Peter Bowles, a dapper British character actor who was best known for his role as an arriviste in the popular British television sitcom “To the Manor Born,” died on Thursday. He was 85.
The cause was cancer, according to a statement to the BBC from his agent. No further information was available.
In a six-decade career, Mr. Bowles, who was the son of servants and grew up without indoor plumbing, appeared in a merry-go-round of productions in television, film and onstage, alternating between comedy and drama, hapless heroes and villains. Whatever character he played, he often projected the air of what his agent called “the archetypal English gent.”
Mr. Bowles’s well-known television credits included roles in “Rumpole of the Bailey,” “The Bounder,” “Only When I Laugh” and the recent series “Victoria.” He wrote and starred in “Lytton’s Diary,” about the life of a newspaper gossip columnist. And he achieved success in “The Irish R.M.,” in which he played a British Army officer sent to Ireland as a resident magistrate. The New York Times called the show “devilishly hilarious.”
But he was best known for his portrayal of Richard DeVere in “To the Manor Born.” DeVere, the son of Czech-Polish émigrés, is the nouveau-riche owner of a supermarket who buys a grand English manor house from its original owner, Audrey fforbes-Hamilton, played by Penelope Keith. She moves to a nearby small cottage, from which she eyes DeVere’s activities with considerable disapproval.
“The show was a reflection of the disruptions to the English class system by the recently elected Margaret Thatcher, a shopkeeper’s daughter who had poshed up her voice but was committed to social mobility,” Mark Lawson wrote in an appreciation of Mr. Bowles in The Guardian on Thursday.
“The casting of the charming Bowles,” he added, “helped to offset the potentially nasty snobbery of the premise.”
The sitcom aired from 1979 to 1981 in Britain, where it routinely drew audiences of 20 million, astronomical by British standards. Like other British series he was in, it later aired in the United States on PBS.
Peter Bowles was born in London on Oct. 16, 1936. His father, Herbert Reginald Bowles, was a valet and chauffeur to a son of the Earl of Sandwich; his mother, Sarah Jane (Harrison) Bowles, was a nanny employed by the family of the Duke of Argyll in Scotland. (The two met when they both worked for the family of Lord Beaverbrook, the newspaper baron and cabinet minister under Winston Churchill.)
During World War II, when Peter was 6, the family moved to one of the poorest working-class districts of Nottingham, in the English Midlands, where their house had an outside toilet and no bath.
After appearing in amateur plays in Nottingham, Peter won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, where his fellow actors included Alan Bates, Peter O’Toole and Albert Finney, with whom he shared a flat.
Mr. Bowles started onstage with the Old Vic Company in 1956 with small parts in Shakespeare dramas. Over time, he starred in 45 theatrical productions. He was seen in the early 1990s by the director Peter Hall, who then cast him in a string of plays in London’s West End.
After Mr. Bowles left the theater for television and comedy, the BBC famously pronounced that he would never work again in drama. But after several television successes, he defied that prediction and returned to the theater as Archie Rice, a failing music-hall performer, in John Osborne’s “The Entertainer” in 1986; he was the first actor to play the part in London since Laurence Olivier in 1957.
Other stage roles included his portrayal of the art dealer Joseph Duveen in “The Old Masters” (2004), a play by Simon Gray about Duveen and the art critic Bernard Berenson, directed by Harold Pinter; and of the “seriously posh, clipped-voice husband” Peter Bliss, as The Times described him, in Peter Hall’s 2006 London revival of Noël Coward’s comedy of manners, “Hay Fever” (also set in an English country house).
He continued to act in movies, too, with roles in: “Eyewitness” (1970, released in the U.S. as “Sudden Terror”); “The Steal” (1995); “Color Me Kubrick” (2005) and “The Bank Job” (2008).
He is survived by his wife, the actor Susan Bennett, and three children, Guy, Adam and Sasha.