Arthur Lowe, 1915 – 1982
Perhaps always remembered for his role as Captain George Mainwaring in Dad’s Army, However he had a long and varied career that lasted right up until his death in 1982.
Born in Hayfield, Derbyshire, Arthur Lowe was the only child of Arthur (1888–1971) and his wife Mary Annie (Nan) née Ford (1885–1981). His father worked for a railway company, in charge of moving theatrical touring companies around Northern England and the Midlands in special trains.
Educated at Chapel Street junior School in Chapel Street, Levenshulme, Manchester. His intention had been to join the Merchant Navy, but poor eyesight put pay to that idea.
Lowe was working in an aircraft factory, when on the eve of World War 2, he joined the army. Whilst working he got his first taste of show business working as a stagehand at the Manchester palace of Variities. During his time in the army he served in the Middle East with the Duke of Lancaster’s Own Yeomanry, serving as a radar technician. Here he began to take part in shows put on for the troops. He left the army the end of the war reaching the rank of Sergeant Major.
In 1945 whilst making his debut with the Manchester Repertory Theatre he met Joan Cooper. They married in 1948 and remained together until his death. They had a son Stephen Lowe, born in 1953.
Arthur Lowe worked for most of his life either in theatre or on television. However in his final years Lowe’s alcoholism spiralled out of control and he was reduced to acting in pantomimes and touring theatre productions. Graham Lord’s biography recalls that by 1979 Lowe was suffering from major health problems, but continued to drink ever increasing amounts of alcohol, sometimes passing out on stage or at dinner. He was also a heavy smoker and his weight ballooned.
He had long suffered from narcolepsy and on the night of 15th April, 1982, he collapsed from the onset of a stroke whilst in his dressing room at the Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham. He had been appearing in a stage production of Home at Seven in which he appeared with wife Joan and had been scheduled to perform that night. He died in hospital early the following morning, aged 66. His last interview was on the live BBC 1 afternoon show Pebble Mill at One only a few hours earlier.
His ashes were scattered at Sutton Coldfield Crematorium following a sparsely attended funeral. Joan herself did not attend as she refused to miss a performance of Home at Seven and as a result, was appearing in Belfast at the time.
A memorial service was held in May 1982 at St Martin-in-the-Fields, attended by his family, former colleagues, and many friends. His last sitcom, A J Wentworth, BA, with Lowe as a boys’ preparatory school master, was shown during July and August 1982.
As we have already seen Lowe’s first steps into show business, began just before World War 2 when he had a brief stint as a stagehand and then there were his performances during his time in the army entertaining his fellow troops.
However it was 1945 when he made his debut at the Manchester Repertory Theatre. Further roles would follow. Working with various repertory companies around the country, Lowe became known for his character roles, which included parts in the West End musicals Call Me Madam, Pal Joey and The Pajama Game. An early brief role is as a reporter for the Tit-Bits magazine near the end of Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949).
It was the 1960’s and a certain Northern drama where Arthur Lowe would make the successful transition to television. He landed the part of Leonard Swindley, a draper/lay preacher in Coronation Street in 1960, a role he would play until 1965.
The character proved a hit with viewers and Arthur Lowe would go on to reprise his role as Leonard Swindley in a spin off series Pardon The Expression in 1966 and it’s sequel Turn Out The Lights in 1967.
In 1968 he was cast in his best remembered role as Captain George Mainwaring in Dad’s Army, that ran until 1977.
He also successfully played Mainwaring’s drunken brother Barry Mainwaring in the 1975 Christmas episode “My Brother and I”. Lowe and his character also surfaced in a radio version of Dad’s Army, a stage play and a feature length film released in 1971.
While Dad’s Army was not in production, Lowe appeared in plays at the National Theatre and the Royal Court Theatre. In 1968 Lowe was invited by Laurence Olivier to act at the National Theatre at the Old Vic and appeared in Somerset Maugham’s Home and Beauty in 1968 and later The Tempest in 1974 with John Gielgud.
He also had prominent parts in several films directed by Lindsay Anderson films including if…. (1968) and multiple roles in O Lucky Man! (1973). His other film roles during this period included Spike Milligan’s surreal The Bed Sitting Room (1969), in which he mutates into a parrot, a drunken butler in The Ruling Class (1972) with Peter O’Toole, and Theatre of Blood (1973), a horror movie starring Vincent Price, with Lowe as one of the critics murdered by the deranged actor played by Price. Of course there was also the original film spin off from Dad’s Army and he apperared in the 1973 film No Sex Please We’re British, alongside Ronnie Corbett.
On television he appeared as a guest performer on The Morecambe and Wise Show (1977), alongside Richard Briers he starred in a series of Ben Travers farces for the BBC, as the pompous Dr Maxwell. Lowe also appeared in the ITV comedy Doctor at Large (1971), and played Redvers Bodkin, a snooty, old-fashioned butler in the short-lived sitcom The Last of the Baskets (1971–72).
Between 1971 and 1973 Lowe joined Dad’s Army colleague Ian Lavender on the BBC radio comedy Parsley Sidings, and played Mr Micawber in a BBC television serial of David Copperfield (1974). He employed a multitude of voices on the BBC animated television series Mr. Men (1974), in which he was the narrator in addition to voicing all the characters.
After Dads Army ended in 1977, Lowe continued to work starring in television comedies such as: Bless Me Father with Daniel Abineri (1978–81) as the mischievous Irish priest Father Charles Clement Duddleswell, quite a departure from the pompous characters that Lowe usually portrayed and Potter (1979–80), as busybody Redvers Potter.
By now he was making many television commercials, but his later stage career mainly involved touring the provinces, appearing in plays and pantomimes with his wife, Joan.
In 1981 he reprised his role as Captain Mainwaring for the pilot episode of It Sticks Out Half a Mile, a radio sequel to Dad’s Army. However he died before the show was commissioned, so it was re-written for broadcast. His last film role was in Lindsay Anderson’s Britannia Hospital. The last sitcom he made was broadcast after his death in 1982 and that was A.J. Wentworth B.A.