To The Manor Born made Peter Bowles a superstar – just not at the BBC

Penelope Keith and Peter Bowles in To The Manor Born - Shutterstock
Penelope Keith and Peter Bowles in To The Manor Born - Shutterstock

I only met the late Peter Bowles once, but it was a memorable evening. I was a young freelance diary journalist for the Evening Standard, routinely sent to glamorous (and unglamorous) showbusiness parties to hobnob with the great, the good and the terrible. I would hang about on the periphery, drinking champagne and waiting for a chance to accost a famous face.

In April 2006, I was sent to the Theatre Royal, Haymarket for the first night of a Peter Hall-directed revival of Noel Coward’s Hay Fever, starring Judi Dench, a young Dan Stevens and, in the role of the smug novelist Simon Bliss, Peter Bowles, who gave a magnificent performance, It was aptly described by the Guardian’s theatre critic Michael Billington as his "[looking] like a cat who has swallowed several dishes of cream and [exuding] the vanity of a man who knows he's a second-rater and can get away with it."

When I spoke to Bowles at the afterparty, he was charming, witty, professional and kind, a million miles away from the preening character that he had been playing on stage a few moments earlier. We talked briefly about the play and his interest in it, what it was like to co-star with Dench and to be directed by Hall. And then, my five minutes being up, I ventured a question that could have been, in its own small way, a scoop. "Do you think that you’re ever going to make any more episodes of To The Manor Born?" Bowles smiled and, I could have sworn, winked. "Watch this space."

The following Christmas, Bowles reprised his best-known role as the arriviste supermarket owner Richard DeVere opposite Penelope Keith as his enemy-turned-wife Audrey fforbes-Hamilton. The episode began with their characters celebrating their silver wedding anniversary, before a number of lightly contrived hijinks saw them first estranged from one another and then reunited at the close. Yet the episode, which was filmed 26 years after the original series came to an end in 1981, felt like a nostalgic wallow in anachronism at a time when contemporary sitcoms like Peep Show and Gavin and Stacey were either winning awards or record viewing figures, or both.

Even as the BBC executive producer for comedy Jon Plowman declared that "I suspect that there is a little bit in all of us that rather wants the world to be like this and if the world isn’t like To The Manor Born then it sort of ought to be", there was a tacit admission that it now seemed not so much old hat as a museum piece. The reviews were largely poor, and it even received the dubious honour of being called the Worst British TV Sitcom Special by the British Comedy Guide. Although viewing figures were good, with over 10 million people watching, there was no further interest in another revival; the antics of Richard, Audrey and their friends were no more.

However, when the show was originally conceived by its writer Peter Spence, it was not a cosy exercise in recapturing the past, but a smart and witty culture-clash comedy that set Bowles and Keith against one another to lively and often hilarious effect. Spence was working as a gag writer for a well-known Cockney comedian in the early Seventies, and the comic recounted the story of how, having bought an expensive and large manor house in an upmarket commuter belt village, he held a lavish housewarming party for all the locals. One of his guests was a formerly well-to-do woman who had been the previous owner of the house, but, widowed and fallen on hard times, she had been obliged to sell her home.

Spence was struck by the comedian’s story, which combined a poignant situation with amusing detail, and decided that it would make for an excellent sitcom. He gave it the title To The Manor Born, a punning reference to a line from Hamlet: "But to my mind, though I am native here/And to the manner born, it is a custom/More honoured in the breach than the observance."

By 1979, Spence had only one TV credit to his name, contributing jokes to the 1978 variety show Lennie and Jerry. But he was fortunate in that the success of the show The Good Life had led to its star Keith becoming a household name, and the BBC was actively looking for another show for her to do. As luck had it, Spence met the actress at a dinner party and pitched the idea of what he had then conceived as a radio series, which would revolve around the antagonistic relationship between a character she described as ‘an upper-class version of Margot Leadbetter from The Good Life’ and a rich American who purchases the local manor house. His suggestion was "what would Margo be like if she actually was all she pretended to be?"

Peter Bowles and Penelope Keith in To The Manor Born - BBC
Peter Bowles and Penelope Keith in To The Manor Born - BBC

It was a great idea, and the actress was hooked. As Keith said in 2013: "I'd been sent loads of scripts since starting The Good Life, but all were a pale imitation. Realising that this would make excellent television I sent the script to John Howard Davies, producer of The Good Life." Howard Davies’ major contributions were firstly to ask that the show be conceived for television, rather than radio, and secondly to suggest that the character of an American interloper was too cliched and obvious, so Spence instead offered to make him Eastern European.

