The life of Arthur Lowe was not filled with the laughs he so easily gave to others. The Dad’s Army star struggled with depression, anxiety and unease at being in the public eye. Sadly, these factors and a wife whom some considered something of a Svengali served to reduce a once brilliant career to one spent on the stage in small productions outside of London.
Lowe was born in Hayfield, Derbyshire on September 22, 1915. He grew up in Manchester, the only child of Arthur Lowe (a booking clerk at a local railway station) and his wife Mary. After school he did what was expected in Manchester at the time and found work in small stores and factories.
He wanted out and found his escape route in the military. Bad eyesight kept him out of the Merchant Navy, but at the age of 23 he became a cavalry trooper in the Duke of Lancaster’s own Yeomanry.
To entertain the others he mimicked his superiors and also invented a German character called Colonel Von Kramm, whose catchphrase was “Velcom to our wahr.” Those who served with him say that in hindsight they could see in him even at this early age all the personality traits of the character that would later make him famous. He could be standoffish, persnickety and wanted everything done by the book.
Lowe began his military career as a field technician but was eventually made part of the Field Entertainment Unit. While stationed in Alexandria, Egypt, he and his superior officer set up a theatre to entertain troops. This was a turning point in his life. He had enjoyed his experience working as a stagehand at a theater in Manchester during his teens, but until this time had never seriously considered an acting career. He now knew what he would do when he was through with his military duty.
He joined the ranks of professional actors in 1946 when he became part of a repertory company in Manchester. This move turned out to be as important on a personal level as it was professionally. He met an actress named Joan Cooper, who reportedly took one look at Arthur and told one of her friends, “I think I’m going to marry him.”
There was a slight problem with her plan, however. Joan was already married. She also had a five-year old son. Nonetheless she and Arthur began an affair that Lowe later confessed to Joan’s husband. Interestingly enough this turned out not to be too much of a problem because her husband was having an affair of his own. He agreed to a divorce, but at that time the laws were quite stringent. Arthur and Joan would have to be caught in bed before a divorce petition could be filed. This was duly arranged, and soon after the divorce was final Arthur and Joan were married.
The couple was as different as night and day. Joan was young, blonde, effusive, and at that time considered a better actor than her husband. Arthur was short, balding, and had an appearance that made him perfect for character roles. Personality-wise he was an old man in a younger man’s body. He was not thought of at that time to be an overly talented thespian, but the drive and ambition were there.
The Lowes became immersed in the hard work of repertory theater. They would be acting in one play in the evening and rehearsing another one during the day. Like all theatrical actors their goal was to go to London and get a job in a West End production.
To realize this dream they moved from Manchester to London in 1947. Joan then became pregnant and gave birth to their son Stephen. Motherhood caused her to give up her career, and it was left to Arthur to support the family.
Call Me Madam
Finding work was a struggle, but after years of trying Lowe made his West End debut in 1952. It was in a production of Irving Berlin’s Call Me Madam and from then on he then found his niche playing in the American musicals that were popular in London at the time. Roles in Pal Joey and The Pajama Game followed, and he also did bit work on television.
He eventually left London to return to Manchester. The reason was a role on the popular soap opera Coronation Street. He was supposed to appear in only two or three episodes, but his character, Leonard Swindley, became a regular and Lowe would spend the next seven years on this program.
What was a good move professionally turned out to be something of a bad move personally. Lowe was now recognized in the street, and this intensely private man wasn’t happy when fans would recognize him. Although it gave him financial and career security he hated the character.
It also placed pressure on his marriage. Joan stayed in London most of the time with the children, and to relieve the loneliness she began to drink. She felt that television was a waste of her husband’s talents, but in reality she missed being able to live vicariously through him. She had always thrived on the opening night parties and social gatherings associated with the theater, but television programs didn’t have these. She began to miss her own acting career.
The character of Swindley grew so popular that a program called Pardon The Expression was built around it. The show was a big success but a hectic work schedule, an inability to deal with the trappings of celebrity, and a pressure-filled home life caused Lowe to sink into a severe depression that lasted several years. A month-long vacation with his family seemed to revive his spirits but his wife was still unhappy. Their children were getting older so she decided to return to work.
Dad’s Army and Captain Mainwaring
Meanwhile Lowe was offered the role of a lifetime as Captain Mainwaring in Dad’s Army. Once Lowe was cast, co-writers Jimmy Perry and David Croft quickly found Mainwaring very easy to write. They just looked at their star and included many of his personality traits and quirks. The character and the actor playing him soon became almost interchangeable.
