Born: September 2, 1937;

Died: January 17, 2020

DEREK Fowlds, who has died of pneumonia aged 82, made sitcom history in Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister in the 1980s. He also appeared in more than 300 episodes of the rural police series, Heartbeat, during most of the 1990s and 2000s, but for older viewers he is perhaps just as readily recognised as Basil Brush’s straight man in the 1960s and 1970s.

As the civil servant Bernard Woolley in Yes, Minister Fowlds was essentially the third man, often seen hovering on the shoulders of Government Minister Jim Hacker (Paul Eddington) and Permanent Secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby (Nigel Hawthorne).

Advancing the case for Yes, Minister in the BBC series Britain’s Best Sitcom, Armando Iannucci, the Scot who created The Thick of It, argued that Fowlds had the most difficult job. “Bernard had to spend long patches of time saying nothing, and yet looking interested in everyone else’s utter guff. And yet when Bernard opened his mouth to speak, his one line frequently had to be the funniest of the lot.”

The character seemed very literal at times, responding to Hacker’s comment that they must grasp the nettle and take the bull by the horns by pointing out that it would be impossible to take the bull by the horns if he was already grasping the nettle, though he could take the bull by one horn, though that may be dangerous. You were never quite sure with Woolley if he was slightly adrift intellectually in this company or if he knew exactly what he was doing.

There is a famous scene in which the characters discuss the press. Hacker declares: “The Daily Mirror is read by people who think they run the country, The Guardian is read by people who think they ought to run the country, The Times is read by the people who actually do run the country, the Daily Mail is read by the wives of the people who run the country, the Financial Times is read by people who own the country, the Morning Star is read by people who think the country ought to be run by another country, and the Daily Telegraph is read by people who think it is.”

Woolley adds: “Sun readers don’t care who runs the country as long as she’s got big ****.”

Fowlds could also invest the simple, titular phrase Yes, Minister with all sorts of different meanings.

Derek James Fowlds was born in London in 1937. His father died when he was three and he grew up with his mother, grandmother and elder sister. He left school at 15 and trained as a printer, but after National Service in the RAF he won a scholarship to RADA, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, in London. He joined a repertory company in Worthing, Sussex, and began getting small roles in film and television in the early 1960s, taking over from Rodney Bewes as straight man to the unruly vulpine glove puppet Basil Brush in 1969.

While Basil Brush brought Fowlds instant fame among the under-tens it did little to advance his career as a serious actor. He stayed with the show for four years and one wonders if the character Bernard Woolley’s ability to look interested while others spoke “guff” might have been honed on the show.

Yes, Minister ran from 1980 to 1984. Politicians remarked how accurate it was. Mrs Thatcher was a dedicated fan, and once said of it: “Its closely observed portrayal of what goes on in the corridors of power has given me hours of pure joy”.

It was sixth in the BBC poll to decide Britain’s greatest sitcom in 2004. Yes, Prime Minister followed in 1986-88.

From 1992 to 2009 Fowlds was a fixture in Heartbeat, the hugely popular police drama series set in the 1960s in Yorkshire. He played Oscar Blaketon, a gruff police sergeant who retires from the force and runs the local pub.

Fowlds was married twice, both marriages ending in divorce. His second marriage was to Blue Peter presenter Lesley Judd, but they separated after only a few months. He is survived by two sons from his first marriage.