But it would be difficult to get a well-known actor to play opposite Keith – one of the biggest stars of the day- who would not be daunted by the idea of taking on a potentially unsympathetic character. And 1970s Britain did not have a surfeit of Eastern European actors who were skilled in comedy.

Enter Peter Bowles, then best known for his appearance in the legal comedy Rumpole of the Bailey as the character Guthrie Featherstone. Bowles was a well-known character actor who specialised in suave comic roles, but he felt that he had already missed his chance for stardom opposite Keith. "I hadn't worked in the theatre for over a decade. In desperation, I went to church and prayed for a role," he said in 2013. "The next day I was sent scripts for two plays and a sitcom called The Good Life, in which I was wanted to play the role of Jerry Leadbetter, Penelope Keith's husband. I chose one of the plays and turned the sitcom down.

"But Richard Briers, who was to play Tom Good in The Good Life, was in the same play. I asked him how he would combine both. He explained that sitcoms were filmed on Sundays, and he phoned the producers, but it was too late: Paul Eddington was cast."

Richard Briers and Peter Bowles on stage in Absent Friends, 1975 - Shutterstock
Richard Briers and Peter Bowles on stage in Absent Friends, 1975 - Shutterstock

He would not make the same mistake again. Although Bowles was committed to filming Rumpole, he knew that the character of Richard DeVere was too good to pass up, and so managed to schedule the filming of To The Manor Born for afternoons. Bowles decided not to attempt to overplay DeVere’s foreign origins, basing the character on Robert Maxwell. Bowles suggested "we make him Czech with aristocratic English pretensions. For the first time in my career, I decided to play the character straight, using my own personality. In the past I had always 'acted' character roles – but it's essential, for a sitcom to work, not to try to be funny; you have to be an ordinary person to whom funny things happen." (Bowles’s own origins were less grand than DeVere’s; his father was a chauffeur and his mother was a nanny.)

The series was filmed on location in the village of Cricket St Thomas in Somerset, where, in an amusing touch of serendipity, the local manor – Cricket House – was owned by Spence’s father-in-law, and so was used as a filming location. Today, Cricket House operates as a hotel, after a brief and regrettable spell as a Mr Blobby theme park, which means that the curious can pay to stay where Audrey fforbes-Hamilton and Richard DeVere sparred so entertainingly. But back in 1979, the show was filmed there and in the studio and aired on the BBC from eptember 30.

It was an instant ratings hit, both because of the excellence of the principal actors and the smoothness of their interplay in Spence’s script, and for an entirely unpredictable reason. The year had seen an extended technical strike take place on the BBC’s rival channel, the commercial station ITV, and it went off air between August and October 1979. When it returned, it had no original content to air until November, which meant that viewers who wanted new shows had to watch BBC.

To The Manor Born became a phenomenon thanks in part to its near-monopoly on its audience. The final episode of the first series attracted 23.95 million viewers – nearly half the population of Britain at the time – and it continued to be enormously popular until the final episode of the original show in 1981 in which, thanks to an unexpected inheritance, Audrey both buys back the manor and successfully proposes to Richard.

'An ordinary person to whom funny things happen': Peter Bowles with his To The Manner Born co-star Penelope Keith - Getty
'An ordinary person to whom funny things happen': Peter Bowles with his To The Manner Born co-star Penelope Keith - Getty

Yet, curiously for such a popular show, To The Manor Born has had an undistinguished afterlife. A film version was announced at the Cannes Film Festival in 1980, to be made by the Rank organisation. But when Rank decided to quit filmmaking, no substitute producer came along and the project quietly died. Spence wrote two spin-off novels in 1979 and 1980, which tied together the episodes with some new material, and in 1997, 10 episodes were recorded for radio with Bowles replaced by Keith Barron. It was not until the 2007 special that Bowles and Keith were reunited once again on television, and gave the show its send-off.

Bowles remained fond of his best-known role – but not without some residual bewilderment at the vagaries of the BBC. As he said, "The show cut across all classes and was watched by 20 million viewers at its peak. The day after the first episode, I walked out to get my morning paper and people stopped me in the street; when I went on stage that night there was a huge round of applause.

"Suddenly people wanted to talk to me – just not the BBC who, to my bafflement, didn't ask me to work for them again until the 2007 Christmas special. It gave me great satisfaction that a fortune was spent promoting Doctor Who that season, and yet the 25th anniversary To the Manor Born special only just missed out on being the top show." He concluded, with some satisfaction, "it changed my life."

No wonder he didn’t mind callow journalists asking him questions about it at parties, decades after it finished airing.