PETER BOWLES, who played the role of Abby Grant’s husband David in the very first Survivors episode The Fourth Horseman, has died of cancer at the age of 85.
“He was lovely,” Carolyn Seymour (Abby Grant) recalled on the episode commentary for the DD Video release of the first series of Survivors on DVD. “He was just wonderful as my husband.”
By the time he was casting for The Fourth Horseman, director Pennant Roberts had been aware of Bowles’ rising stage and screen career for many years. The pair had first met while Bowles had been working at the Bristol Vic in the early 1960s.
By 1974, when Roberts was looking to cast the role of the home-counties businessman David Grant, he knew he needed an actor with real presence; someone that – despite his character’s privileged social status – TV audiences would identify with. By that time, Bowles “had established himself”, Roberts recalled in 2003. He was “not as established as he became subsequently” but he was an actor that, in 1975, many TV viewers would have recognised.
That was an important consideration, because Terry Nation’s script for The Fourth Horseman deliberately confounds audience expectation about David Grant’s likely fate. The plotline strongly suggests that the ailing Abby might die, while her as-yet unaffected husband could survive the outbreak.
What Bowles captures so well is the sense of displacement that David Grant feels
“To make the story work you had to feel that [he] was another lead actor” on a par with Seymour, Roberts explained. Someone who could become a series’ regular. So when David Grant subsequently dies, his unexpected death “has a real effect on the viewer,” Roberts reflected.
The character of David Grant only appears in a few pivotal scenes before he succumbs to the virus, but Bowles’ performance leaves a memorable impression. As the virus reaches his commuter-belt village, Bowles brilliantly captures David’s rising panic – as his world comes apart, and Abby falls ill. What begins as irritation at a difficult journey home from a disrupted office, ends with David’s desperate attempts to save Abby’s life and his recognition of the full, terrible reality of the pandemic.
What Bowles captures so well is the sense of displacement that David Grant feels. In conversation with Abby at their dinner table, it’s clear he’s attempting to silence his inner-alarm about the worsening situation in the country through denial. By the time he races off into the night to find Doctor Gordon, the businessman – who’s used to being in charge of every aspect of his life – is now struggling in a world in which nothing is any longer under his control. The fact that David dies alone (and unseen) on his living room couch, while Abby battles through the virus upstairs, only adds to the poignancy – and indeed the shock – of his passing.
Born in London in 1936, Bowles would begin his sixty-year acting career by securing a scholarship for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA), going on to join The Old Vic Company. It was the start of a lengthy and diverse stage career, which saw Bowles appear in more than 40 productions over the years.
Finely judged comedic performances were balanced by serious dramatic roles
His interest in theatre never diminished, even as he secured success and recognition for his TV roles. One of his final theatrical performances, at the age of 81, was as Father Merrin in a stage version of The Exorcist.
Whilst he enjoyed a low-key career as a movie actor, appearing in films such as The Offence (1972), Try This One For Size (1989) and The Steal (1995), it was his work in television that secured him the most attention.
Famously turning down the role of Jerry Leadbetter in The Good Life in favour of some more theatre work, Bowles later found fame in TV sit-coms including Only When I Laugh (1979-82), The Bounder (1982-83) and Executive Stress (1987-88). He drew most plaudits for his role as the self-made businessman Richard DeVere in To The Manor Born (1979-2007), alongside Penelope Keith. It remained a hugely popular show throughout its run, consistently attracting huge viewing figures.
But those finely judged comedic performances were also balanced by serious dramatic roles. Building on one-off appearances in a wide variety of TV series in the 1960s, including The Baron, Softly Softly and Take Three Girls (in which Seymour starred), Bowles would go on to take more substantive roles in series such as Rumpole of the Bailey (1979-82), The Irish R.M. (1983-85), Lytton’s Diary (1985-86) and many others. His last major small-screen role was as the Duke of Wellington in Victoria (2016-2019).
Bowles’ impressive acting career saw him take on a varied and contrasting roles over course of six decades, allowing him to showcase his talents in both comedy and straight drama. He was often cast in the guise of the dapper gentleman or the charming professional rogue, but he was always keen to avoid typecasting.
Without in any sense discounting his impressive corpus of work, for enthusiasts of Survivors Peter Bowles will always be indelibly associated with the role of the doomed David Grant. David’s abrupt death comes as a body-blow to Abby Grant, confirming that her former life has gone forever. Like the passing of Jenny Richards’ flatmate Pat, this intimate, personal loss is a potent on-screen metaphor for what is, by the closing credits of The Fourth Horseman, confirmed to be a global human catastrophe.
The final image of the episode shows Abby driving away from the flames consuming the Grants’ home – an improvised funeral pyre for David Grant- and towards whatever life now awaits her.
Peter Bowles: 16 October 1936 – 17 March 2022