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Archive for the ‘Comedy’ Category

The Weird Shadow Over Morecambe 2The Weird Shadow Over Morecambe, Edmund Glasby (Linford 2013)

A patchy book that will be best appreciated by those who know the north-west of England and the seaside town of Morecambe (pronounced MOR-kum). It will be best un-appreciated by that group too. As you might expect, some people will find The Weird Shadow Over Morecambe funny and some will find it insulting. Any Lovecraft fan who has visited the town since the 1960s, when cheap air travel ended its popularity as a resort, will have been strongly reminded of “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”. In Lovecraft’s story, an outsider discovers that the crumbling town of Innsmouth is full of strange, fish-faced folk and swirling with undercurrents of madness and menace. That’s a lot like Morecambe, believe me. One of those Lovecraft fans has now based a novel on the parallels. These are the opening lines:

For past eighteen months, the old man had wandered the streets of the increasingly derelict Lancashire coastal resort of Morecambe – contender for the unenviable title of “The most depressing town in Britain”. None of the Morecambrians knew where he had come from, for none had ever stopped to speak with him, his mysterious background becoming the stuff of local lore. The few who were aware of him speculated that he was a re-housed murderer or paedophile living out his miserable existence in a nondescript squat somewhere along the West End – the great haven for dole-dossers, junkies and other down-and-outs.

It’s not surprising that The Visitor, Morecambe’s local newspaper, hasn’t reviewed this book, because it doesn’t paint an attractive picture of the town and its southern neighbour, the village of Heysham. The old man is Professor Mandrake Smith, once Professor of Anthropology at Oxford University, now an alcoholic tramp squatting in an abandoned hotel in the “largely gerontocratic dump” of Morecambe, whose “lifeblood” is “anti-depressants and cheap booze” (pg. 25) and whose “xenophobic” inhabitants are “morose and unwilling to embrace change”, “content almost to wallow in their pervasive, impoverished despair” (pg. 83).

Edmund Glasby, who grew up in Morecambe according to this web-page, has fun letting Nyarlathotep and other Lovecraftian monsters loose on the gerontocratic dump and its xenophobes. “Pervy” Stan, as Professor Mandrake is now known, is ready to top himself at the beginning of the story, but finds new purpose in life by joining the battle against the eldritch horror of “darkness and insanity that awaits Morecambe – and the entire world…” Other characters fare less well, like “Heysham’s ugliest and fattest man, ‘Big’ Barry Crowley” (pg. 25), who is eviscerated and turned into a zombie; “The Troll”, an otherwise nameless “benefit-scrounging misfit” and single mother of eleven, whose mind is destroyed by a “gigantic octopoid head” peering over the hills to the north of Morecambe’s famous bay as the tide pours in; and Bill Draper, a “cantankerous old sod” who owns a newsagent’s in Morecambe’s misleadingly named West End, enjoys reading the “large obituaries section” in The Visitor, and makes the mistake of opening the door to his storeroom, despite the “overpowering fishy stink” that is leaking through it.

The Weird Shadow Over Morecambe by Edmund Glasby

The Weird Shadow… (large print edition)

The characters are tongue-in-cheek but true-to-life. Even Jacob Wyzchyck could really exist somewhere in the town. He’s a voyeur who spends most of his time sitting in “dirty underpants” in his “squalid third-story bedsit” overlooking “Westminster Road”, equipped with a pair of “binoculars, bag of popcorn and large bottle of vodka” (pg. 242). He sees the first outbreak of homicidal violence that will soon erupt into “full-blown chaos”, as “lunatics and anarchists” rampage “largely unchecked through the streets”. This part of the book reminded me of Stephen King’s Needful Things (1991), in which King has fun destroying his invented town of Castle Rock: “Much of Morecambe was now ablaze, with fires burning uncontrollably from Bare to Heysham, from Torrisholme to the outskirts of Lancaster” (pg. 318).

