16 October 1936
Peter Bowles (born 16 October 1936) is an English actor of stage and television.
Bowles was born in London, England, the son of Sarah Jane (née Harrison) and Herbert Reginald Bowles. His father was a chauffeur and butler at a stately home in Warwickshire, but upon the outbreak of the Second World War he was seconded to work as an engineer at Rolls-Royce and moved the family to Nottingham. Bowles attended Mapperley Plains Primary School then the Nottingham High Pavement Grammar School, where he was taught English by the novelist Stanley Middleton, and then won a scholarship to train as an actor at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA), where he is still an associate.
Bowles started his career with the Old Vic Company in 1956 playing small parts in Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, Troilus and Cressida and Richard II. After a season this company toured North America, concluding with a sell-out season at the Winter Garden Theatre on Broadway. He played in many performances at the Bristol Old Vic.
Bowles was warned by casting directors on leaving RADA that because of his swarthy looks he would never play an Englishman. Indeed, his early career in television consisted mostly of playing villains (usually foreign) in such shows as The Avengers (Bowles featured in four series), Danger Man, The Saint, The Persuaders! and The Prisoner (in which he played 'A').
Bowles' final villainous role, on television at least, was playing Balor ('the most evil man in the universe') in an episode of Space: 1999. He also appeared as Caractacus in the TV adaptation of I, Claudius (1976). His first major English role was Guthrie Featherstone QC MP, whom he played in many series of Rumpole of the Bailey (1978–1992), while in 1975 he played David Grant, husband of Abby Grant in the BBC series Survivors; his character died in the first episode.
After playing his first comedy role on TV (Hilary) in an episode of Rising Damp, Bowles was often seen as a comedy actor and parts in comedy series such as To the Manor Born, Only When I Laugh, The Bounder, and Executive Stress followed; however, he turned down the role of Jerry in The Good Life.
The high popularity of To the Manor Born, which had audiences of over 20 million for all twenty-one episodes, changed Bowles' life. After being told by the BBC his success in comedy meant he would never work in drama again, Bowles devised a drama series called Lytton's Diary, which he sold to ITV.
It was while starring in Lytton's Diary that he was offered the title role of Major Yeates in the hugely successful TV series The Irish R.M. for Channel 4. A headline in the Evening Standard after that series' success read "Bowles Saves Channel 4".
Much of Bowles' work was now being shown on American television, including PBS's Masterpiece Theatre, and he was very flattered to discover that admirers in America of his work included Stephen Sondheim, Quentin Tarantino and Marlon Brando. Following The Irish R.M., Bowles co-devised the comedy/drama series Perfect Scoundrels, which ran for three series on ITV.
In 1991 Bowles took an idea for a dramatic film to the BBC; it was accepted, and after being written and adapted by Simon Gray, became the highly regarded Running Late episode of Screen One. This was to be Bowles' first performance on BBC Television since To the Manor Born a decade earlier. Bowles, besides starring, also co-produced with Verity Lambert. The film went on to win The Golden Gate Award in 1993 at the San Francisco International Film Festival and in 2013 was shown to great acclaim at the British Film Institute in London.
Bowles' performance in Running Late was another turning point in his career because it was seen and admired by Sir Peter Hall, who over the next twenty years chose Bowles for eight plays he produced in London's West End theatres. Bowles' first leading role in London was offered after playing Byron in Alan Bridges' TV film Shelley. His next play was Alan Ayckbourn's Absent Friends, also starring Richard Briers, at the Garrick Theatre in 1975. Then came Tom Stoppard’s Dirty Linen and New-Found-Land at the Arts Theatre in 1976. (Bowles had last played there in 1963 in Anthony Powell's Afternoon Men in a cast that also included James Fox, Alan Howard and the actress and pop artist Pauline Boty).
Bowles' first starring role in the theatre after many years of TV successes was as Archie Rice in John Osborne's The Entertainer at the Shaftesbury Theatre in 1986; he was the first actor to play the part in London since Laurence Olivier in 1957. In 1990 Bowles starred opposite Michael Gambon in Alan Ayckbourn's Man of the Moment at the Globe Theatre.
The role of Vic Parkes was Bowles' first, but not last, performance as an East End gangster. After Running Late Sir Peter Hall began to offer Bowles a succession of leading roles in West End theatre, including Terence Rattigan's Separate Tables opposite Patricia Hodge and George Bernard Shaw's Major Barbara with Jemma Redgrave. George S. Kaufman's The Royal Family and Noël Coward's Hay Fever, both opposite Judi Dench at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, followed. In 1996 Bowles played Arnolphe in Molière's The School for Wives at the Piccadilly Theatre.
Another play for Sir Peter Hall, this time at the Theatre Royal, Bath, was Rattigan's The Browning Version. Bowles' last play for Hall was Sheridan’s The Rivals in 2011, opposite Dame Penelope Keith, again at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket. His other West End theatre plays include Coward's Present Laughter, Anthony Shaffer’s Sleuth, Peter Nichols' Born in the Gardens, Frederick Knott’s Wait Until Dark and in 2004, Simon Gray's The Old Masters directed by Harold Pinter at the Comedy Theatre.
Then again at the Haymarket Theatre in Hutchinson's The Beau, opposite Richard McCabe, and Rattigan's In Praise of Love at the Apollo Theatre. In a South Bank Show special Melvyn Bragg interviewed George MacDonald Frazer & Bowles played the part of Frazers hero ‘Harry Flashman’ . Other parts include Higgins in Shaw's Pygmalion and the General in Jean Anouilh's The Waltz of the Toreadors, both at the Chichester Festival Theatre; and Judge Brack in Ibsen's Hedda Gabler (translation: Frank McGuinness) opposite Francesca Annis.
Bowles played the ultimate gangster in Mellis and Scinto's Gangster No 1 at the Almeida Theatre in 1995 for which he held the film rights; he raised money from Channel 4 Films and was executive producer for the film Gangster No. 1 (2000), starring Paul Bettany.
Bowles has also featured in many films in his long career, including Live Now, Pay Later (1962), The Informers (1963), Three Hats for Lisa (1965), Michelangelo Antonioni's Blowup (1966), The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968), Laughter in the Dark (1969), Eyewitness (1970), Taste of Excitement (1970), A Day in the Death of Joe Egg (1972), The Offence (1972), Endless Night (1972), The Legend of Hell House (1973), For the Love of Benji (1977), The Disappearance (1977), Try This One for Size (1989), The Steal (1995), Colour Me Kubrick (2005), The Bank Job (2008), and Alan in Hong Khaou's Lilting (2014).
- RADA Scholarship (1954)
- Madge Kendal Prize (1955)
- ITV Personality of the Year (1983)
- Male Comedy Star Award (1983)
- The Golden Gate Award (San Francisco International Film Festival, 1993)
- Hon. Doctor of Letters (Nottingham Trent University, 2002)
- Autobiography: 'Ask Me if I'm Happy' (Simon & Schuster, 2010)
- 'Behind the Curtain/ The Job of Acting' (Oberon Masters Series, 2012)
- Peter Bowles on IMDb
- Peter Bowles biography at the BFI's Screenonline
- Selected roles in Bristol University Theatre Archive