“As I got to know Arthur the man more and more it became obvious that Mainwaring had been waiting for him, and Arthur for Mainwaring,” his co-star Bill Pertwee (Warden Hodges) once wrote. “The two fitted like a split screen merging into one. The first time I dined with Arthur in a restaurant, he said to the waiter, ‘The Warden till sort out the bill.’”
Dad’s Army emerged from the memories of co-writer Perry, who had served in the Home Guard during the Second World War. The Home Guard consisted of local bands of average citizens trained to repel an enemy invasion in case of an emergency.
Captain Mainwaring’s platoon in the fictional town of Walmington-on-Sea was certainly one of the more inept of these units. Along with the pompous, overbearing Mainwaring (a bank manager by day) the squad included a dottery old man named Godfrey who always needed to be excused to use the bathroom, the cool, collected Sergeant Wilson who could sometimes be counted on to save Mainwaring’s butt, the “stupid boy” Pike (based on co-writer Perry) and the dotty Corporal Jones. They, along with the doom and gloom Scotsman Frazer and the roguish Casanova Private Walker, formed the “magnificent seven” who kept Britons entertained for over eighty episodes. (Jimmy Beck, who played Private Walker, died in 1973 and only appeared in the first six series.) Repeats are still popular today as new generations discover a timeless classic.
Lowe was third choice for the part (former Dr. Who Jon Pertwee was one of those who declined the role), but it is now impossible to think of anyone else as Mainwaring. His portly, no-nonsense appearance combined with his impeccable comedic timing and priceless looks were essential to make this role as memorable as it was. In fact, a poll of great Britcom moments was headed by the scene where a German officer is trying to get information out of the platoon. Mainwaring doesn’t want his underlings to divulge anything.
“What is your name?” the German asks Pike. “Don’t tell him, Pike!” Mainwaring says.
Dad’s Army blossomed into a great success but one person who wasn’t thrilled about that was Lowe’s son Stephen, who would get taunted at school with Mainwaring’s infamous refrain, “Stupid boy.” Lowe’s wife, on the other hand, was drinking again, and her acting career didn’t pan out as she’d hoped. To help her out Lowe asked Croft and Perry to create a part for her in the show. So she was given a small role as Pvt. Godfrey’s sister Dolly.
Bless Me, Father
In 1977, shortly after the end of Dad’s Army – which included spin-offs such as a feature film and stage production – Lowe found himself in another sitcom called Bless Me, Father. He played Father Duddleswell, an Irish priest who was forced to deal with a young novice curate named Father Neil Boyd. The scripts were by a real-life former novice curate named Peter De Rosa and allowed Lowe to give another terrific performance.
His major successes were in the area of comedy so it’s easy to forget that Lowe was also a talented dramatic actor. In the early 70s he did Shakespeare at the Old Vic and was also memorable as Mr. Micawber in a production of David Copperfield.
After the end of Bless Me, Father, Lowe began to tour in theatrical productions with his wife. It finally got to the point where he refused to work without her. In the process he gave up chances to take his career to an even higher level. He declined numerous West End roles and even a part in the Warren Beatty film Heaven Can Wait. Instead he ended up doing lesser theatrical productions and the occasional bit part on television. He even took part in a pantomime production of Mother Goose because there was a role in it for his wife. A sad end to a once brilliant career.
Lowe kept working until he died in April of 1982. He and his wife were in Birmingham appearing in a production of the play Home at Seven. On the day of his death he had done a matinee as well several radio and television interviews.
Before the evening performance he collapsed. Since he had suffered from narcolepsy for years his wife was convinced that he’d just fallen asleep and would wake up. She was wrong. He had suffered a stroke and after being rushed to the hospital died early the next morning. Whether it was denial or her strong belief that the show must go on, Lowe’s widow didn’t miss a performance and was in Belfast doing the play when he was laid to rest. In fact, there were very few present at the funeral, perhaps a sad testament to Lowe’s inability to let people get close to him. Joan (Cooper) Lowe passed away two years later.
Looking back on their relationship, their son Stephen said that love was like a “destroying angel” because it didn’t allow either of them to achieve their full potential. The phrase “tears of a clown” is an old cliché but it happens to fit the life of Arthur Lowe.