But in the end the “Crawling Chaos” is beaten off and Morecambe is saved. In the epilogue, there’s even a “day of glamour and hope”, as the old Midland Hotel in which Professor Mandrake once squatted is re-opened after restoration: “psychic waves of goodwill and hope were transforming Morecambe, for one day at least” (pg. 353). If you get that far, you’ll find the book entertaining but unsatisfying. Too much Lovecraft is borrowed direct and the horrors are too crude and explicit. Morecambe will also remind some of a giant Alan Bennett play, and a subtler writer like Ramsey Campbell could have made more of the strange contrast between the urban decay of the town and the beauty of the bay on which it is set.

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Will This Do by Auberon WaughWill This Do? The First Fifty Years of Auberon Waugh, Auberon Waugh (Century 1991)

If the Holocaust continues to increase its hold on the hearts and minds of all right-thinking folk, it seems quite possible that Auberon Waugh’s body will one day be dug up and put on trial for the disrespect shown by its former occupant, before being ritually burnt and scattered to the four winds.

Unless, that is, other professional victims get their hands on it first. AW told jokes about the most inappropriate subjects, from the “three million years of persecution” suffered by the Jews to the graves of still-born West Indian infants, and remarked of himself that his “own small gift” was for “making the comment, at any given time, which people least wish to hear” (pg. 215). Contemplating his use of this gift and “all the people I have insulted”, he later admits to being “mildly surprised that I am still allowed to exist” (229).

But it is the august author of his existence who will concern more readers, and certainly no aficionado of Evelyn Waugh can afford to neglect the autobiography of his eldest son. Waugh père put on a performance for the world and even for his friends, and this book is rather like seeing behind the scenes at a play. Readers will see EW from the wings, as it were, though they should always remember that AW inherited his father’s love of fantasy as well as much of his literary talent. Of one episode from his military service AW remarks: “I have told the story so often now that I honestly can’t remember whether it started life as a lie” (105).

This may also apply to the infamous “three bananas” devoured with sugar and “almost unprocurable” cream by his father under the “anguished eyes” of his children, to whom the fabled fruit had been sent in the depths of post-war austerity (67). The story is a dramatic way of illustrating AW’s judgement that EW’s “chief defect was his greed” and of explaining why AW “never treated anything he had to say on faith or morals very seriously.” It may be untrustworthy for that very reason.

It may also have been an act of posthumous revenge, working off some of the resentment and even dislike AW felt for his father before leaving home. In 1944, dragged away from his games to meet EW, who was home on leave, AW “would gladly have swapped him for a bosun’s whistle” (30); later, he faced the problem of living with a father who set the emotional climate of his entire household:

The dejection which was liable to seize him at any moment — sparked off by little more than a bad joke, a banal sentiment, a lower-middle-class epithet — made him awkward company at times. When he was in the grips of a major depression, or melancholy as he called it, he was unendurable. (36) … He was a small man — scarcely five foot six in his socks — and only a writer, after all, but I have seen generals and chancellors of the exchequer, six foot six and exuding self-importance from every pore, quail in front of him. When he laughed, everyone laughed, when he was downcast, everyone tiptoed around trying to make as little noise as possible. It was not wealth or power which created this effect, merely the force of his personality. (43)

But he did not think his father could have been “pleased by the effect he produced on other people”, and concluded that he “spent his life seeking out men and women who were not frightened of him” — and then usually getting drunk with them, “as a way out of the abominable problem of human relations” (43). Their own relations were marked by “distinct cordiality” (112) in the last five years of EW’s life: after suffering a near-fatal accident on National Service in Cyprus, AW even wrote “a maudlin, deeply embarrassing letter telling him how much I admired him” and sent it to his bank to be released “in the event of my predecease” (112).

