Obituaries: Peter Bowles, suave leading man best known for To the Manor Born
Peter Bowles trained as an actor straight from school and was a contemporary of Peter O’Toole and Albert Finney at RADA, but he was in his forties when he attained stardom as one of the two leads in the hit sitcom To the Manor Born in the late 1970s.
He was about to pack up acting altogether and possibly take up an administrative arts job in Australia when he landed the role of the arriviste Richard DeVere, a smooth-talking, Czech-born street trader turned supermarket tycoon. He buys the estate of the impoverished aristocrat Audrey fforbes-Hamilton, allowing her to stay on in a little cottage in the grounds.
Audrey was memorably played by Penelope Keith. And Bowles might have become a star a few years earlier had he not turned down the role of Penelope Keith’s husband in The Good Life.
To the Manor Born ran for three series between 1979 and 1981, playing on the class differences and attitudes of the two main characters, the friction and the grudging affection.
Bowles knew all about class differences first hand, for his parents had both been in service. Although his screen image was ultimately defined as the archetypal English charmer and sometimes bounder, impeccably dressed and invariably sporting a moustache, Bowles was Scottish on his mother’s side.
She had grown up in Newton Stewart and Wishaw and was a nanny with the Duke of Argyll’s family. His father was chauffeur and valet to Drogo Montagu, son of the Earl of Sandwich.
But while much of the humour of To the Manor Born lay in the notion of the nouveau riche usurping the historical order, Bowles was brought up by parents who taught him always to respect the traditional social order and to defer to his “betters” - an attitude that he felt later held him back when he assumed middle-class, university-educated directors knew better than him how a part should be interpreted or a line delivered.
Peter John Bowles was born in Kensington, London, but spent much of his early life on an estate in Northamptonshire and then in Nottingham, where his father worked for the Rolls-Royce aircraft engine factory during the Second World War.
He won a scholarship to the High Pavement Grammar School, which he attended a few years ahead of the serial killer doctor Harold Shipman. Bowles also considered becoming a doctor or perhaps a dentist, but he was given a less than favourable impression of the profession when his GP diagnosed his extreme stomach pains as constipation when it was actually a burst appendix.
He was rushed to hospital and operated on, but subsequently almost died of advanced peritonitis. “I was left with a lasting suspicion of doctors and a touch of hypochondria,” he wrote in his memoirs.
An appearance as Mark Antony in a school production of Julius Caesar, with John Bird as Brutus, led to a professional debut at Nottingham Playhouse in a couple of small roles in the theatre’s production of the same Shakespeare play.
At 16 he went to RADA, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, in London, where he shared a flat with Albert Finney. His early career was spent in theatre, including the Old Vic and Royal Court.
But by the mid-1960s he was getting fairly regular work in television, with multiple appearances in The Saint and The Avengers, and in films, including Blow-Up and The Charge of the Light Brigade.
Between 1978 and 1992, he had the regular role of the snooty lawyer Guthrie Featherstone in John Mortimer’s witty legal drama series Rumpole of the Bailey, with Leo McKern in the title role. Bowles appeared less frequently in later episodes by which time his character had been made a High Court judge.
To the Manor Born began not long after Rumpole and attracted well over 20 million viewers at its peak. A one-off Christmas special in 2007 revealed that Richard and Audrey had now been married for 25 years.
After To the Manor Born, Bowles juggled theatre and television, playing a hospital patient in the sitcom Only When I Laugh, a magistrate in The Irish RM, a newspaper gossip columnist in Lytton’s Diary, a conman in Perfect Scoundrels and perhaps most notably the title character in two series of The Bounder, with George Cole, in the 1980s.
Howard Booth, the bounder of the title, looks and dresses very much like Richard DeVere, but has just spent two years in prison for fraud. The series was created specifically for Bowles and was inspired by a character he played in an episode of Rising Damp.
In 1994 Bowles appeared in Noel Coward’s Present Laughter at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, ahead of its opening in the London West End, where he reputedly holds the distinction of being the oldest actor to get top billing in a play.
He is survived by his wife Susan, a former actress to whom he was married for more than 50 years, and their three children.
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