Peter Bowles: a commanding talent who was so much more than a sitcom star

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<span>Photograph: ITV/Rex/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: ITV/Rex/Shutterstock

Tall, commanding, deep-voiced and usually moustached, Peter Bowles, who has died at the age of 85, was frequently cast as either establishment chaps or gangster geezers.

His most successful roles in the former camp were as Richard DeVere in To the Manor Born (1979-81), one of Britain’s most-watched sitcoms, and The Irish RM from 1983-85, playing Maj Yeates, a British Army officer sent to 19th-century UK-ruled Ireland as a “resident magistrate”.

The standout villain roles in a very distinguished theatre CV were Vic Parks – a bank robber turned media celebrity – in Alan Ayckbourn’s 1990 West End hit Man of the Moment, and an East End villain in Louis Mellis and David Scinto’s Gangster No 1 at the Almeida in 1995.

Bowles also had the class, in acting terms, to interestingly explore the overlaps between the two social groups, combining both sides of the range as an upper-class conman in The Bounder, another TV success which was shown on ITV in 1982 and 83.

Across a 66-year career, he spectacularly disproved the warning of a drama school teacher that his dark hair and rapidly tanning skin meant he “would never play an Englishman”.

Not completely English, though, was the pivotal role in his career: DeVere. Very many English comedies have turned on social differences, but the twist in Peter Spence’s To the Manor Born was that both main characters looked and sounded like the landed gentry. Penelope Keith’s Audrey fforbes-Hamilton, though, considered herself a real lady, while regarding DeVere, who outbid Audrey for her late husband’s country estate at auction, as a false gentleman, exposing him as the child of Czech-Polish émigré parents, his name anglicised to help his supermarket business.

Like another comedy from the same era, Only Fools and Horses, the show was a reflection of the disruptions to the English class system by the recently elected Margaret Thatcher, a shopkeeper’s daughter who had poshed up her voice but was committed to social mobility.

The casting of the charming Bowles helped to offset the potentially nasty snobbery of the premise; it seemed inevitable from the start that Audrey would fall for Richard despite his nouveau roots, and the couple eventually married.

&#x002018;The casting of the charming Bowles helped to offset the potentially nasty snobbery of the premise&#x002019; &#x002026; Peter Bowles alongside co-star Penelope Keith in To The Manor Born
‘The casting of the charming Bowles helped to offset the potentially nasty snobbery of the premise’ … Peter Bowles alongside co-star Penelope Keith in To the Manor Born. Photograph: Moviestore/Rex/Shutterstock

The estate setting and anti-arriviste stance are so specifically English that To the Manor Born is one of the few mega-hit sitcoms not to have been adapted abroad, but it did exceptionally well in the UK: one 1979 episode had an audience of 23.5 million, a figure otherwise in reach only of cup finals, royal weddings or funerals, and Morecambe & Wise Christmas shows.

It’s true that the huge viewership was boosted by ITV running a makeshift repeat-filled schedule as it emerged from a long strike, but a less charismatically acted show could have been exposed by the brightened spotlight.

To the Manor Born had been commissioned as another vehicle for the high snobbery that had made Keith famous as Margo in The Good Life on the BBC (1975-78). Ironically, Bowles had turned down the part of Jerry, Margo’s husband, which made a star of Paul Eddington. Some actors who reject a hit never get a second chance, but To the Manor Born meant Bowles achieved national recognisability just a few years later.

However, in making his career, DeVere almost capsized it. Alarmed when a BBC producer predicted he would never act in drama again now that he was classified as a sitcom performer, he came up with the idea for ITV’s Lytton’s Diary (1983-86), wittily scripted by Ray Connolly, with Bowles playing a suave newspaper gossip columnist somewhat based on Nigel Dempster of the Daily Mail. That led to the offer of The Irish RM and Bowles subsequently alternated drama and comedy on TV and stage. With his income from TV, Bowles bought the film rights to Gangster No 1 when he accepted the part on stage, although it was not enough to allow him to reprise the role in the 2000 movie version (the role went to Malcolm McDowell).

Bowles’s career benefited from the friendships between three men of theatre: Sir Peter Hall, Harold Pinter and Simon Gray. Gray’s TV film Running Late (1992), with Bowles as an egotistical TV talkshow host whose life unravels during a London day, was so admired by Hall that he cast the actor in a sequence of eight revivals from 1993, including Terence Rattigan’s Separate Tables, Noël Coward’s Hay Fever (with Judi Dench) and, in 2011, Sheridan’s The Rivals, opposite Penelope Keith, with whom he had also reunited in a 2007 one-off special episode of To the Manor Born.

Gray, who had started that wave of fine late-career work with Running Late, gave Bowles his last great stage role, as art dealer Joseph Duveen in The Old Masters (2004), directed by Harold Pinter. Edward Fox co-starred as the art critic Bernard Berenson.

Shortly afterwards, I met Pinter at an event and complimented him on the production. He deflected the compliment on to Fox and Bowles: “Definitely old masters, those two.”

From one of theatre’s most meticulous directors, the remark emphasised how much was missed by those who knew Peter Bowles only as a sitcom star.

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