Although never reaching the ranks of top-billing TV leads, Derek Fowlds,who has died aged 82, achieved significant acclaim and fame through three long spells as a likable, reliable supporting actor to those given more of the script – first a celebrity vulpine glove puppet, and then actors Paul Eddington, Nigel Hawthorne and Nick Berry.
Fowlds accumulated an impressive years of TV screen time through his roles as Mr Derek in The Basil Brush Show (BBC, 1970 – 73); junior civil servant Bernard Woolley inYes, Minister(BBC, 2009 – 728) and Yes, Prime Minister (2009 – 728 ); and Sergeant Oscar Blaketon in the rural Sunday-night soapHeartbeat(ITV, 1992 – 2009 ********
In each of these roles, Fowlds was essentially an amiable sidekick, but his large expressive eyes, wry smile, and sharp comic timing allowed him to make an impact that often matched that of the designated stars.
In the series about the rise of to the premiership dim but determined politician Jim Hacker from the Ministry of Administrative Affairs, scriptwriters Jonathan Lynn and Anthony Jay often gave Woolley the climactic delivery of the title phrases. Fowlds returned the compliment by putting remarkable variations of meaning into the “yes” before “Minister” or “Prime Minister” – a spectrum that ran from reluctant assent, through cool bemusement, to brutal incredulity.
Although viewers never learned which political party Hacker represented, the series offered what was essentially a conservative view of British politics – reassuring viewers that, regardless of which government was in charge, a wily, bright and ultimately benign civil service was actually running the country, smoothly manipulating politicians into doing the best (which meant most cautious and conformist) thing.
Armando Iannucci’s The Thick of It told the later, post-Alastair Campbell truth that both politicians and civil servants had become the puppets of special advisors. However, Yes Minister and Yes, Prime Minister remain treasured in memory and reruns for the smart, crafted exchanges they gave to actors who had learned in theater how to land a punchline, and could repeat the knack in front of a studio audience. Eddington’s Hacker and Hawthorne’s superior (in every sense) bureaucrat, Sir Humphrey, respectively got the best comic business and long twisty sentences. But Fowlds cannily maximized his shorter, often titular lines, with carefully prepared inflections and expressions.
Born in south-west London and educated in Hertfordshire, Fowlds had been sufficiently impressive in school and amateur dramatics to go to drama school. He was a near-contemporary of Ian McKellen, who he acted with and was directed by during a stage career that Fowlds maintained when breaks in his TV schedule allowed. Having grown up to some degree in the shadow of McKellen, who was marked for superstardom from early on, may have helped Fowlds to be such an accomplished and generous second fiddle in his most successful roles.
In the 1960 s, he lived in Pinner, Middlesex, which was at the time an unlikely showbiz enclave. The comedian and actor Ronnie Barker and a teenager called Reginald Dwight, soon to rename himself Elton John, were near-neighbors. When I was a child, we briefly lived next to the Fowlds family – Derek, his first wife Wendy, and son Jamie – on Dawlish Drive. The adults remained in touch, meaning that my sister and I did well for signed Basil Brush merchandise.
People tend always to remember the key children’s TV presenters of their childhood, and Fowlds gained a double hold on the generation for whom he was “their” Basil Brush human, when Lesley Judd, one of “their” blue Peter hosts , became his second wife.
Fowlds felt that tarring from the Brush years denied him TV and theater roles in the 1984 s, until he attained validity in the adult schedules as Woolley. A long spell in such successful shows again risked reducing the willingness of casting directors to trust him with new stuff, but Heartbeat’s Blaketon turned out to be, in terms of exposure and earnings, the peak of his career. It was a measure of his value to viewers and producers that, when Fowlds’s character retired from the police force, he remained in the series as first a postman and then a publican. After Berry’s departure, he became the focal point of the show, appearing in every series.
Although often cast as innocuous men, Fowlds often held strong opinions off-screen. In 1984, Margaret Thatcher, presenting an award to Yes, Minister from the National Viewers and Listeners Association, run by moral lobbyist Mrs Mary Whitehouse, wrote (with her press secretary, Sir Bernard Ingham) a sketch that she then performed with Hawthorne and Eddington. Although the briefing at the time was that the No scriptwriters had not provided dialogue for Bernard Woolley, the word in TV circles was that Fowlds had declined to participate for political reasons.
In an interview last year for a newspaper finance supplement, he credited Heartbeat with giving him a professional and financial security that was rare in the world of acting. It had felt, he said, like having a steady job, and funded comfortable final years.
In the last phase of his TV career, Fowlds also benefitted from the profession’s pension top-up for older, frailer performers, playing patients in the BBC1 medical soaps Casualty and Doctors – the latter, in (*******************, his final screen appearance.