TRCH - Mindgames

Peter Bowles

28 November 12 words: Alison Emm
"I saw Marlon Brando in a film sometime after learning that he was a big fan of mine. He was playing an Englishman in a dinner jacket being rather suave - or trying to be"
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You moved to Hyson Green when you were five. Do you have good memories of growing up there?
Oh, tremendous ones. Some of the happiest memories of my life are from Hyson Green – it’s a very important place to me. There were times when I was very despondent in work and I thought about going back and living in St Paul’s Terrace. There was a wonderful community feeling; that old Coronation Street thing with everybody sharing the sugar, whitening the steps and chatting over the back yard. We had outside lavatories that faced one another, and one of my earliest memories was of the women gossiping and chatting with the doors open, sitting there with their knickers down.

When did you first get the acting bug?
I’d acted in school plays and things from primary school and then I went to the Nottingham Arts Theatre to be part of their youth group when I was about thirteen or fourteen. Then when I was sixteen I did a school play, Julius Caesar, and the Nottingham Playhouse invited me to join them in their production of it, to play a couple of small parts while I was still at school.  It was very exciting.

You auditioned for the part of Arthur Seaton in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, but lost out because of your accent...
Well, that’s show business, isn’t it? I can’t remember feeling too upset, it was just the first indication of how the world works.

...but you got to play Byron for the BBC, which you researched meticulously. Were you excited to play him?
Very excited. it wasn’t so much the Nottingham connection, but that was one of the great romantic figures. Also because we were going to all the places he stayed abroad.

Is there anything that you auditioned for and didn’t get that you were really disappointed about?
I can honestly say that I don’t have regrets in that way. I’d always wanted to be a classical actor and having met and gotten on very well with Laurence Olivier, I naïvely wrote n impassioned letter to him at the National Theatre saying that I would do anything, including sweeping the floors. All I received was a standard message on stamped card.

It's a standard complaint from successful TV actors, isn't it? That they never got to Play the Dane...
But I actually closed the classical door myself; I came to London to do The Happy Haven at The Royal Court, where I played the leading role and got some great reviews. I was invited back to the Bristol Old Vic, where I’d previously played some small roles, and they wanted me to play Macbeth. I disdainfully turned it down because I thought, ”I’m a London actor now.” I realise now that if I’d gone and done that then I could have had a classical career, but it went the other way. I have no regrets, it’s just what happens.


How did you become a sitcom actor, then?
I was asked to do Rising Damp. And from that, I think people probably thought I could play comedy. I always knew I could, but I sort of kept away from it because I found it so easy. There’s a famous quote from a man on his deathbed, when asked what dying was like, he said, “Dying is hard. But not as hard as comedy.” I think I get my ability from my Dad -  he was wonderful at comedic timing and telling everyday stories in a very amusing way, as was my grandfather.

You were offered the part of Jerry in The Good Life. Do you regret turning it down?
Never. It wasn’t a part I would have liked to have played. It was Paul Eddington’s part, who was dominated by Penelope Keith. I am not a dominated man, I don’t do domination. That’s why it worked so well when myself and Penelope did get together for To The Manor Born. We got on terribly well.


Richard DeVere in To The Manor Born is probably your best-known role. Was it true that Marlon Brando was a fan?
He was, to my astonishment. I was very shocked about that, but thrilled to bits that he liked my work so much, and wanted to meet me. I saw him in a film sometime after learning that he was a big fan of mine, he was playing an Englishman in a dinner jacket and being rather suave, or trying to be, and he was very uncomfortable. He must have thought, “I can do that.”

You state yourself that you could be 'quite difficult' on set...
I was being difficult, but for the right reasons. I remember when I did a sitcom - The Bounder - and I had a scene in the kitchen. And on the day I went in to do the recording, there were brand new pots and pans hanging up. I said they should be used pots and pans. They were quite upset that no-one had ever said that before. It’s not a question of being difficult, it’s a question doing the job properly.

You did a lot of judo in your younger days, and once beat Brian Blessed. Were you quietly confident beforehand?
No I wasn’t, I was very unconfident. He was much heavier than me, and he had muscles and was quite an aggressive chap. I escaped a mugger when I was sixty, too.

What advice would you give to aspiring actors?
To understand that they are really unique, there is nobody like them. Don’t try and please the director and please everybody - try and believe, honestly, in what you are doing, totally. Also to be true, as much as you possibly can, to the playwright. All of the most successful actors I have ever known have been like that. They’ve done it their way and the directors liked it or not. I remember Albert Finney saying when we were young, “just learn the lines and walk on. If you don’t like it, leave.” Eighty percent of talent is confidence.

Theatre, film or television - where does your heart lie?
Well, it’s a question of where the best writing is, really. I always remember a director at the National Theatre called Peter Wood who I was doing a play with, and I’d been doing an awful lot of television and he said; 'I cast you in this part because I need you to be a good actor. I don’t need you helping the writer.  All I want you to do is read his lines. I wanted a battered Mercedes and I have to tell you that so far all I am seeing is a resprayed Austin.' And I knew exactly what he meant.  

How does it feel after sixty years to have a room at Nottingham Arts Theatre dedicated to you?
It’s very thrilling. Funnily enough not because of what I did on stage there, but because of the friendships that I had in that room. When I came down to the opening of the studio theatre, several of those young men and women with whom I was falling in love one way or another were in the audience. I got to talk to them afterwards, it was lovely. I was quite lonely at school in that I felt somehow different to other people – I didn’t know why or how, but I did – and when I went to Nottingham Arts Theatre I met other young people who felt the same.

Do you come back to Nottingham often?
I do. My granddaughter is at Nottingham University studying engineering, I was given an honorary doctorate at Nottingham Trent University and even before that I used to like to come back and see a very great friend called Terry Brooks, and where I lived.

And what's the most important thing you've learned in life?
When you start off in this business, you think that the most important thing is success as an actor and all the rest of it. But as you get older, you realise that what is much more important is the happy family life. Then when you get to my age, where nearly all my friends are dead, you realise that the most important thing is keeping alive. When people are gone, people forget you. But I’m still here. Still rocking, baby.

Nottingham Arts Theatre website

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