I’ve had two careers and I feel privileged, says retiring Devizes reporter
Gazette and Herald reporter Lewis Cowen, who has been reporting on Devizes for the last 24 years, is looking forward to his retirement.
Mr Cowen, who celebrates his 65th birthday on June 13, was a professional actor before he decided to change direction aged 41 and began reporting for free paper, The Devizes News, in 1990.
Looking back on his life he said: “I feel so privileged to have had two careers either of which any school leaver would give their eye teeth to be in. I have loved working as a reporter, especially in Devizes, a town I have loved since I first clapped eyes on it in 1973.
“Funnily enough, giving up being a professional actor did not cause me any grief at all, because I had found my way into another all-embracing profession and the Wharf Theatre gave me the artistic outlet I craved.”
Born in Glasgow, Mr Cowen was educated at Hutchesons’ Grammar School and Glasgow University. Failing to break into journalism at that point, he enrolled in a one-year acting course at the Drama Studio, London, in 1972.
Even before he left, he had got a job in the theatre-in-education company at the Phoenix Theatre, Leicester. While there, the Phoenix company and the company at the newly opened Haymarket Theatre were amalgamated and Mr Cowen found himself being directed by Michael Bogdanov, who subsequently went on to direct at the National Theatre.
Bogdanov pointed him in the direction of community theatre and Mr Cowen worked in community theatre companies in Portsmouth, Southampton, Birmingham and London.
Moving into repertory theatre, he was cast in the main role of Woody Allen’s Play it Again, Sam at the Library Theatre, Manchester, opposite Miranda Richardson in her first acting job.
This led him to work with Ken Campbell on his production of The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy at the Rainbow Theatre, Finsbury Park, London.
Author Douglas Adams told him he had based the character of the compere at Miliways, the Restaurant at the End of the Universe, in the book of the same name, on his performance of the part.
While working at the Swan Theatre, Worcester, Mr Cowen befriended Terry Wale and his wife Lesley Mackie and, when Mr Wale wrote the musical play, Judy, based on the life of Judy Garland, for Miss Mackie, Mr Cowen was cast as Louis B Mayer, head of MGM, and Sid Luft, Garland’s third husband.
Mr Cowen had a brief appearance in the ABC TV mini series War and Remembrance with Sir John Gielgud, Sir Robert Stephens and Jane Seymour.
Despite catching the eyes of casting directors and being put up for many films and TV series, he came out with nothing.
Seeing the writing on the wall, Mr Cowen looked to move into another career and in 1990 answered an advert for a journalist to take over the Devizes News, that had been founded by two ex-Gazette journalists during a regional press strike in 1978. To his amazement, he got the job.
Mr Cowen wrote the copy and once a week would gather it all up and take it to the newsroom of the Avon Advertiser in Salisbury to edit it. Somehow or other, the paper still appeared each Wednesday.
In 2000, Newscom, which owned the Devizes News, was taken over by Newsquest, which owned the Gazette.
In his first two weeks, when reporter Jill Crooks was on holiday, there was a murder in Market Lavington, a suicide on Monument Hill and a fatal crash at Bishops Cannings. By the time Miss Crooks had returned from holiday, Mr Cowen had, he felt, established his bona fides.
The next 14 years flew by, with the joy of coming to work to find what news had broken overnight.
In 2001, Kennet District Council had decreed that five “diseased” London plane trees in the Market Place had to be felled as part of a refurbishment of the town centre.
There was an enormous public outcry but the council dug its heels in and went on with their plans, arranging for the contractors to come along at 5am on a Sunday morning to carry out the foul deed. Chef Mark Watkins managed to climb up one of the trees and spare it – though only for a few weeks.
Mr Cowen said: “I had a strong feeling that the trees would be a major cause of protest from the very moment that Kennet suggested their felling, but I was not prepared for the huge amount of feeling.
"The morning people turned up to see the wreckage after they were felled was like the death of a member of the royal family.”
The Gazette’s coverage of the story helped it win the national weekly newspaper of the year award.
Mr Cowen was also highly commended in the weekly print journalist of the year award in the EDF Energy South West Media Awards in 2006 for his interview with the former wife of murder victim Milroy Clarke.
Though he covered crown court trials, he always preferred more human interest stories.
He was upset to hear about a bonfire at Devizes Cricket Club where a rabbit rushed out from under the pyre with its tail on fire, ran under a hut where £30,000 of pitch preparing equipment was stored, which shortly caught fire and burned to the ground. The rabbit’s charred body of the rabbit was found among the ruins.
Tragedy struck Mr Cowen last year when Lyndsay, his wife of 33 years, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died shortly before Christmas. The pain of his loss was somewhat assuaged by the birth of his first grandchild, Rachael Lyndsay Cowen, in Albany, Western Australia, on April 13.
His love of theatre continues at The Wharf Theatre, Devizes, which he joined in 1991, and has starred in numerous productions.
Mr Cowen, who lives in Urchfont and has a son Saul, 29, will still be involved with events in Devizes, such as compering the Devizes and Roundway in Bloom presentation evening and mayor’s carol concert.