'It'd have been impossible to be famous when I was younger'
Peter Bowles, known for 'The Irish RM' and his aristocratic roles, tells Julia Llewellyn Smith his roots are much more humble
For nearly 40 years, Peter Bowles has been categorised as posh by everyone from casting directors to passers-by. "Oh yes, they all think I went to public school," he sniffs, his handsome features, plummy vowels, tweedy dress and commanding presence (he's 6ft 4in), certainly giving the impression of someone every bit as To the Manor Born as the 70s sitcom that made his name. When the BBC series came to an end in 1981, Bowles was soon back on Irish screens in The Irish RM.
Yet the actor synonymous with suave is, in fact, the son of manor employees. His parents were chauffeur and nanny to the aristocracy and Bowles grew up in Nottingham, in a house with an outdoor lavatory.
He attended grammar school ("Getting there was what helped me on my way, closing the grammars was a terrible thing") and won a scholarship to RADA, where he studied alongside Alan Bates, Peter O'Toole, Roy Kinnear and Albert Finney.
His accent was eradicated but just as he perfected the toff guise, John Osborne wrote Look Back In Anger and working-class actors were in vogue.
"Everyone's complaining too many actors, like Eddie Redmayne, went to Eton - back then it was the opposite. I shared a flat with Jimmy Villiers [scion of the Earl of Clarendon, renowned for playing patrician prats] and he couldn't get arrested.
"The problem today isn't the fault of people like Eddie - who's a bloody good actor - it's because only people who've been to Eton have parents who can pay for drama school."
Bowles boosted his scholarship funds by washing dishes at the Grosvenor House Hotel all night. "But I recently was amazed to read in a RADA prospectus that you're now forbidden to do any extra-curricular work, because it would make you too tired." He snorts in disdain.
In the same vein, he notes, neighbours in Barnes, south-west London where he lives with Susan, his wife of 55 years (they have three children and six grandchildren), drive their teenagers to school.
"It's only two bus stops away, but when I politely asked why, they said: 'They might be mugged.' I walked two miles a day to school from the age of five."
And today, 79-year-old Bowles is as doughty as ever. Sharp-witted and radiating health, he could pass for a good 10 years younger. We're meeting to discuss his role as (surprise) an Earl in the new BBC Two series Murder, a spin-off from 2012's Bafta-winning single drama, where individuals involved in a killing separately give their version of events to camera, allowing viewers to act as jury.
Bowles, who appears in episode two, is simply bloodcurdling as a pater-familias intent on instilling the family motto "Have No Fear" in his young son. "The script by Robert Jones was the second best I've ever read," he says (the best was Simon Gray's 1992 TV play Running Late).
Later this year, he will be seen as the Duke of Wellington in Victoria, ITV's upcoming drama about the queen's life.
"They've built Buckingham Palace on an airfield near Leeds. It's perfect, like Downton Abbey, but all the characters are real people as it's based on Victoria's diaries."
Normally, however, Bowles avoids upstairs-downstairs dramas. "I've never watched Downton, it doesn't appeal. It's very difficult when you've been brought up by parents who've been in service; you've heard all sorts of things about how they're treated.
"My father worked for Lady Janet Campbell [wife of the son of the Earl of Sandwich]. They were the same sort of age and she used to give him his day's duties while she was in the bath. It's as if servants weren't human beings."
In fact, the only telly shows Bowles enjoys are Scandi crime dramas, because he can read the subtitles. His hearing's still excellent but, he complains, too many modern actors mumble. "It's terrible, they think they're being real," he fulminates.
"Well, it's balls. In documentaries you see real people talking and you can understand every word. Marlon Brando was as clear as a bell. Friends have worked with American stars, standing in close proximity, who were so inaudible, they've literally had to wait until their lips stopped moving to know when to take their cue."
Bowles has the hinterland to make such judgements. He started at Stratford in the 50s, acted in TV plays when they were still broadcast live and was in Antonioni's iconic Blowup in 1966, playing David Hemmings's agent.
He played the title role of ex-British Army officer resident magistrate Major Sinclair Yeates in the RTE-UTV co-production The Irish RM alongside Bryan Murray from 1983 to 1985, in which his character was appointed to a new role in Ireland. The series, based on a series of books by writing team Edith Somerville and Violet Florence Martin, was filmed on location in Kildare and Wicklow and parts of the west of Ireland.
Bowles was 43, however, before he hit the big time with To the Manor Born, which regularly attracted 20 million viewers.
"Twenty-four million for our wedding! Still, when it ended the BBC asked Penny [Keith] and I to supply the booze for the celebratory party, while they put on the sandwiches," he says.
The 2007 25th-anniversary special attracted 11.5 million viewers. "The BBC were keen to do a new series [after that], but at the last minute discovered the author had sold the rights many years ago and could not persuade the new owners to sell them," he says.
At the same time as To the Manor Born, he was in ITV's sitcom Only When I Laugh, which remained number one in the ratings for four years, beating Coronation Street. His co-stars were James Bolam (The Likely Lads) and Richard Wilson (One Foot in the Grave).
"Jimmy and I thought Richard was quite wonderful, so we went to the head of comedy at Yorkshire TV and said, 'Can we suggest you write something specially for him?' and they said, 'No, he's very good, but he couldn't carry a show.'"
Both co-actors had a reputation for being "difficult" - Bolam famously later refused to have The Likely Lads repeated on TV, denying his co-star Rodney Bewes much-needed royalties.
"They are not difficult, they were wonderful to work with," blasts Bowles. "They were just very, very good and wanted things to be 100pc, not 99pc and certainly not 85pc. It was the same with Leonard Rossiter [with whom he worked in Rumpole of the Bailey] - they all just cared about the job."
Bowles has a similarly tricksy reputation. Having been told by the BBC that his sitcom stardom meant he'd never work in drama again, he was delighted to be cast in Peter Hall's repertory company, but then blew a gasket when the legendary director declined to watch him perform on tour.
"I rang him and said: 'I'm not coming to [do the play in] London unless you come to Nottingham.' He came and I thought: 'Blimey, I won't work with him again,' but we did about 12 plays together."
Although he was often "severely depressed", waiting for work, he's glad fame came relatively late, when his teenage children could ground him. "God knows what would have happened to me today with all those celebrity magazines, it would have been impossible," he says.
Nonetheless, today he's happy when he's asked - occasionally - to do selfies on the tube. "All my friends have gone now. My best friend Richard Briers and [director] Patrick Garland both died three years ago, so I'm just glad to be alive. I think that every day." © Daily Telegraph
'Murder' continues on Thursday on BBC Two at 9pm