Derek Fowlds: TV actor and foil to prime ministers and puppet foxes


Derek Fowlds, who has died aged 82, was a gifted actor who spent most of his career playing sidekicks in popular British TV shows from 1969 to 2010.

Fowlds first came to national attention as the foil to a talking glove puppet in The Basil Brush Show in 1969. This made him a favourite with children, but it was as the beleaguered principal private secretary in Yes Minister that Fowlds made his mark. He later joined the cast of Heartbeat, where he played Oscar Blaketon, policeman turned publican, for 18 years.

Derek Fowlds was born in Balham, south London, the son of Ketha Muriel (nee Treacher) and James Witney Fowlds, a salesman. When Fowlds was three his father died of cancer and as the war commenced his mother shifted the family to Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire. Here he was educated at Ashlyns School and acted in school plays. Fowlds would later recall that, as a schoolboy, he enjoyed making the audience laugh but, at the time, never considered a career as an actor. Leaving school aged 15 he became an apprentice printer while continuing to perform in amateur theatre. Following his national service, Fowlds applied for and was accepted into Rada.

His first professional part came in 1958 when he appeared in weekly rep at the Prince of Wales Theatre in Colwyn Bay. He then made his debut in the West End production of William Gibson’s The Miracle Worker. Across the 1960s Fowlds appeared on stage, screen and television, being seen in everything from popular TV shows Z Cars and The Liver Birds to a succession of British films – most notable were The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (in which he made his film debut as a borstal boy) and Hotel Paradiso. Acting in more than a dozen low-budget, largely forgettable movies – including Frankenstein Created Woman and The Smashing Bird I Used to Know – paid the bills but did little to advance his career.

Fowlds’s breakthrough came in 1969 when he took over from Rodney Bewes as the foil to a cheeky fox puppet in The Basil Brush Show. Staying with the show for the next four years, Fowlds played Mr Derek, the straight man to Basil’s wisecracking persona and demonstrated a gift for being the butt of jokes.

This would serve him well when he was cast as Bernard Woolley, principal private secretary to fictional government minister Jim Hacker (played by Paul Eddington), in Yes Minister, the BBC comedy that ran for three series from 1980 to 1984 and won huge critical acclaim and viewing numbers. A sequel, Yes, Prime Minister, kept the same cast – with Hacker now PM – and ran from 1986 to 1988. Fowlds kept busy across the mid-1980s, including playing the lead in Affairs of the Heart, an ITV sitcom.

Following this success, Fowlds appeared on the West End stage and in films but he was best suited to television. When cast in the first series of ITV’s Heartbeat, he found the role that would define the rest of his working life. Based on the Constable books written by former police officer Peter Walker, under the pseudonym Nicholas Rhea, Heartbeat was set in a Yorkshire village in the 1960s and initially served as a vehicle for former EastEnders star Nick Berry.

Fowlds (left, as Bernard Woolley) with Paul Eddington (Jim Hacker, centre) and Nigel Hawthorne (Sir Humphrey Appleby) in ‘Yes Minister’ (Rex)
Fowlds (left, as Bernard Woolley) with Paul Eddington (Jim Hacker, centre) and Nigel Hawthorne (Sir Humphrey Appleby) in ‘Yes Minister’ (Rex)

While the first series possessed a certain grit, Heartbeat quickly became cosy Sunday evening TV. Fowlds, as the old and curmudgeonly sergeant-turned-publican Oscar Blaketon, stayed with the series across its entire 18-year run. After ITV cancelled Heartbeat in 2010 Fowlds largely retired, occasionally appearing on television – his final effort was in 2017 when he played a character in an episode of Doctors. His autobiography, A Part Worth Playing, was published in 2015.

Fowlds was married twice; first to Wendy Tory and then later to Blue Peter presenter Lesley Judd. Both marriages ended in divorce. He lived with Jo Lindsey from 1976 until her death in 2012. He is survived by sons Jamie and Jeremy from his first marriage.

Derek Fowlds, actor, born 2 September 1937, died 17 January 2020

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