Peter Bowles


Versatile actor Peter Bowles has died of cancer aged 85. Though best known for his starring role in hit class-conscious BBC sitcom To the Manor Born as suave Czech market mogul Richard DeVere, he also was widely respected for his lengthy theatre career that kickstarted with Old Vic in the 1950s. In sharp contrast to his future ability in portraying dapper English gents, his early TV years saw him relegated by his towering height and tanned complexion to mostly foreign villain roles in shows such as The Avengers and The Saint. He refused to take the Jerry role in The Good Life in pursuit of bolstering his stage reputation, which further stalled his recognition.

But a few years after rejecting one Penelope Keith husband role, he accepted another and To the Manor Born finally gained him stardom in his 40s. The trajectorial contrast between the main characters formed the crux of the show, with Keith’s Audrey fforbes-Hamilton forced to downsize in assets if not attitude after her indebted husband’s death, which sees self-made millionaire DeVere swoop up her cherished manor. Viewers were delighted by their gradually-smoothening love-hate relationship, with fforbes-Hamilton’s abiding mistrust of DeVere ultimately unable to resist his charisma and concluding with their marriage.

Bowles chagrined that To the Manor Born created the perception he was solely a comic actor – the BBC directly told him he could no longer do drama as a result. Rather than give in to typecasting, Bowles proved the Beeb wrong by creating and starring in his own drama, ITV’s Lytton’s Diary. He followed suit with another lead in The Irish R.M., and henceforth was able to deftly alternate between comedic and dramatic roles. His stage career likewise had a major lament, in that he never got to be a lead Shakespearean actor. He was offered King Lear when in his late 70s, but felt himself too old by then. But as with his time on TV, this regret didn’t detract from the strength of his theatrical career, with titans such as Peter Hall and Harold Pinter some of his biggest fans and his West End performances notching acclaim into his early 80s.

And to cap off this obit, an appropriately morbid story connected to Bowles’s TV debut. The anthology series Armchair Theatre occasionally did live recordings of its episodes, among them Underground, which depicted nuclear holocaust survivors living in the London Underground. In the middle of filming the story, actor Gareth Jones dropped dead of a heart attack while off the set. The other actors, Bowles among them, twigged his absence, but only the behind-the-scenes crew knew he was dead before the play was over. Everyone scrambled to adjust to the missing cast member, with other actors using Jones’s lines with “if he was here I’m sure he’d say…” adjustments. Bowles was the last surviving actor, although director Ted Kotcheff, whose later channeled his experience with directing corpses into Weekend at Bernie’s, survives.

He was a unique hit for Protectors, Persuaders and Prisoners in a Suitcase (Deceased).

Peter Bowles
16 October 1936 – 17 March 2022, aged 85
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