Stage is set for Peter Bowles

Emma Lee TV favourite Peter Bowles is appearing at the Norwich Theatre Royal in Alan Ayckbourn’s classic farce Relatively Speaking from July 14-19. EMMA LEE spoke to him.

Emma Lee

Peter Bowles always knew he wanted to be an actor. “I started very young doing school nativity plays,” he says. “I learned to read very early. I discovered it was something I could do better than anything else.

“I suppose it's like when you're good at football you become a footballer. Being good at reading led me towards acting.

“Nobody can teach you to act. You can act or you can't. The most powerful part of talent is confidence. If you have confidence you can convince people you are acting well.”

Peter will be treading the boards at the Norwich Theatre Royal in Alan Ayckbourn's classic farce Relatively Speaking from July 14-19.

His distinguished CV includes roles in the classic films Blow Up and The Charge of the Light Brigade and TV parts in the Bounder, the Irish RM and Perfect Scoundrels. Recent West End performances include Hay Fever, the Old Masters and Sleuth.

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But Peter became a household name thanks to his role in the hit old money v new money BBC sitcom To The Manor Born.

He played self-made man Richard DeVere opposite Penelope Keith as snobby lady of the manor Audrey fforbes-Hamilton, forming one of comedy's all-time great double acts. Last Christmas, proving that on-screen chemistry was still there, they reunited for a one-off special, catching up with how married life had treated the DeVere-fforbes-Hamiltons.

Although many people think of him as a comedy actor, Peter, a young 71, actually started out playing the bad guy.

“When I did To The Manor Born people connected me with comedy. I was 43 when I did To The Manor Born, and I'd been acting for 25 years and had played villains. People think you're this or that,” he says.

“I was picked up at RADA when I was 18 by a very powerful international agency and taken round to the casting people. I saw five of them and they all said you must go away, learn Spanish, Italian, Greek, because you'll never play an Englishman. They got that wrong. But then the funny thing about Richard DeVere is that people think he's typically English, but he was Czechoslovakian,” he adds.

Peter has been a professional actor for more than half a century. He was at RADA with some of the biggest names in the business - and he remembers what a culture shock it was for him moving from Nottinghamshire to London.

“I was brought up in a very ordinary working class place - back-to-back houses, outside lavatories, no bath, no TV.

“Everybody in the area lived like that and I thought that everyone lived like that. At RADA I met amazing, glamorous women - some of them had their own chauffeurs.

“It was a very good time to be at RADA. Albert Finney was in my class and we shared a room. Peter O'Toole, Alan Bates and Richard Briers were all there. At school when you are very keen on acting, people think you're a bit weird. At RADA everyone was keen on acting too. And I met a lot of girls, which was very nice,” he adds with a chuckle.

Relatively Speaking first hit the West End stage 40 years ago when it starred Michael Hordern and Celia Johnson.

It begins when affluent middle-class couple Philip and Sheila's Sunday morning peace is shattered when a young couple, Ginny and Greg, pay a visit.

Peter plays Philip and Diane Fletcher, who is also a familiar face thanks to roles in programmes such as House of Cards, Midsomer Murders, Heartbeat and Inspector Morse, plays Sheila. And Robin Whiting and Siobhan Hewlett play Ginny and Greg.

The play explores Ayckbourn's favourite theme - that there's more going on behind the neatly-cut hedges of suburbia than taking tea on the lawn.

“The main thing is that none of the characters know what's going on,” says Peter. “The only people who know what's going on is the audience. I play a very successful businessman of late middle age who's having an affair with a young woman.”

What attracted Peter to the role?

“What attracted me to the part was that it was a play with four parts and that one of the parts was for an older person,” he jokes. “No, what attracted me is that it's a brilliant piece of work - extremely difficult in terms of mental agility because you don't know as scene after scene unfolds what's going on. You need to be tremendously agile - and I wanted to test myself to see if I was still capable of it. And I am. Also, it's comedy of a very high level and I hadn't done comedy for some time on stage,” he says.

Despite 53 years in the business, Peter still enjoys the different directions his career takes.

“It's an interesting life I'm having. I'm doing Shakespeare next - Love's Labours Lost with Peter Hall. Something quite different,” Peter says.

Relatively Speaking is at the Theatre Royal, Norwich, from Monday to Saturday, July 14-19. Performances start at 7.30pm. There are matinee performances on Wednesday and Saturday at 2.30pm. Tickets cost from £5 to £20.50. Box office: 01603 630000 or www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk.