Scotsman Obituaries: Bill Treacher, British actor best known for EastEnders

Bill Treacher actor. Born: 4 June 1930 in London. Died: 5 November 2022 in Ipswich, aged 92

Back in 1984 when producers Julia Smith and Tony Holland sat down to discuss casting for the new prime-time BBC soap opera that was conceived to rival Coronation Street, the very first name on their list was Bill Treacher.

Treacher was a genuine working-class EastEnder. And, as the world-weary Arthur Fowler on EastEnders, he was to be battered by a succession of crises and misfortunes over the next decade. There was a son with HIV, a daughter with an unplanned pregnancy, repeated unemployment and spells in jail and a psychiatric hospital.

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One prison sentence was for helping himself to the Christmas Club money and one for embezzlement. On that second occasion he was innocent, sparking off a real-life nationwide campaign, with a record and Free Arthur Fowler t-shirts.

Bill Treacher played the unfortunate Arthur Fowler from 1985 until 1996 (Picture: PA)
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Arthur Fowler seemed incapable of taking charge of his own destiny. He was a decent man who just tended to screw things up and pay heavily for his mistakes, including a surprise affair. When he confessed to his wife Pauline (Wendy Richard) she battered him with a frying pan. And he just took it.

Arthur proved hugely popular with viewers. Treacher’s career high-points had previously been restricted largely to television commercials, but this newfound success took its toll on him.

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He disliked the long hours and being away from his home in Suffolk for days on end. He found the demands of the role stressful, he suffered regular migraines and other health problems and he was forever on the point of leaving the show.

The producers and his family persuaded him to stay. “The only way to make money in this business is as a soap star or a film star and I’m not a film star,” he said.

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One of eight children, William Charles Treacher was born in London in 1930. His father was a roofer and his five brothers all became postmen. He left school at 14, worked on the railways, did National Service in the RAF and spent four years at sea as a steward on a P&O liner in the Far East.

But he long harboured ambitions to become an actor, he saved up to go to the Webber Douglas drama school in London, began his acting career in repertory theatre and appeared in a series of Brian Rix farces on stage and television in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

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However, such was his anonymity that the producers of the police drama series Dixon of Dock Green were able to cast him in no fewer than 15 different roles between 1964 and 1976, including school porter and cemetery attendant, without anyone noticing this seemingly supernatural recurrence.

Treacher had small supporting roles in numerous shows in the 1970s and early 1980s, both drama and comedy, from Bless This House to Angels, Grange Hill and Minder, without ever threatening to impose himself upon the public consciousness.

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But maybe that was the point. He was, on the whole, a decent ordinary man of the sort that does not turn heads.

His more notable recurring roles included adverts selling cars, train tickets and Foster’s lager, playing a Beefeater and straight man to Paul Hogan’s unsophisticated, lager-loving Aussie. Hogan: “Where are we mate?” Treacher: “The Bloody Tower.” Hogan: “All right sport. I only asked.” And that is it, three words.

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He was also the milkman on the radio soap opera Mrs Dale’s Diary, on and off, for four years. Treacher was the very definition of a jobbing actor.

But EastEnders’s creators Julia Smith and Tony Holland remembered him from working with him on an episode of Z-Cars and they thought he would be just right as Arthur Fowler.

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Suddenly Treacher was elevated from anonymity to one of the lead roles in the must-see new prime-time soap, the patriarch of the Fowler clan, albeit this patriarch was not exactly Don Corleone.

After a decade on the show Treacher decided he really had had enough. “Even the sound of the theme music made me feel ill and depressed,” he said.

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The producers initially decided they would have Arthur commit suicide, following his release from prison and a nervous breakdown. But they had second thoughts and had him suffer a brain haemorrhage on his beloved allotment instead.

Treacher appeared in only a handful of films and television shows after EastEnders, with small roles, but presumably decent paydays, in the adventure films Tale of the Mummy, The Musketeer and George and the Dragon, which required him to ride a horse for the first time in 40 years. He was also in four episodes of The Bill.

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His last screen credit was in 2009 and in 2015 he revealed he was suffering from ataxia, a degenerative disease affecting balance and speech. Latterly he used a wheelchair.

Also in 2015 he revealed that he did not actually watch EastEnders because it was “a load of old rubbish”.

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He is survived by his wife Katherine Kessey, an actress who played his wife on a 1969 tour of Let Sleeping Wives Lie, and their son Jamie and daughter Sophie.

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