Guest Actor Biography
by Pete Stampede
Peter Bowles was born 16 October 1936 in London, but the family soon moved to a small thatched cottage in Upper Boddington, Northamptonshire, belonging to the local manor house where his father was chauffeur and butler. He says he was always a show-off, and when he joined the local ladies for pantomime, it was hard to get him off stage. He started at the village school at the age of three and moved to Nottingham at the age of six. Summers were spent in an 18th century stone house in Wigtownshire, Scotland, where his grandfather worked for the estate manager. He is also colour blind.
One early theatrical experience was in repertory at the Bristol Old Vic, at the same time as Leonard Rossiter; apparently, a pantomime called Hooray for Daisy saw them making up a double act! His first TV credit was as a constable in an episode of a historical serial (now there's a phrase they don't use in TV anymore!) The Last Chronicle of Barsett (BBC, 1959); again, he was way down the cast list as "First countryman" in Doctor Knock (BBC, 1961), adapted from a French play, with Richard Wordsworth, well-remembered by SF fans as the mutating astronaut in The Quatermass Experiment, in the title role.
When the ITC series gathered pace, he soon became a regular guarantee of urbane menace, kicking off as Maurice Kerr, "a smooth-talking blackmailer" in The Saint, "Lida" (ATV/ITC, 1964) and later in the same series, "The Art Collectors" (1967). An early episode of Danger Man/Secret Agent in its new hour-long format, "Fish On the Hook" (ATV/ITC, 1964), directed by Season Five helmer Robert Day, followed, then, in colour, two in The Baron, "You Can't Win Them All" (ATV/ITC, 1966) as a British red herring, and "Time To Kill", as a Spanish wrong 'un. (In "You Can't Win Them All", Sam Wanamaker, no doubt taking part to raise funds for rebuilding the Globe Theatre, played a villain called Sefton Folkard; I think that's one of the best character names ever devised! I sometimes think that if an Avengers-ish series should ever be attempted, called The Rather Special Agents or something, Sefton Folkard wouldn't be a bad name for a Steed-type agent.)
He was the villainous "A.", conjured up to try and get the secret of Number Six's resignation, in a splendid swinging party sequence deliberately reminiscent of Danger Man, in The Prisoner, "A. B. and C." (ATV/ITC, 1967). Department S, "Six Days" (ATV, ITC, 1969), The Persuaders!, "Element of Risk" (ATV/ITC, 1971), The Protectors, "Triple Cross" (ATV, ITC, 1972) and Space: 1999, "End of Eternity" (ATV/RAI, 1975), as a loony alien with a disturbing line in paintings, all followed; in a short interview on one of the Persuaders! websites, he recalled that the ITC series were fun to do, but despite their pretensions to filmic gloss, the pay wasn't too brilliant. Like a lot of actors who'd been in those shows, and The Avengers, he did an Adam Adamant Lives!, "Another Little Drink" (BBC, 1967) in which a new soft drink hides a sinister purpose. An episode of Redcap (ABC, 1966), set in Cyprus, saw him as a wily local who sells off British places of interest to gullible punters—until John Thaw arrives on the scene. In the same year as "Escape in Time", and for the same company, he played Callan's ambitious, upper-class rival Toby Meres in that series' pilot, Armchair Theatre: A Magnum for Schneider (ABC, 1967); however, another Avengers guest actor, Anthony Valentine, played Meres in the resulting series. He was in an episode of the highly-regarded anthology series Out of the Unknown, "Some Lapse of Time" (BBC, 1965), on which a pre-Hollywood Ridley Scott was set designer, and one of Peter Cushing's cases as Sherlock Holmes, "The Naval Treaty" (BBC, 1968), also guest-starring Dennis Price. Bowles also popped up in more workaday series like No Hiding Place, "Fistful of Trouble" (Rediffusion, 1965), in which star Raymond Francis was notorious for sticking lines he hadn't bothered to learn on parts of the set, necessitating plenty of sitting behind desks and opening drawers; Public Eye, "They All Sound Simple At First" (Thames, 1975), a series which die-hard Brit TV fans regard as a masterpiece but is barely remembered by anyone else; Crane, "Cargo of Cornflour" (Rediffusion, 1965) and Brett, "Investment - Long Term" (BBC, 1971), two series years apart, for different networks, but both starring voice-over king Patrick Allen ("The Thirteenth Hole") in practically identical roles.
