A humiliating exchange with Princess Margaret and a close encounter with Mrs Thatcher... Peter Bowles on his hilarious dealings with the fairer sex

With a career spanning 50 years, Peter Bowles remains one of Britain’s best loved actors.

Yesterday, in the second part of his delightfully self-deprecating memoirs, he recalled his humble background, as well as how he rubbed shoulders with Peter O’Toole, Alan Bates and Albert Finney at drama school.

Today, in the final part of our series, he describes his disastrous pursuit of the woman who ultimately became his wife - and how he’s always had a soft spot for strongwomen…

Peter Bowles

Difficult start: But Peter Bowles and his wife, Sue, have been married for 48 years

Princess Margaret had spotted me from several paces away as she walked towards me in the royal line-up.

In her hand was a holder containing an unlit cigarette and, as she drew level with me, she stopped and said: ‘Would you give me a light?’ before turning away to talk to an aide.

I searched in my dinner jacket pockets and found an old book of matches.

Princess Margaret turned back to me, the cigarette holder now firmly in her mouth and her head cocked forward in anticipation of a light. But as I struck the match, her head jerked backwards.

‘Oh no! Sulphur! I can’t stand sulphur. Haven’t you got a lighter?’

This was said in a quite loud and very imperious voice. Before I had time to reply a figure stepped into the small space between Princess Margaret and me.

It was my wife, Sue, who had been standing next to me.

‘How dare you speak to my husband like that?’ she said. ‘I think you are very rude.’

To The Manor Born

Popular: Peter and his co-star Penelope Keith in the hit comedy TV series To The Manor Born

Princess Margaret was shocked. I was shocked. The Queen’s sister handled it pretty well, actually, her demeanour changing completely to that of one woman speaking to another.

‘I didn’t mean to be rude,’ she said quietly to my wife. ‘I’m sorry to have upset you, but I really do have a problem with sulphur.’ And on she went.

Two years later I was at a large private party at which Princess Margaret was also a guest. My wife was not with me. Princess Margaret spotted me and came over.

‘Good evening, Mr Bowles,’ she said. ‘You will be my bag man for the evening.’

Her eyes were twinkling as she handed me a bejewelled lady’s clutch bag.

‘In there,’ she said, ‘are my cigarettes and a lighter. When I require a cigarette, I
shall ask you to give me one and then light it for me with my lighter.’

And with that she spun on her heel and walked away. I, of course, felt more than obliged - commanded, in fact - to follow her, clutching the bag.

She didn’t humiliate me for long, however. After a few minutes she turned to me and asked for a cigarette, and I lit it with her lighter.

‘Thank you,’ she said and then held out her hands indicating she would like the return of her bag and its contents.

Peter Bowles

Glamorous couple: The actor says he has always had a thing for strong women

I placed it in her free open hand. ‘Quits now, I think, Mr Bowles,’ she said with a  charming smile, and disappeared into the crowd.

Did I say that my wife was a strong woman?

She certainly is, as that little story amply demonstrates. I really like strong women,  which is why the on-screen chemistry between Penelope Keith and me was so terrific
during To The Manor Born.

It helps that I’m taller than her, of course (and she herself is pretty tall), but we really hit it off from the first day we met.

More than 30 years after the series we’re still great friends - in fact, she was round for dinner with us only a few days ago.

I am 73 now and have been happily married to Sue for 48 years. We have three lovely children. I am very lucky, and don’t I know it - which makes it all the more amazing that mine and Sue’s long love affair got off to such an unpromising start.

A completely disastrous start, in fact.

Sue was a newcomer to RADA and I was in my final term there when we met - she was a girl of extraordinary beauty and was quite unlike anyone I had ever met.

Cupid did not, however, release his arrow until we were cast together five years later in a production at Bristol Old Vic. The forces of nature were brewing up a real storm, I can tell you.

I hadn’t seen her for five years and when I did, at our first rehearsal, I was utterly swept off my feet.

By then 21, beautiful and wearing a yellow dress showing just enough leg to drive any man wild, Susan Bennett was a vision.

When we broke off for lunch, I took her over the road for a drink and a sandwich, and  before she had even chosen her sandwich, I asked her to marry me.

She must have thought I was crazy.

We hardly knew each other, had just started working together and I had already  proposed! I had certainly spoiled her lunch, that’s for certain.

She said no, by the way. Some time later, the Bristol Old Vic was invited to take the play to Baalbeck in Lebanon.

It was a difficult time: the heat was intense and the light so bright that we couldn’t rehearse during the day.

'We had only just met yet I had already proposed'

We had to rehearse all night instead and then try to sleep during the day, which was well-nigh impossible.

I was exhausted. Sue, on the other hand, seemed to be having a wonderful time.

