Obituary: Harry Fowler - Cockney actor found fame in The Army Game and enjoyed career spanning half a century

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Born: 10 December, 1926, in London. Died: 4 January, 2012, aged 85

HARRY Fowler was selling newspapers on street corners when he was featured on a radio item about life in London in wartime. In a distinctly English spin on the old Hollywood tradition of being spotted at the drug store, Fowler was heard on radio by a film maker who thought he might lend an air of cockney authenticity to a movie about wartime evacuees.

That debut film appearance, alongside a young George Cole, in Those Kids from Town in 1942, led in turn to other films. He was one of the stars of Hue and Cry, the first of the classic Ealing comedies, and I Believe in You, a drama from the same studio in which Fowler and a young Joan Collins played “delinquents” trying to stay on the straight and narrow.

In early films, Fowler had a cheerfully gormless air about him. He was skinny, beaky and blessed with natural charm that might well have worn off as he grew older. But he managed to maintain and develop his career as an adult actor, both in drama and comedy, and he was probably best known as Corporal Flogger Hoskins in the sitcom The Army Game – catchphrase “Follow Flogger”.

The Army Game was enormously successful in the late 1950s and early 1960s, at a time when television had taken off in the UK, but the country still only had two channels.

Henry James Fowler was born in Lambeth in London and could hardly read and write when he left school and found work selling newspapers. He was earning eight shillings (40p) a week when he was interviewed for the radio programme In Town Tonight, which led to the screen test, a leading role in Those Kids from Town and the princely wage of £5 a day.

In the film, he and George Cole are cockney boys relocated from the slums of London to the country home of an English earl, and everyone learns valuable life lessons from everyone else.

Fowler found himself in demand and played one of the locals whose village is taken over by German soldiers in the classic Ealing war film Went the Day Well? In due course, he was called up and served in the RAF, although it was thought he could serve the war effort best by continuing to make films.

After the war, he played the leader of the gang of youngsters in Hue and Cry, who discover their favourite magazine is being used by a gang of crooks to send coded messages to each other. He was almost 20, but playing a 15-year-old.

These were exciting times for the former paperboy. “Ealing was like a university to me,” he said. He also married his co-star Joan Dowling, who played the tomboy in the gang.

Youthful looks meant Fowler could continue to take on juvenile roles for several more years, and he was in his mid-twenties when he made I Believe in You. His character is caught between the conflicting demands of girlfriend Joan Collins, Cecil Parker, who played a retired civil servant who is now a probation officer, and Laurence Harvey, who wants to entice him back into crime.

Work was pouring in for Fowler and he played Sam Weller in the 1952 film of The Pickwick Papers. But his wife’s career seemed to have stalled and he was devastated when she took her own life in 1954. She was 26.

The Army Game was a sitcom about national servicemen and had been going for two years when Fowler joined it in 1959. There had already been what was effectively a spin-off movie, with several regulars from the show, including Charles Hawtrey. The film was Carry On Sergeant and it represented the beginning of a quite different phenomenon.

The departure of several Army Game regulars left gaps in the cast. Fowler joined for series three, appeared in about 50 episodes and established his credentials in the developing medium. After The Army Game. Fowler worked increasingly in television and had a recurring role in the ecclesiastical sitcom Our Man at St Mark’s, with Donald Sinden and Joan Hickson, in the mid-1960s.

Fowler’s philosophy had always been to take whatever work was offered. He had small roles in Lawrence of Arabia, the Bette Davis thriller The Nanny, Doctor in Clover and Start the Revolution Without Me, and he regularly lent his voice to commercials.

In the 1970s, he carved a niche for himself in children’s television, hosting Going a Bundle, with Kenny Lynch, and Get This, and serving as story teller on Jackanory.

He continued working regularly in television during the 1980s and into the 1990s, with guest appearances on the likes of Doctor Who, The Bill and Minder, which reunited him with George Cole four decades after their first appearance together.

He was made an MBE in 1970 and is survived by his second wife, Kay. BRIAN PENDREIGH