Bill Treacher obituary

When Julia Smith and Tony Holland created the BBC TV soap opera EastEnders in 1984, they conceived the character of Arthur Fowler, the “henpecked” husband of Pauline, played by Wendy Richard, as: “Rock-solid and reliable. Has an instinctive (unintellectual) wisdom ... He cries openly at funerals, loves his wife, is strict with his children, doesn’t drink a lot, supports Arsenal, votes Labour and would never walk down the street carrying flowers. He worked in a factory – but was made redundant, and has been unemployed for a year.”

Bill Treacher, who has died aged 92 of pneumonia and Covid-19, was cast as Arthur in the soap when it was launched the following year, bringing to the part his own London East End background.

For his interview with Smith and Holland, he turned up smartly groomed, wearing a suit and smiling happily, very different from the character, who was already pencilled in to experience a nervous breakdown over his bleak future. But, having worked with the actor on a 1972 episode of the police series Z Cars – with Smith as director and Holland as script editor – they knew he was perfect for the “ordinary but not dull” role.

Two families formed the backbone of EastEnders: the Fowlers, Arthur and Pauline, with their children, Mark and Michelle, and the Beales, Pete (Pauline’s twin brother), his wife, Kathy, their son, Ian, and the twins’ mother, Lou.

From the start, alongside his jobless woes, Arthur was put through the wringer. Pauline discovered in her early 40s that she was expecting their third child; then Michelle, at 16, became pregnant – the Queen Vic landlord, “Dirty” Den Watts, turned out to be the father – and, struggling as a young mother, she planned marriage to Lofty Holloway. Desperate to pay for the wedding, Arthur stole the Albert Square Christmas Club money. Michelle then jilted Lofty at the altar.

As viewers witnessed Arthur’s downward spiral – a shocking scene showed him wrecking the Fowlers’ living room as he reached his wits’ end – hundreds wrote in to the BBC telling him to seek psychiatric help. That help arrived in the storyline, with Arthur spending time in a psychiatric hospital before serving a short prison sentence.

“When I was doing those harrowing scenes, it was so bad that I once started crying while I was sitting at home in my armchair,” said Treacher. “Arthur went through hell and I felt for him.”

Treacher dieted and lost two stone to look suitably haggard. Even by EastEnders standards, the story was one of the most dramatic in the soap’s first decade and resonated with many viewers.

On his release from prison, Arthur struggled with the news that Mark was HIV-positive but found some satisfaction in running his own landscape-gardening business. Then he had an affair with a client, Christine Hewitt. When Pauline found out, she memorably hit him with a frying pan. Eventually she and Arthur were reconciled.

Off screen, Treacher’s health was declining as he suffered migraines and blurred vision, and he decided it was time to leave EastEnders. In 1995, Arthur was jailed after being framed for fraud and, on his release the following year, died of a brain haemorrhage on his allotment.

Bill was born in Dagenham, Essex, one of the eight children – six boys and two girls – of Minnie (nee Chappell) and William Treacher, a roofer and tiler. He grew up in Hackney, Bethnal Green, Mile End and Waltham Cross, and was evacuated to Gloucestershire during the second world war.

On leaving Kings Road JMI school, Waltham Cross, at 14, he worked as a railway station porter before his national service in the RAF. Then he was a ship’s steward with P&O for four years, mainly in the far east, before training as an actor at the Webber Douglas Academy in London.

His repertory theatre roles included the title part in Billy Liar (Watford Palace, 1962), and he made his West End debut in the Terence Feely play Shout for Life (Vaudeville theatre, 1963). Later, he joined Brian Rix’s Theatre of Laughter company and appeared at the Garrick theatre between 1967 and 1969 in the farces Stand By Your Bedouin!, Uproar in the House and Let Sleeping Wives Lie. He was also seen on television in half a dozen farces in the Brian Rix Presents... series from 1968 to 1971.

One of his earliest TV appearances was as a photographer in a 1962 episode of the soap Compact, set in a magazine office. Small roles in both dramas and comedies included various parts in the last two series (1964-65) of Sykes and a ... , starring Eric Sykes, and The Dick Emery Show between 1973 and 1975, as well as Emery’s 1980 Christmas special. He also played a sailor in a 1969 episode of Dad’s Army and, over 13 years (1964-76), took an astonishing 15 roles in Dixon of Dock Green. His only regular part on TV, recorded shortly before joining EastEnders, was as Mr Chadwick, cellmate of Lionel (Paul Copley), in the 1985 sitcom The Bright Side.

On stage, Treacher also had a long run as Inspector Slack in Agatha Christie’s Murder at the Vicarage (Savoy theatre, 1977-79).

After leaving EastEnders, he wound down his career, although he was seen alongside Patrick Swayze in the 2004 film George and the Dragon and appeared as a prisoner again on TV, this time framed for the death of his lover, in four 2006 episodes of The Bill.

His other soap opera role was on radio as Sydney Pratt, the milkman, on and off, in the radio soap The Dales from 1965 to 1969.

He retired in 2007 and, eight years later, announced he was suffering from ataxia, a degenerative disease affecting his balance and speech. He was eventually dependent on a wheelchair for mobility.

In 1971, Treacher married the actor Katherine Kessey, who had played his wife on a 1969 tour of Let Sleeping Wives Lie. She, their son, Jamie, and daughter, Sophie, and his sister Joan survive him.

• William Charles Treacher, actor, born 4 June 1930; died 5 November 2022