenly with a brain haemorrhage while digging on his beloved allotment. Treacher subsequently spoke of his relief at leaving the show, saying “it was like a weight had lifted from my shoulders. For the first time in 11 years I would wake up in the morning and I didn’t have to be somewhere. It was lovely.”
Treacher revealed in 2015 that he was living with ataxia, which caused him difficulties with balance and walking.
His family said in tribute: “Bill was a brilliant actor and a wonderful husband and father, plus a very fine human being. He will be hugely missed.”
The EastEnders team said: “As one of our original cast members, Bill created a much-loved character in Arthur Fowler and, alongside Wendy Richard, they created an iconic family in the Fowlers, who still remain at the heart of the show... Bill will always be remembered for his charm, sense of humour – with a smile that lit up the room – and, more importantly, as a family man who was devoted to his wife and children. Bill will forever be held in great affection by everyone at EastEnders and all those that loved watching him.”
He is survived by his wife Katherine Kessey, the Australian actor, and their two children, Jamie and Sophie.
Bill Treacher, actor, born 4 June 1930, died 5 November 2022