Felix Bowness: The jockey Fred Quilly in 'Hi-de-Hi!'
Saturday 24 October 2009
The all-round entertainer Felix Bowness found fame in his sixties as Fred Quilly, the suspended jockey employed as a riding instructor at Maplin's holiday camp in Hi-de-Hi!, after spending much of his working life as a variety comedian, extra, bit-part actor and warm-up artist for television shows.
In the sitcom, set at the turn of the 1950s and created by Jimmy Perry and David Croft – who based it on their individual experiences of staging shows for Butlin's – Fred joined a host of colourful characters among the staff keeping holidaymakers happy in one of the camps that grew up during the post-war years.
Hi-de-Hi! (pilot 1980, series 1981-8) also featured Simon Cadell as the entertainments manager Jeffrey Fairbrother, Paul Shane as the host Ted Bovis, Ruth Madoc as the senior Yellowcoat and Radio Maplin announcer Gladys Pugh, Su Pollard as the chalet maid Peggy, Jeffrey Holland as the comedian Spike Dixon, and Barry Howard and Diane Holland as the dance instructors Barry and Yvonne Stuart-Hargreaves.
Some had shady backgrounds and bitter attitudes to life, but none more so than Fred, who had been paid by a small-time gangster to fix races during his time as a jockey at Brighton racecourse. His licence was eventually revoked, he fled the South Coast, in fear of being caught by underworld crooks, and ended up in Essex, at Maplin's.
Like the snooty Yvonne, who looked down on those she taught on the dance floor, Fred felt his job was beneath him, bemoaning the fact that the horses in his care were not up to the standard he had known during his career as a jockey. He shared a chalet with the alcoholic, child-hating Punch and Judy show entertainer Mr Partridge (Leslie Dwyer). The part brought Bowness centre-stage after years of warming up audiences before recording started on television programmes such as The Morecambe and Wise Show, The Two Ronnies and many of Perry and Croft's sitcoms.
"I'm the chap behind the scenes who gets the audience in a good mood before the real show begins," he said. "But Jimmy and David saw me, talked to me when I was the warm-up for their shows, knew I'd done a lot of riding in my time, and actually wrote the part of Fred with me in mind. I'm a 'turn', not an actor, but they've been marvellous to me. Jimmy and David, and all the cast, give me acting lessons, laugh at me and encourage me."
Felix Harvey Talbot-Bowness was born in Harwell, Berkshire (now in Oxfordshire), in 1922 to a French-Canadian father and an English mother, and his uncle owned riding stables, giving him an early love of horses (he later owned one).
On leaving the village school at the age of 14, he was apprenticed to a carpenter-joiner and fought as a bantamweight boxer. Then, he served as a signalman with the Royal Berkshire Regiment during the Second World War, surving when his craft was sunk during the D-Day landings.
After the war, Talbot-Bowness decided on a career in show business, won a Carroll Levis Discoveries talent contest at the Palace Theatre, Reading, and started to get work in variety, shortening his professional name to Felix Bowness. When he appeared alongside the Forces Sweetheart, Vera Lynn, she spotted his singing potential and gave him vocal lessons. He became resident comedian at Clacton-on-Sea Pier in 1948 and toured in shows for many years, as well as working at Pontin's holiday camp. At the height of radio comedy, he found work on Variety Bandbox (1950), Workers' Playtime (1953-9) and Mid-day Music Hall (1954).
His first screen appearance was a bit-part in the 1963 film melodrama 80,000 Suspects, directed by Val Guest. He subsequently popped up on television in Sykes and... (1964, with Eric Sykes), The Benny Hill Show (1965-66), Frankie Howerd (1966), Sykes (1972-79), The Goodies (1972), The Liver Birds (1972), Dawson's Weekly (1975, alongside Les Dawson), Porridge (1975), The Dick Emery Show (1976), Jim'll Fix It (as Jimmy Savile's butler) and Noel's House Party (as Bert the Bugler), as well as the game-show 3-2-1 (1978-88).
Bowness was also in various sitcoms written by David Croft, with or without Jimmy Perry. He took three roles in Dad's Army (1974-77, twice as a driver, once as a special constable) and two in Are You Being Served? (1975, 1978), before being given greater prominence in Hi-de-Hi! This led him to be cast as the grocer Mr Pearson in later series of Croft and Perry's You Rang M'Lord? (1990-93) and the relief train guard Bernie Bleasdale in Oh, Doctor Beeching! (1996-67). Throughout this, he continued his work as a warm-up artist, notably on the chat-show Wogan, Des O'Connor Tonight and This Is Your Life.
Like many other actors and comedians who appeared in soft-core porn films during a period when British cinema was in the doldrums, Bowness was seen in Queen of the Blues (1979) and Mary Millington's World Striptease Extravaganza (1981), both produced by David Sullivan. He had previously performed in the dance sequence at the end of the film musical Half a Sixpence (1967). In 2003, Bowness retired from show business after being diagnosed with dementia.
Felix Harvey Talbot-Bowness, actor and comedian: born Harwell, Berkshire 30 March 1922; married 1950 Mavis Dungey (one son); died Reading, Berkshire 13 September 2009.
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