She was a sensation - blonde, blonde, blonde and with the looks and figure to go
with it, which attracted very rich Lebanese men like bears to a beehive.

She was basking in the attention, and what with this and the fact I’d had hardly any  sleep since arriving in the country, I felt as though I was going completely mad.

I’m afraid it ended up in a very dramatic and unfortunate way.

The hotel in Baalbeck had a very large landing where the cast collected if it was too hot outside. The bedrooms mostly led off this landing.

Anyway, Sue’s did. I wanted to talk to her one evening; she didn’t want to talk to me.

Fed up with me pestering her, she retired to her room. I followed and found the door locked and no response to my knocking.

Overwhelmed with jealousy, confused from lack of sleep and only too aware that I couldn’t compete for Sue’s attention against Lebanese millionaires, I had a total meltdown.

According to people who saw what happened - and I must confess I can hardly remember it myself - I let out an enormous cry of anguish and kicked Sue’s door until both door and doorframe were smashed.

She, of course, was terrified. Various members of the cast held on to me while a doctor was called, and I was injected with something to calm me down, then put to bed.

When I had recovered I was asked to report to the company manager, Douglas Morris. On my way to his hotel room, I remember my colleagues being very understanding.

They knew, at least, that I was half mad with unrequited love.

Douglas Morris was very understanding, too, telling me that women were not to be relied upon. The love of a man, he said, was more satisfactory in every way - and as if to prove the point, he started taking his trousers down and gesturing towards the bed.

This was a highly unexpected turn of events.

Douglas, by the way, was someone who had warned me in the past about allowing myself to be corrupted by older actors.

I made my very strong excuses and left.

Sue had nothing more to do with me, and when we got back to England the play  finished and we both moved back to London - she to live with her parents in Highgate, while I was in a rented flat.

Sue wouldn’t return my phone calls. Her parents threatened to tell the police if I didn’t stop ringing. Sue wanted nothing to do with me.

Please go away. Then I had an idea. Before Sue had come to Bristol, I had met a rich girl - my first and only wealthy girlfriend.

She was stunning in her beauty. She owned and drove a lovely convertible sports car, skied, shot, sailed - and she loved me.

I decided to contact the stunning rich girl, who lived with her parents in a stately home, and ask her to come to live with me in London.

She was delighted, thrilled... just give her a week or two to sort things out and she would be with me.

Then my best friend, Bryan, rang me. Sue, having somehow heard about my planned arrangements, had phoned him and asked him to convey the message that she had realised she was in love with me. She wanted to meet.

We did. I asked her, immediately after we had kissed, to marry me. She accepted. I was very, very happy, Sue was very, very happy.

Stunning rich girl was not. She was to express this unhappiness in a very surprising way on the day of my wedding.

Sue and I were married in 1961 at Highgate church, near her parents’ home.

One of the ushers was my old room-mate, Albert Finney, who arrived late. He was starring in the hugely successful Billy Liar and had overslept.

He arrived with his raincoat hurriedly thrown over his pyjama jacket - but he did have proper trousers on.

What he hadn’t forgotten, though, was his wedding present: an envelope containing a cheque for £250.

That is a sum equivalent to about £3,500 today. It completely set Sue and me up, as I was often out of work in the months that followed. Thank you again, Albert.

Sue and I left the church in the traditional hired Rolls-Royce for a quick lunch in Hampstead, where we were going to live.

As the Rolls turned into Hampstead High Street, I heard a car hooting loudly. On looking out of the window, I saw that an open-top sports car had drawn up beside us.

In the car was the stunning rich girl from Bristol, and when she saw that she had attracted my attention, she gave me a huge ‘V’ sign and zoomed off.

I didn’t mention this to Sue... I OFTEN think, in these days of massive paparazzi attention and the proliferation of gossip magazines, how lucky I am that the only
item of interest for gossip columnists that ever happened to me was in 1980, when Stringfellows nightclub first opened.

The owner, Peter Stringfellow, had invited me for supper at the club with his then wife and parents.

While I was there, an extremely glamorous young woman came over to our table and asked me for a dance. As Sue wasn’t with me, I was happy to oblige.

What I wasn’t conscious of was that photos were being taken. What I was conscious
of was that the girl was dancing really close. Very nice, I thought.

Two days later it was all over the newspapers that I was cheating on my wife with a mystery girl at the new Stringfellows club.

'I had developed a reputation for being difficult'

I haven’t been there since, actually, although some years later three young women who worked there rented the basement flat next door to our house, and used to sunbathe naked in the garden. I tried not to look. Not too often, that is.

Before leaving the subject of women - and strong women in particular - I must just tell you about a memorable party which Sue and I went to at Carlton House Terrace in London, home to various embassies, learned institutions and so on.

As my wife and I were trying to work out the mechanics of the tiny lift by the front door - which a policeman had told us would take us straight to the party, and which held a maximum of four - two more people got in, a man and a woman.

