Derek Fowlds obituary
The actor Derek Fowlds, who has died aged 82, enjoyed long-running stardom on the small screen in popular TV shows ranging from children’s programmes to sitcom and drama.
To a generation of young viewers, he was familiar as “Mr Derek” in The Basil Brush Show. For four years (1969-73) he weathered bad jokes and puns from the waistcoat-wearing fox puppet, who usually followed them up with his catchphrase: “Boom! Boom!” During the first day of recording, it occurred to Fowlds: “I’ve had 10 years as a straight actor – what are people going to think?” However, he became a household name, adopting a slightly stern demeanour to keep the furry star in check, in response to constant interruptions, such as Basil rustling a bag of jelly babies and offering him one at a critical moment.
Each week, alongside a series of sketches and a musical guest, came “story time”, in which Fowlds would read Basil a tale about one of his fictional ancestors. The wily fox was the creation of Peter Firmin, and was operated and voiced by Ivan Owen in the cultivated style of the caddish comedy actor Terry-Thomas.
The Basil Brush Show was rare for a children’s programme in featuring topical political jokes – and politics was at the core of Fowlds’s next TV success. The satirical sitcom Yes Minister (1980-84), written by Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, was disarmingly realistic in its depiction of the machinations of government and the power wielded by civil servants. “Its closely observed portrayal of what goes on in the corridors of power has given me hours of pure joy,” declared the then prime minister, Margaret Thatcher.
Fowlds played Bernard Woolley, the private secretary struggling to keep the peace between the idealistic but inept new minister of administrative affairs, Jim Hacker (played by Paul Eddington), as he tries to shake up his department, and Sir Humphrey Appleby (Nigel Hawthorne), the permanent under-secretary, speaking in gobbledegook as he attempts to block change.
Nervously steering a moderating course in the role – with Bernard’s loyalties split between his political and civil service bosses – Fowlds then appeared with Eddington and Hawthorne in the sequel, Yes, Prime Minister (1986-88), in which Hacker achieves his ultimate political ambition of running the country – and the writers revealed him to be a Tory. Both sitcoms were showered with accolades, including five Bafta awards.
Just a short time afterwards, Fowlds began a long run as the crotchety Oscar Blaketon throughout all 342 episodes and 18 series of the feelgood Sunday evening drama Heartbeat (1992-2010), set around the fictional North Yorkshire village of Aidensfield in the 1960s and based on the Constable novels by Nicholas Rhea – the pen name of a former police officer, Peter Walker.
Fowlds was joined in the original cast by Nick Berry as PC Nick Rowan, Niamh Cusack as Nick’s wife, Kate, and Bill Maynard as the lovable rogue Claude Jeremiah Greengrass. As Oscar, Fowlds was initially the sergeant running the police station at Ashfordly, a neighbouring village. He based the character on his drill instructor in the RAF during national service days. “I just cut my hair shorter, slicked it back and shouted a lot,” he said.
In the seventh series, Oscar retired and briefly ran the post office in Aidensfield. Then he took over as landlord of the Aidensfield Arms pub while occasionally undertaking work as a private investigator, which satisfied his cynical, suspicious nature after so many years of police work. “Oscar doesn’t suffer fools gladly,” said the actor. “I am more introverted than he is, far more wishy-washy, laid-back.”
Derek was born in Balham, south London, to Ketha (nee Treacher) and James Fowlds. During the second world war, when Derek was three, his father, a sales rep, died of cancer, so he, his sister Babs and their mother moved to Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, to live with his grandmother. At 15, he left the local Ashlyns school, where he first appeared on stage, and joined a printer’s firm as an apprentice while continuing to perform with an amateur dramatics company. After two years as a wireless operator in the RAF, he won a scholarship to train at Rada (1958-60) in London.
Related: Yes Minister actor Derek Fowlds dies aged 82
Then he made his professional debut with Worthing repertory company. His West End roles included Father Penny in Robert Marasco’s Catholic boys’ school thriller Child’s Play (Queen’s theatre, 1971), Anthony, son of a wartime general with a secret, in Ronald Mavor’s A Private Matter (Vaudeville, 1973), various parts in Confusions (Apollo, 1976-77, five one-act plays by Alan Ayckbourn), and John Smith in Ray Cooney’s Run for Your Wife (Criterion, 1986).
On TV, Fowlds starred as the sleuth Ambrose Frayne in Take a Pair of Private Eyes (1966) and Peter Bonamy, facing life after a heart attack, in the sitcom Affairs of the Heart (1983-85). Other roles included Randolph Churchill in Edward the Seventh (1975), Oliver Davidson in the political thriller Rules of Engagement (1989), Michael Coley in the 1991 series of the crime drama Chancer and John Gutteridge in Firm Friends (1992-94).
Related: Derek Fowlds: the Yes Minister star who was more than just a sidekick
Fowlds’s autobiography, A Part Worth Playing, was published in 2015.
His first marriage, to Wendy Tory (1964-73), ended in divorce, as did his second marriage, to the Blue Peter presenter Lesley Judd (1974-78), from whom he separated after less than a year.
Jo Lindsay, Fowlds’s partner of 36 years, died in 2012. He is survived by the two sons of his first marriage, Jamie and Jeremy.
• Derek James Fowlds, actor, born 2 September 1937; died 17 January 2020