He worked again for Brian Clemens in an episode of the anthology series Thriller, "The Double Kill" (ATV, 1975), as a superintendent who's asked at one point if his plan to trap a killer will work; anyone who can deliver a line as clichéd as the reply, "I'm a gambling man", and somehow make it convincing has to be talented. Single plays included Ken Russell's Isadora Duncan - The Biggest Dancer in the World (BBC, 1966), from Russell's more bearable period (a well-known bit of Python periphery is that, believe it or not, Eric Idle and Michael Palin can be spotted as extras in this), Lord Byron to Michael Jayston's Shelley (BBC, 1972), and Flint (BBC, 1978) with John LeMesurier. With such a frantic TV schedule, it's understandable that he's made comparatively few films. In the wonderfully dated The Informers (1963) he can be spotted in a pub, unbilled, round-faced and wearing a quite magnificent hat, as a gangster called Peter the Pole; just about all his fellow villains in the scene were in The Avengers at some stage. He also turned up in The Charge of the Light Brigade (68) and, uncredited again, The Assassination Bureau (1968) with Diana Rigg; he's probably done his best to forget For the Love of Benji (1978).
Series-wise, Napoleon In Love (Thames, 1974), despite Ian Holm in the title role, was a rare misfire from writer-producer Philip Mackie, whose literary adaptations, from the 50s on, were normally excellent (like The Caesars (Granada, 1968) with Freddie Jones). Good Girl (YTV, 74) again written by Mackie, was one of those series that wasn't sure if it was gentle comedy or light drama; Bowles' role was strictly in the supporting category. He was in the first episode only of Terry Nation's post-apocalyptic Survivors, "The Fourth Horseman" (BBC, 1975), as the unfortunate husband of the self-reliant lead character Abby Grant; Carolyn Seymour, who played her, is listed in The Ultimate Avengers as having tested to play Purdey (and has lately occasionally turned up on Star Trek: The Next Generation); I personally think she could have made a terrific Avengers leading lady, very much in the Emma Peel mode. The Crezz (Thames, 1976), an attempt at an upmarket evening soap, lasted only one season despite a good cast. Less than a month after that ended, he was a Roman called Caractacus in one of the later episodes of I, Claudius (BBC, 1976); the support cast in this (Brian Blessed, Stratford Johns, Sian Phillips) were all good, if not quite in the same league as Derek Jacobi in the title role, and John Hurt's Caligula. Funnily enough, when Bowles guested in one of my favourite episodes of Rising Damp, "Stage Struck" (YTV, 1977), there was a throwaway reference made to his character, a deeply camp actor and frustrated playwright, having been in I, Claudius! No matter how many times I see the scene where Rigsby (Leonard Rossiter) auditions for Bowles, realises he's meant to kiss him and darts off the sofa and across the room, I can never work out what Rossiter's actually saying; the studio audience are laughing too much, and usually, so am I.
He then took the role of the smooth as silk (sorry!) Guthrie Featherstone in Rumpole of the Bailey (Thames, 1978-92), right from its first episode, "Rumpole and the Younger Generation", in which he effortlessly sailed past the old-school, eccentric but very slightly radical Rumpole - perfectly incarnated by Leo McKern of course, but clearly bearing more than a slight resemblance to writer-creator and celebrated defence barrister Sir John Mortimer - to become Head of Chambers. After all, even though Rumpole had been around for longer, you'd never catch Featherstone sharing Rumpole's fondness for sessions in the wine bar, or addressing a High Court Judge as "old darling". Bowles was absent from some of the later series, and had not been in Rumpole's first appearance, a 1975 single play of the same title as the series (in the Play for Today slot), but unlike it, actually made by the BBC, not ITV. In the same vein, he was a singing, dancing lawyer prosecuting Bob Hoskins in the last episode of Dennis Potter's Pennies from Heaven, "Says My Heart" (BBC, 1978).
