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Peter Bowles: An actor proud to have been called a luvvie

Peter Bowles in a scene from the television sitcom To the Manor Born in 1979 - Credit: Getty Images

TIM WALKER on an actor proud to have been called a luvvie.

It was the word “luvvies” that introduced me to Peter Bowles. I’d used it in the way journalists generally do as a light-hearted, if lazy and cliched, way of describing actors and it had provoked a debate in the letters column of The Stage, the newspaper of the theatrical profession. It was agreed by the likes of David Suchet and Marc Sinden that the term was offensive.

I hadn’t of course meant it to be and was all set to write a piece apologising when Bowles telephoned. “It so happens it was an actor who coined the term ‘luvvie,’ so I can’t see how actors can really make a fuss about it,” he said. He maintained it was his old friend James Villiers – an aristocratic actor best known for films such as The NannyJoseph Andrews and For Your Eyes Only – who’d first used it as a term of endearment for colleagues and it had somehow stuck.

It had made my day to hear from Bowles as he had long been a hero of mine. He’d started out with the Old Vic Company and become one of the best-known actors in the country with roles in hugely popular television series such as Rumpole of the BaileyOnly When I LaughThe BounderThe Irish R.M. and, of course, To the Manor Born – in which he appeared as a nouveau riche tycoon allegedly based on the late Sir James Goldsmith. He’d also played a gossip columnist in a series he’d himself created called Lytton’s Diary. It was based very obviously on my old boss Nigel Dempster of the Daily Mail.

Bowles had caught Dempster very well – a complicated mixture of old school charm, irascibility and an ever-so-subtle campness – and the two had become great friends. As a stunt to promote the series, Bowles had come into the Mail office to take charge of Dempster’s column for a day. The sub-editor on duty had told me it was hellish for him because Bowles couldn’t countenance writing anything unpleasant about anyone he knew. He knew so many people it got perilously close to deadline with the page still entirely blank.

I suggested to Bowles that we meet for lunch at Le Caprice, the stylish restaurant in St James’s, and, to my delight, he accepted. This was 13 years ago when he had just turned 70, but he’d hardly changed at all since his glory days on television when 20 million viewers would tune in regularly to see him sparring with Penelope Keith in To the Manor Born.

He was unassuming, modest and emotionally very literate. Dempster had died a few years earlier and we remembered the old monster fondly. We could both see he was fundamentally decent and also very funny. When one of his staff had complained that he’d thrown a copy of Who’s Who at her, Dempster had laconically replied that she’d at least been hit by “all the right people”.

Of Villiers, Bowles had affectionate memories. He was an heroic drinker and had managed to keep pace with Peter O’Toole, and, even more dauntingly, the old character actor Ronald Fraser. Bowles said he always thought it was so sad Villiers hadn’t been allowed to reprise the role of Lord Thurlow in the screen version of The Madness of George III after he’d done so well originating the part on stage. One of the locations for the film version was Arundel in Sussex where Villiers lived and it had been painful for the old actor to know that John Wood was so close by playing the role he’d created and coveted.

Bowles had had moments of despair in his own career and made bad decisions as well as good ones – he turned down the part of Tom in The Good Life – but just lately I’ve seen him turn in what I consider to be some of the finest performances of his career, notably as an old gent who found love in a nursing home in the film Lilting, and, a few years later, as Sylvia Syms’ husband in the film Together. I dropped him a line to say how great he’d been and the reply was typically self-deprecating.  Bowles knew what mattered in life – Susan, his wife of 60 years, and their children, perhaps most of all – and, as for career triumphs and disasters, he’d learnt to treat those two impostors just the same.

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