The English actor, Arthur Lowe, is probably best known for his portrayal of the pompous Captain George Mainwaring in the BBC TV programme ‘Dad’s Army’; however the actor had a long and varied career away from this role as well.
Born in Hayfield in Derbyshire on September 22nd 1915 to parents Arthur (who was a booking clerk at a local railway station) and Mary, Arthur grew up in Manchester. After leaving school, Arthur worked in several small shops and factories and as a stagehand at the Manchester Palace of Varieties. He had wanted to join the Merchant Navy, but his poor eyesight put an end to this career. However, when he was 23 he left the position he had at an aircraft factory and joined the Duke of Lancaster’s own Yeomanry to become a cavalry trooper.
While he was stationed in Egypt, Lowe and his superior officer set up a theatre, where Arthur learned to impersonate his superiors. It was therefore at the rather late age of 30 that Lowe decided that he wanted to take up acting professionally after he finished his military service. Although his parents were not very keen on the idea, Arthur Lowe Senior managed to get his son an interview with Frank H. Fortescue at the Hulme Hippodrome in Manchester – thinking that it would get the acting bug out of his system; this was a plan that, thankfully for the British audience, proved futile. The first play that Arthur took part in at the Hippodrome in 1945 was ‘Flare Path’, for which he received the wage of £5 per week. It was at this theatre that Arthur first met the woman who later became his wife – actress Joan Cooper. It is reputed that when Joan first saw Arthur she told a friend “I think I’m going to marry him.” Joan was already married and had a five year old son; but the couple did have an affair and eventually Joan and her husband were divorced and the couple married in 1948.
Mr and Mrs. Lowe moved to the London area in order hoping to land a part in a West End production. Joan became pregnant with their son Stephen and when he was born in 1953, she gave up her acting career to concentrate on bringing up her son, leaving Arthur to support his family.
After a career of just five years, agents were beginning to offer Arthur several small film parts and radio broadcasts, including a reporter in the Alec Guinness film ‘Kind Hearts and Coronets’. After a short stretch on the BBC Radio play ‘Mrs. Dale’s Diary’, he made his television debut in several small roles. However it was in 1960 that he was offered three episodes in a new series for Granada Television that was to be called ‘Coronation Street’. The role was that of Leonard Swindley and the initial three episodes turned into a 5 year role in the now famous soap.
In 1966, with the hectic work and a wife who, becoming tired of not seeing her husband, turned to drink, Arthur decided to leave Coronation Street; however the role of Swindley was recreated in two spin-off comedy series for ITV – ‘Pardon the Expression’ (1965-66) and ‘Turn out the Lights’ (1967) But with this work and all the pressures that he felt under, Arthur began to descend into a severe depression. With both Arthur and Joan suffering from depression, they decided to purchase an old steam yacht – Amazon – and eventually made it seaworthy; this project was great therapy for the couple.
Then in 1967, Arthur’s life was changed for ever when he was invited to lunch at the BBC by David Croft and Jimmy Perry. The couple was planning to write a sit com for the BBC featuring the Home Guard and they wanted Arthur to play the main role of Captain Wainwaring. His pompous, no-nonsense facade, together with his flawless comedy timing made the character so popular. In fact, it was through this role that his catchphrase (‘stupid boy’) was launched and is still voiced today with the same pompous voice used by Captain Mainwaring.
Despite this success, Joan was still depressed and missing her own acting work. She started to drink heavily once more and Arthur asked that a part be written for her in the show. Eventually, she was given a small role as Private Godfrey’s sister Dolly.
Even though Arthur was so busy with ‘Dad’s Army’, he still did theatre, radio, voice over and film work and when Dad’s Army finally finished in 1977, he was given the role of Home Secretary Herbert Morrison in Granada’s TV programme ‘Philby The Traitor’
More TV work followed with Arthur appearing in a new series for BBC, ‘Potter‘ and this was followed by playing Father Duddleswell, in LWT’s series ‘Bless Me Father’. When this series finished, he began to tour in theatrical productions with Joan, eventually refusing to work without her. It was in April 1982, when the couple was appearing in a production of the play ‘Home at Seven’ in Birmingham that Arthur collapsed; he had suffered a stroke and, despite being rushed to the hospital, died early the next morning aged 66. Arthur had given his last TV interview on BBC’s ‘Pebble Mill at One’ only a few hours earlier.
Joan refused to stop her role in ‘Home at Seven’ and in the true theatre spirit of”the show must go on”, she didn’t miss a performance. She didn’t even attend Arthur’s funeral as she was performing the play in Belfast at the time. Joan died seven years later in 1989, having retired to the house where Arthur spent his childhood in Hayfield.
On the 19 June 2010 the writers of ‘Dad’s Army’ – Jimmy Perry and David Croft – unveiled a statue of Lowe as Captain Mainwaring in Thetford, where the outside scenes for the sitcom were filmed. At the unveiling, Perry said that Lowe one of the greatest comedy actors of our time, something that any of Dad’s Army’s many fans would undoubtedly endorse.