#1970s #1980s #2000s
Peter Bowles steals scenes in more than one film and telly tale of the unexpected…
Returning to Peter Bowles as a retro reprobate in some classy British casts.
Neck (Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected. Season 1. Episode 6), New Forward language school
I was sad to learn about the passing of Peter Bowles, an actor I remembered as synonymous as the epitome of British cads and bounders in television and film roles. Somehow this actor made these characters charming and charismatic despite their dishonourable intentions. In many of his many comic and more dramatic productions in the 1970 and 1980s, these tales ended or involved a wee twist.
I first discovered Bowles in Only When I Laugh (1979-82), a British comedy starring Bowles as a hypochondriac patient alongside actors Christopher Strauli and James Bolam. This telly comedy told of these patients’ clashes with the pompous doctor, Richard Wilson. Its storylines uniquely told of NHS hospital life from a patient’s view. These patients’ reasons for their admission to the hospital is one that has baffled both me and my Darlin Husband for many years…
Bowles was also remembered as mummy’s boy Richard De Vere in To The Manor Born (1979-2007). Another British telly comedy, this nouveau rich Czech character buys recent widow’s Audrey fforbes-Hamilton’s ancestral home, Grantleigh Manor much to her dismay. Now she’s apparently “slumming” it in the lodge house and she is not a happy bunny.
However, her best friend Marjory (Angela Thorne) gets quite besotted with his handsome entrepreneur. After 21 episodes that showed Audrey and Richard’s battle of wills, this British comedy ended with a twist that I didn’t see – but apparently, everyone else saw – happening and then there was a reunion episode decades later.
However, today I’m concentrating on his role as Major Jack Haddock in an episode of Tales of the Unexpected (1979-88), S1 Ep 6 called Neck. This episode has the beguiling opening theme music accompanied by spooky references and – for no reason at all – a line of nude dancing girls in silhouettes (for your dad).
It then cuts to Ronald Dahl in a cosy scene. He’s sat in a chair next to a fireplace. He adds to the eerie ambience with his enigmatic opening monologue telling the differences between comic and tragic catastrophes with vivid examples. And as he lists more tragic ones vividly you can’t help but remember this is the man whose children’s book inspired Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1972).
Anyway, the episode begins as a young man and art historian, John Bannister (Paul Herzberg), is seen driving his sports car somewhere. It seems that he accepted an invitation to join Sir Basil Turton (Michael Aldridge) and is staying at Turton’s ancestral home for the weekend.
Meanwhile, Basil’s much younger wife, Natalia (Joan Collins) is belittling Basil and is very snippy with him, about anything and everything. She believes he has no style and hates art. Basil is an art lover and has recently acquired an abstract sculpture that – to this non-arty writer – looks like a lump of wood with two round holes in it. After he gets it delivered, he has it placed in the statue garden and seems to have spent quite a lot of money on it.
On John’s arrival at the Turton’s house, John learns from the butler, Jelks (John Gielgud) that he’s not the only guest and that Lady Turton, can be a wee bit flirty. After John joins his hosts he meets Major Haddock (Bowles), Carmen La Rosa (Carmen Silvera) and then Turton’s younger wife, Natalia.
Natalia immediately takes an interest in John and suddenly talks about art, as she tries to play footsie with him under the dinner table. Then later that night after a game of bridge, she is quite flirty with him. She later visits John in his locked guest bedroom – she has a key to all 47 bedrooms – after she packs her long-suffering husband off to bed early.
Natalia seductively unties the bow on John’s pyjama bottoms and then she switches off the light. The subsequent noises are heard by Jelks who then discovers the true source. Natalia is annoyed with Jelks and gives this butler an evil look. This butler then advises John to place the back of a chair under the door handle.
The next day, Rosa goes riding with Major Haddock and Natalia. Basil and John go for a walk and talk about love, life and art. Natalia and Haddock watch Rosa leave on horseback, then Haddock – the cad – drags a willing Natalia into the stables for a wee bit of a romp in the hay. A wee while later, they emerge, as it’s more than hinted that they are having a torrid affair.
Haddock chases Natalia to the statue garden, and there they are appalled at Basil’s new purchase. Basil meanwhile hears her shrieking and watches her and Haddock cavort together. He’s sitting with John in a nearby gazebo. Natalia then playfully sticks her head through one of the head-sized holes in the statue for a photograph. She gets her head stuck… and Haddock thinks she’s joking with him and takes the opportunity to kiss her passionately… and this is all observed by Basil…
And that’s all I’m going to tell you about this episode, but it’s got a perfect black comedy twist at the end of this episode. It’s fantastically cast. Aldridge gives a quiet, measured performance as the quiet and unassuming older husband and Herzberg is the naive young man who merely comes to admire a statue and ends up with a beauty he wasn’t expecting in the wee small hours.
Joan Collins is at her bitchy best with pithy put-downs and has an eye for the toyboys, which is like a foreshadowing of her long-running role as Alexis in Dynasty (1981-89). John Gielgud again is doing butler duties and he also acted in this kind of role in Murder on the Orient Express (1974) and later in the film, Arthur (1981).
Peter Bowles does look like he’s having fun with his role as a caddish Major. He at first looks a bit put out, as Natalia flirts with the young art historian. As he makes his best moves move towards Natalia, he enthusiastically pulls her into the barn with a twinkle in his eye and a roguish grin…
His on-screen chemistry with Collins is a hoot after she gets her head stuck, and she gets more and more exasperated and he looks panicky as her husband arrives on the scene. Luckily the butler has an idea for this battleaxe…
More recently I saw Bowles as part of an Agatha Christie whodunnit cast, with a major twist in one of my favourite adaptations, Endless Night (1972). Bowles was the apparently caddish husband of Cora (Lois Maxwell), who his character may or may not have married for her money.
But that may not be important, as she isn’t the murder victim as it’s her stepdaughter who is murdered in this film. This film’s conclusion really will give you an Endless Night with a nightmare of an ending… as you learn just who found that murder was the answer to this pain in the neck.