Obituary: Bill Owen

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The Independent Culture
PLAYING THE Nora Batty-chasing Compo in Last of the Summer Wine over three decades won Bill Owen many admirers for his performance as the moth-eaten, woolly hat-and-wellies-wearing pensioner lacking in social graces in a comedy that broke many of the rules of modern-day television. Owen made the lovable rogue one of the small screen's greatest comic creations.

The unlikely story of the adventures of three men in their twilight years ambling around a small Yorkshire town was not an immediate hit, but the BBC gave Roy Clarke's creation time to mature, seeing its cult following grow to the point where it enjoyed 26 years on television and a dozen Christmas specials.

From the beginning, Compo Semini's antics provided the programme with many of its spurts of action between the gentle comedy. Dr Eric Midwinter, director of the Centre for Policy on Ageing, criticised it as vulgar for its depiction of the "libidinous pursuit by the outrageous Compo of the harridan Nora Batty, right down to the last exotic twist of her wrinkled stockings". But many found the warmth of the characters and Compo's fascination for Nora an antidote to the middle-class situation comedies of the 1970s and 1980s.

Owen and Kathy Staff, as Nora, were the only Last of the Summer Wine cast members to appear in all 21 series, attracting audiences as large as 22 million. "When I saw the first script," Owen claimed, "I said, `This is gold'. And, believe me, I've done a few dimbos in my time, so I know gold when I see it."

Owen was a veteran of almost 50 post-war feature films, best known for his roles as forthright Cockneys. He was always on the edge of stardom but was never quite elevated beyond character roles. This saw him through pictures from Holiday Camp (1947), Hotel Sahara (1951) and the Titanic drama A Day to Remember (1953) to four Carry Ons.

Owen was a prolific performer on the West End stage in the 1940s and 1950s, before finding his greatest theatrical satisfaction at the Royal Court, in David Storey's plays In Celebration and The Contractor. Both were directed by Lindsay Anderson, and Owen's performances were critically acclaimed. He also won recognition as a writer and director.

Born in Acton Green, west London, in 1914, the son of a bus driver, Owen worked for a short time as a printer's apprentice. While attending an acting course, he sang and played drums in nightclubs to pay his way. He entered showbusiness as a holiday-camp entertainer under his real name, Bill Rowbotham, was stooge to the comedian Felix Giggs, and made his stage debut in repertory in Cambridge at the age of 19.

In 1939, Owen joined the Unity Theatre Company, where he wrote and produced plays and revues over the next 13 years, eventually becoming artistic director. His contemporaries there included Alfie Bass, David Kossoff and Warren Mitchell. Owen's first writing job was to adapt Robert Tressell's book The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (1952).

Although his career was interrupted by war service in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps, in which he reached the rank of lieutenant, he was wounded in an explosion during training and returned to acting.

He made his West End debut at the Playhouse in 1943, as Gunner Cohen in Mr Bolfry. He subsequently acted in quick succession as Trooper Bates in Desert Rats (Adelphi, 1945), Hughie in Now the Day is Over (Embassy, 1946) and Albert Norton in The Amiable Mrs Luke (Players, 1946), before he won wide recognition for his role as Sam Gerridge in Tom Robertson's Caste (Lyric, Hammersmith, 1946, transferring to the Duke of York's, 1947).

Still known as Bill Rowbotham, he had already appeared in half-a-dozen films. He made his screen debut in the short Song of the People (1945) and, following his stage success, became a busy film actor under the name Bill Owen, first credited as such in When the Bough Breaks (1947), and playing a number of servicemen.

Owen's portrayal of military types and his potential for comedy were combined in his role as Corporal Copping in Carry On Sergeant (1958), the first Carry On film. He continued in three more, Carry On Nurse (1959), Carry On Regardless (1961) and Carry On Cabbie (1963), and acted in notable films such as Carve Her Name with Pride (1958), starring Virginia McKenna and Paul Scofield, and Georgy Girl (1966), alongside James Mason and Lynn Redgrave.

Throughout this time, Owen's stage career proceeded unabated. He made his Broadway debut as Touchstone, alongside Katharine Hepburn, in As You Like It (Cort Theatre, New York, 1950), repeated the role of Sam Gerridge in his own musical version of Caste (of which he was also musical director, Royal Theatre, Windsor, 1955) and became the first professional British actor to play Mack the Knife in Sam Wanamaker's production of The Threepenny Opera (Royal Court, transferring to the Aldwych, 1956).

