Actor of stage and screen who featured in Emergency – Ward 10, The Prisoner and the 1979 film Scum.
A stage and screen character actor for more than half a century, Peter Howell, who has died aged 95, found himself catapulted into the spotlight – and up to 24 million viewers’ homes – when he played Dr Peter Harrison in British television’s first medical soap, Emergency – Ward 10.
The doctor was the fictitious Oxbridge General hospital’s orthopaedic registrar and one of the many staff whose lives and loves were featured alongside the stories of patients’ woes. Dr Harrison supervised the hospital’s polio unit and, as a master of understatement, was memorable for the line: “The next 48 hours may be a bit tricky.”
Howell joined the twice-weekly serial in 1958, a year after it began, and appeared in 111 episodes through most of its 10-year history. Although he left in 1964, when audience figures were starting to slip, he returned for a short run two years later and a special appearance in the final episode, in 1967.
While other actors in the soap, such as John Alderton and Desmond Carrington, went on to become household names, Howell returned to character roles, often authority figures. In The Prisoner, Patrick McGoohan’s cult series using allegory to make a statement about the freedom of the individual, he appeared in a 1967 episode as the professor, teaching a speed-learning history course to residents of The Village as a mind-control exercise – and it turns out that the professor is being controlled himself to deliver it.
Later, Howell was cast as the prison governor upholding a brutal regime in the 1979 film Scum, starring Ray Winstone. It was a remake of Roy Minton’s 1977 television play banned by the BBC because of its graphic portrayal of violence in a borstal. Howell – a lifelong campaigner for social justice – was particularly proud of this role because the film added its weight to a campaign to abolish the borstal system, which came about in 1982. He switched to radio to play Cyril Hood, the Bishop of Felpersham, in The Archers (1987-2006), as well as Saruman in a 1981 production of The Lord of the Rings.
Howell was born in London, the son of Owen, a solicitor, and his wife, Norah (nee Mally). He hated his time at Winchester college, but it gave him a love of cricket that would lead to his becoming a member of the MCC. To please his father he studied law at Christ Church College, Oxford, but left the course early when he was called up for wartime service in 1939. His experiences as a second-lieutenant in the Rifle Brigade shaped the rest of his life. Invalided out in 1943 with dysentery suffered during Field Marshal Montgomery’s North Africa campaign, Howell never forgot the suffering he had seen – and the class divisions between officers and others.
He was introduced to acting when his sister, Gillian, was training at Rada, which was looking for men to act in its productions to replace those away at war. A memorable time followed with the Old Vic company at the New theatre in 1943, following the bombing of its own venue. Howell had small roles in productions such as Richard III, alongside Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson and Sybil Thorndike, directed by Tyrone Guthrie. His West End stage plays included The Affair (Strand theatre, 1961), The Doctor’s Dilemma (Theatre Royal, Haymarket, 1963), Little Boxes (Duchess theatre, 1968) and Conduct Unbecoming (Queen’s theatre, 1969).
Among Howell’s dozens of television roles were Lord Howard in Elizabeth R (1971), Julius Caesar in Heil Caesar! (1973), Francis Knollys in Edward the King (1975), Uncle Glegg in The Mill on the Floss (1979) and Sir William Lucas in Pride and Prejudice (1980), as well as various priests, detectives, lawyers, judges, headmasters and army officers. He also appeared as the bishop, alongside Johnny Depp, in the film The Libertine (2004).
Politics played an important part in Howell’s life. As well as being an active member of the Labour party and serving on the committee of the actors’ union, Equity, he opposed the MCC’s planned 1968-69 England cricket tour of apartheid South Africa, which was eventually cancelled, and campaigned for the lowering of the homosexual age of consent. He also helped to raise funds for the building of Watermans arts centre, Brentford, near his home in Chiswick,west London.
In 1957, Howell married Susan Cheshire, who died in 1992. He is survived by their daughters, Polly, Tamara and Camilla, and a son, Benji.
- Peter Norman Bulmer Howell, actor, born 25 October 1919; died 20 April 2015