‘Oh I’m so sorry,’ said the woman, and she stepped out again.

The man backed out, too. ‘Oh no, this is silly,’ said the woman, ‘we are obviously going to the same party. Let’s go together.’

And they got back in. Her companion shut the gate. We stood almost nose to nose.

‘Perhaps we should introduce ourselves,’ said the woman. ‘My name is Margaret Thatcher.’

Mrs Thatcher at that time was very much the Prime Minister, in her second term of office. Then she introduced the man, who was her bodyguard.

I introduced Sue and myself.

‘Oh, I know who you are,’ she said. Mrs Thatcher and my wife then had quite a long  conversation about coats, as my wife was wearing one and Mrs Thatcher wasn’t.

‘I only ever travel in cars, my dear,’ she said, before saying, as we had been standing there some time: ‘Well, I suppose someone had better press the button.’

Coming from the lips of the Prime Minister it had a peculiar nuclear ring to it in my mind. We shuffled around, pressed a button and ascended, then Sue and I shuffled
around again in order to let Mrs Thatcher and her bodyguard get out first.

The party was very jolly and in full swing when our hostess started to being ‘a bit difficult’.

He must introduce her most distinguished guest to the other people there.

‘Oh Prime Minister, can I introduce you to the actor Peter Bowles and his wife, Sue.’

A couple of drinks in, the witty, quick-as-a-flash Peter Bowles said: ‘Oh we’ve met before. We were rather intimate in a lift.’

‘I beg your pardon?’ said Mrs Thatcher in a very loud voice indeed.

The world reeled, the party ceased, you could hear ice tinkling as it melted in glasses.

I have never felt so stupid in my life. I didn’t know what to say. It was a true ‘I wish the floor would open up and swallow me’ situation.

The party waited; the hostess was ageing considerably. Mrs Thatcher suddenly smiled a warm, truly amused smile, touched me gently and said: ‘I think you meant to say that we were rather close in a lift, don’t you?’

I gulped: ‘Yes, Prime Minister,’ and Mrs Thatcher swept on. I hope I was able to thank our hostess for a lovely party, but I do remember leaving very quickly after these exchanges.

At an early point in my career I seemed to develop a reputation of being ‘a bit difficult’.

This is OK if you are a star, but can hold you back from becoming a star if you start before you already are one, if you see what I mean.

I recall after an early rehearsal of one TV show, in which I had a small part, a number of cuts were made.

None of these affected my role, but I couldn’t help pointing out to the director, as everyone happily applied the blue pencil, that if certain of the cuts were made, the
story wouldn’t make sense.

The director was very, very angry - because he saw I was right, but he certainly wasn’t going to admit it.

When we all got up from the table, the leading actor, a much more experienced older man, kindly took me aside.

‘Peter,’ he said, ‘listen - this is only television. No one cares. The viewers certainly won’t care, even if they notice, which I doubt. I have a mushroom farm. That’s what I care about.

'But as far as television is concerned I just take the money and run, and that’s my advice to you, old chap.’

I hope you agree that I didn’t take his advice. My kindly adviser ended his career playing in a well-known soap for about 20 years.

He must have been a very contented mushroom farmer.

When I starred with Sir John Gielgud, Joan Collins and Michael Aldridge in one of Roald Dahl’s Tales Of The Unexpected, Michael Aldridge told me before filming began what he was being paid.

He told me only because he imagined I was being paid the equivalent, and was very pleased for both of us.

One sunny day on location, the producer saw me sitting reading my script and said:
‘Are you happy?’ ‘No,’ I said, ‘I’m not.’

‘Oh dear,’ said the producer. ‘Why not?’

‘Have you seen the rushes?’ I said. ‘Of course,’ he replied. ‘You are wonderful.’

‘Am I as good as Michael Aldridge?’ I inquired.

‘Don’t be silly,’ he said, ‘of course you are.’ ‘Then why are you paying me £500 and
paying £1,500 to Michael?’ I said.

I’ve never seen anyone so flabbergasted, angry and absolutely furious.

‘How dare you speak to me like that?’ he said. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘you asked me why I wasn’t happy and I’m telling you, that’s all.’

‘My job as a producer is to get you as cheaply as possible,’ he managed to

‘Then please don’t ask me if I’m happy.’

The producer disappeared. He returned after a short while, sat next to me and said:
‘Out of the goodness of my heart I have spoken to your agent and you are now being
paid £1,500.

‘Ask me if I’m happy,’ I said.

Adapted from Ask Me If I’m Happy: An Actor’s Life, by Peter Bowles, published by
Simon & Schuster on April 29 at £17.99. ©Peter Bowles 2010. To order a copy at
£16.20 (p&p free), call 0845 155 0720.

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