The short performer played this last character as "a savage cockerel of a man", stated one press report, and his notoriety went beyond the traditional theatre-going public. "This Mack the Knife tag is beginning to stick," said Owen at the time. "Down in Brighton, where I live, I even get bus conductors calling me that." He also won acclaim as Ko-Ko in a Sadler's Wells Opera production of The Mikado (1962).

Owen's own play, Breakout, was premiered in Dutch at the Rotterdam State Theatre in 1957; it was also staged in Germany, Sweden and Mexico. He played the lead character when it was first performed in Britain, at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry (1959). He also wrote the book and lyrics for the West End show Matchgirls (1964), with a score composed by Tony Russell.

But his fondest theatrical memories were of working with Lindsay Anderson and David Storey at the Royal Court Theatre during its heyday in the late 1960s. He acted Mr Shaw in In Celebration (1969), a role he repeated in the 1974 film version, and Ewbank in The Contractor (1969), which transferred to the West End (Fortune Theatre, 1970).

In In Celebration, Owen played the father in a Northern mining town whose three sons return home for their parents' 40th wedding anniversary. In the sequel, The March on Russia, Owen took the role of the father again, in a play that featured the same couple on their 60th wedding anniversary, at the Lyttelton Theatre (1989). The spiritual vacuum of the post-war working-classes at a time of material benefits was the underlying theme of both plays.

Owen had a long history in television. In 1951, he had played Inspector Lestrade in the first British series of Sherlock Holmes stories, adapted by the Observer film critic C.A. Lejeune and broadcast live by the BBC. He became familiar as a regular panellist in the Fifties game show Tell the Truth, chaired by David Jacobs. He then starred with Sid James as London cab firm bosses Fred Cuddell and Sid Stone in the first series of Taxi! (1963), written by Ted (later Lord) Willis for the BBC, but both Owen and Willis declined to work on the second series.

Owen later took the lead, as conniving Sgt Sam Short, in the Willis- created ITV sit-com Coppers End (1971), appeared in Alan Plater's television play Seventeen Per Cent Said Push Off (1972) and as George Chambers, Rodney Bewes's father-in-law, in Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? (1974). In 1971, he appeared for a short period in Coronation Street as unionist Charlie Dickinson, who represented Stan Ogden, Hilda's layabout husband.

Lasting television fame came with Last of the Summer Wine, which started as a single play in the Comedy Playhouse slot in January 1973. The series began the following November, featuring the triumvirate of Owen as the scruffy Compo, Peter Sallis as the laconic Norman Clegg and Michael Bates as the retired Royal Signals sergeant Blamire. The programmes mixed pathos with the absurd, and put the small West Yorkshire town of Holmfirth firmly on the tourist map.

When Bates fell ill, he was replaced in 1976 by Brian Wilde as former Army sign-writer Foggy Dewhurst. It emerged that Owen and Wilde's relationship was fractious but, although Wilde left the cast for a while after 10 years to be replaced by Michael Aldridge as retired schoolteacher Seymour Utter- thwaite, he returned in 1990 to reunite the most-loved trio in the programme's long history. Wilde left through ill-health after the 1997 series and Frank Thornton joined Owen and Sallis as retired policeman Herbert "Truly" Truelove.

On television, Owen also played the deferential Lunt (manservant to Charles Ryder, played by Jeremy Irons) in Brideshead Revisited (1981) and Billy Rice in a BBC production of John Osborne's The Entertainer (1993). Later films included O Lucky Man! (1973), Lindsay Anderson's allegory about a coffee salesman's rise and fall, and The Handmaid's Tale (1990), Pinter's adaptation of Margaret Atwood's novel.

Owen also scripted the film Romance with a Double Bass (1974) and wrote lyrics for songs performed by Sacha Distel, Matt Monroe, Pat Boone, Nana Mouskouri and Engelbert Humperdinck. Cliff Richard had a Top 30 hit with "Marianne" in 1968, as did Ken Dodd with "Broken Hearted" three years later.

A lifelong socialist, Owen gave public support to the Labour Party. In 1976 he was appointed MBE for his work with the National Association of Boys' Clubs, of whose Performing Arts Advisory Panel he was chairman. Shortly before his death, he filmed a Last of the Summer Wine millennium special in France, insisting on finishing it despite his ailing health.

William John Owen Rowbotham (Bill Owen), actor, director and writer: born London 14 March 1914; MBE 1976; married 1947 Edith Stevenson (one son; marriage dissolved 1964), 1977 Kate O'Donoghue; died London 12 July 1999.