Bowles was born in London, England, the son of SarahJane (née Harrison) and Herbert Reginald Bowles. His father was a chauffeur and butler at a stately home in Warwickshire, until he was seconded to work as an engineer at Rolls Royce upon the outbreak of World War II and moved the family to Nottingham. Peter Bowles attended Nottingham High Pavement Grammar School and then trained as an actor at RADA
He became famous in the late 1970s and 1980s for portraying upper class characters typically caught in hilarious situations. Having appeared in three episodes of The Avengers in the 1960s, he then starred in television comedies including Only When I Laugh, The Irish R.M., The Bounder, To the Manor Born and Perfect Scoundrels. Bowles also appeared as a regular in the first few series of Rumpole of the Bailey as Guthrie Featherstone, QC, MP, Horace Rumpole's social-climbing head of chambers. In later seasons the character became a judge and left Rumpole's chambers, but a disgruntled Rumpole still found himself appearing occasionally before Mr Justice Featherstone, usually once per season. In 1966 he co-starred with Vivian Pickles in the BBC TV film Isadora Duncan, the Biggest Dancer in the World directed by Ken Russell. He later co-starred with Penelope Keith in To the Manor Born and the mid-80's BAFTA-award winning Executive Stress on ITV.
Bowles also played the agent known as 'A' in The Prisoner episode "A. B. and C.", and the alien Balor in the Space: 1999 episode "End of Eternity". He also appeared as Carolyn Seymour's husband in the first episode of Survivors; and in four episodes of The Avengers.
He continues to work regularly in theatre, including London's West End. While appearing at the Chichester Festival Theatre in The Waltz of the Toreadors