Published 22/01/2012 | 05:00
A television and film actor whose humble start as a boy newsie led to a career as a classic British cockney
HARRY Fowler, who has died aged 85, was a quintessential Cockney actor and made many film and television appearances, notably in the ITV comedy series The Army Game (1957-1961).
He joined the show in 1958 as Corporal 'Flogger' Hoskins in a large ensemble cast playing a motley group of reluctant army conscripts, all seeking to dodge the column as they struggled to adjust to military life.
The show was at the height of its popularity when Fowler arrived, part of a new intake following the departure of many of the original cast after the first two series.
In 1958 its theme tune reached No 5 in the pop charts and the same year saw the release of a spin-off film called I Only Arsked! -- one of the programme's many catchphrases. (Fowler himself had one such well-worn slogan -- "Follow Flogger!")
He was cast as a skiving Cockney wideboy to replace Michael Medwin, who had played the departed Corporal Springer. Like many of the actors, Fowler could draw on his personal experiences as a wartime conscript, having served as an aircraftman in the RAF.
Originally broadcast live, the show was at the mercy of practical jokers among the cast. Once, Fowler had to exit and return quickly equipped with a haversack. But the others had loaded it with a stage weight and Fowler had to stagger on with an extra 25lbs on his back.
Although it seems dated now, The Army Game was a television phenomenon in its time; when it started, British National Service was still compulsory and wartime memories were fresh.
Henry James Fowler was born on December 10, 1926, in Lambeth Walk, south London, and educated at the Central School in Lollard Street, Kennington. His childhood was hard: his grandmother, who had brought him up, was killed in the Blitz in 1940 when Harry was 13 and thereafter he had to fend for himself.
A year later he left school to take over a newsstand in Piccadilly Circus, selling the now-defunct evening newspaper The Star. The job taught him to use his lungs to full effect as he hawked his wares over the roar of London's traffic.
Selling his papers at the gentlemen's clubs nearby, he found that by warbling a few sotto voce lines from the Victorian Cockney song My Old Dutch he would get "half a dollar for a penny paper".
After one such encounter, a BBC official got him to "chat away on the wireless about the vicissitudes of an itinerant newspaper vendor in the metropolis" on the radio programme In Town Tonight.
This led to a film director offering him the part of a brash Cockney evacuee in Those Kids From Town (1941). Fowler followed this with an appearance in the morale-boosting Salute John Citizen.
During the war years Fowler appeared in other propaganda films, notably Went the Day Well? (1942). He was later called up by the RAF, and would reprise his role as an aircraftman in the film Angels One-Five, released in 1952. By the time he was demobbed in the late Forties he was playing juvenile leads, notably the insouciant street kid in Hue and Cry (1947).
Starring Alistair Sim and Jack Warner, this was the first of the Ealing comedies and concerned a gang of street boys who foil a master crook. Unknown to the writer or printer of a weekly comic strip for boys, the criminal sends coded orders for robberies by cunningly altering the strip's wording each week.
Despite the improbable plot, the film proved a critical and commercial success -- "an adventure relating the fantasy of popular 'penny bloods' to a credible situation in reality," declared one reviewer, "the story of a schoolboy thriller which comes to life".
Fowler's other film credits include The Pickwick Papers (1952), Lucky Jim (1957), Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Chicago Joe and the Showgirl (1990). On television he appeared in Dixon of Dock Green, Z-cars, Minder, Doctor Who, The Bill and Casualty. He also played Harry Danvers in the clerical comedy Our Man at St Mark's (1965-66), and his voice was often heard in television commercials.
A Labour supporter, Fowler considered standing for Parliament, but decided against it: "I found there was little room for laughter in politics." He received an MBE in 1970.
Harry Fowler's first wife, the actress Joan Dowling, who was his co-star in Hue and Cry, committed suicide in 1954. His second wife, Catherine, survives him.