After one of Roald Dahl's Tales of the Unexpected, "Neck" (Anglia, 1979), which ended with his being given the no doubt enjoyable task of decapitating Joan Collins, and also wasted Sir John Gielgud as a butler, his period of sitcom stardom began with To the Manor Born (BBC, 1979-81), starring him as a nouveau-riche businessman of Czech descent, and Penelope Keith doing her usual number as a suddenly penniless new widow. If Keith's objections to him as a "Czech grocer" (he had a funny-foreigner mother in tow, too) seemed a bit contrived and made her appear even more snobbish, it may be because in the original unaired pilot, made for radio, Bowles' charcter was actually American (played then by Bernard Braden). More or less simultaneously with this, in fact just within a month later, Bowles began another long-runner, Only When I Laugh (YTV, 1979-82), about a trio of malingerers in a hospital ward, which I preferred. The scripts by Eric Chappell (responsible for Rising Damp, but never as good since) were predictable, but the class-conscious sparring of Bowles and former Likely Lad James Bolam (even the state of their dressing-gowns matched the characters) were always good value.
Again for Chappell and Yorkshire Televsion, he had a tailor-made role in The Bounder (YTV, 1982-83), as a smooth-talker just out of jail, but giving every impression of being a gent. It was one of those series that was pleasant enough to watch, but you kept waiting for it to really get going; it didn't quite, and George Cole, then in the middle of being the immortal Arthur Daley in Minder, seemed a bit wasted as his nervous brother-in-law. Bowles was perfect in the title role of The Irish R. M. (James Mitchell/Rediffusion, 1983-85), a typically stolid Englishman constantly befuddled by the wily Irish in pre-Troubles times, in this adaptation of Somerville and Ross' books (the title initials stand for Resident Magistrate). Rather like the recent series Ballykissangel, just about every Irish person in Britain seemed to watch it, while aware that it was distinctly unrealistic and sometimes bordering on caricature (character actor and raconteur Niall Toibin has been a regular in both shows). At least, it's rather touching to note that both RTE (Radio Telefis Eireann, Ireland's state broadcaster) and Ulster Television had a hand in its production, as did Channel 4, which screened it in Britain. Bowles and co-star Bryan Murray then made an Anglo-Irish twosome of cheeky lovable conmen in Perfect Scoundrels (TVS, 1990-92), which they created themselves; earlier, Bowles had also co-created Lytton's Diary (Thames, 1985-86) another hour-long light drama series, as a gossip columnist rather more principled than the real-life variety. He also co-produced Running Late (BBC, 1992), an excellent one-off by Simon Gray, as an unctuous type who in the course of an exasperating day slips into hell on earth.
In recent years he has stepped up his theatre work. A late 80s revival of John Osborne's The Entertainer, in which he took on Olivier's role of failed, bitter comic Archie Rice, didn't quite work (no revivals of this play ever seem to), but he collected fine reviews for his leads in Sir Peter Hall's repertory company at London's Old Vic, now sadly disbanded. An intriguing footnote to his career is a radio play by David Renwick, creator of one of the greatest latter-day sitcoms, One Foot in the Grave and the excellent, slightly Avengers-ish mystery series Jonathan Creek. Angry Old Men (Radio 4, 1996) dealt with the former members of a comedy team, now varyingly successful but no longer funny, clearly drawing on Renwick's long stint as a gag-writer. Bernard Cribbins and Bill Wallis were among the other members; on paper, Bowles' character, now an intellectual who's left comedy behind him and engages in long-winded philosophies on just about everything, sounded reminiscent of Jonathan Miller. But in the play, Bowles used a clipped, tight-throated delivery that sounded more like John Cleese... (who's done quite a bit of solemn theorising himself, to be honest)... Deliberate?
The IMDB lists him as having been assistant director on Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955)—clearly an error, as he would have been 19 at the time. Bizarre!
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