Despite this, EW’s death “lifted a great brooding awareness not only from the house but from the whole of existence” (186). That presence played encores, however, as when AW experienced misgivings about his apostasy from Catholicism:

It is hard to believe that these kindergarten assemblies bear much relation to the ancient institution of the Church as it survived through the Renaissance. The new Mickey Mouse church … is surely not a reduction of the old religion. It has nothing to do with it, being no more than an idle diversion for the communally minded. Or so it seems to me. But whenever I have doubts, it is my father’s fury rather than Divine Retribution which I dread. (pg. 187)

These passages will reinforce the image of EW that readers bring to the book; elsewhere, AW may contradict it. It’s surprising to read how EW entertained the “Stinchcombe Silver Band” every Christmas at Piers Court and got “great roars of laughter out of them as he ribbed them about their tipsiness” (49). But AW claims that while the “common touch was certainly not something he cultivated … in rather a surprising way, when he needed it, he had it”. He then defends EW against the accusation, levelled by the real-life model for “Trimmer” of the War trilogy, that EW had been “detested by the men who served under him”. Not so: the reverse was true, according to correspondence AW received after reviewing Trimmer’s autobiography for Books and Bookmen.

The mischief-making apparent in that choice of reviewer is something else that readers may find enlightening, because Will This Do? is describing a particular British class and culture. On his National Service AW saw two Wykehamists rejected by their school-fellows after failing the War Office Selection Board. He noted “the ruthlessness of the British establishment” and the “cruelty” that “flourishes in the law and wherever public school Englishmen are given power over each other”.

AW reveals the limitation of his perspective here, perhaps, because ruthlessness and cruelty are not a monopoly of public school Englishmen, but his readers’ understanding of his father’s novels may be deepened by his descriptions of those things in action, his own amongst them.

AW also offers insights into Catholic psychology. When he reveals one of his father’s secrets, he has to cover up his role after the secret finds its way into the papers:

‘It was not I who sold you to them, although I have a theory as to who did.’ Readers will observe how, with typical Catholic casuistry, there is no actual untruth in this letter, as I had not actually sold the information to Rose, merely told it to him by way of passing the time of day. (127-8)

And he muses on what might have been had he taken a different degree:

My exhibition [scholarship examination] had been in English, but my father advised me that this was a girl’s subject, unsuited to the dignity of a male. Lord David Cecil had been rather upset when I told him this, staying at Portofino before my first Oxford term. I had forgotten he was Professor of English at Oxford. … Perhaps I should have stayed the course in English, instead of finding myself lumbered with this rubbishy PPE [Philosophy, Politics and Economics]. (148)

For the immediate future, however, the most significant passage in the book may be a description from AW’s National Service during the Cyprus emergency of 1958, when the island’s Greek inhabitants wanted union with Greece and its Turkish inhabitants wanted secession. A party of Greeks were “dropped on the Nicosia-Kyrenia main road” to make their way home after “questioning and document-checking”. Unfortunately, they were dropped near a village of Turks, who mistook them for a war-party:

The Turks poured out of the village and quite literally hacked them to pieces. It was a very messy business. Nine Greeks were killed and many others mutilated. Hands and fingers were all over the place and one officer wandered around, rather green in the face, holding a head and asking if anyone had seen a body which might fit it. (103-4)

EW ended his preface to Alfred Duggan’s Count Bohemond (1964), set during the Crusades, with the claim that “It is highly appropriate that this, his last work, should end with the triumph of Christian arms against the infidel.” His own son saw the conflict beginning again, as predicted by Hilaire Belloc, the “terrifying old man with a huge white beard” (16) whom AW met in extreme youth in his maternal grandmother’s house at Pixton. Will AW’s maturity prove to have fallen in the sun-lit patch between the shadows of the Second World War and serious racial and religious conflict in Europe?

If it does, EW’s shade may raise a shadowy glass in Elysium. As Britons can see from its vigorous survival in Northern Ireland, religion thrives on hatred and conflict and, Machometo adiuvante, the Church may yet throw off the leaden cope of The Second Vatican Council. Despite the despair such reforms brought to his father before his death, AW’s final, objective judgment is that “Evelyn Waugh detested the modern world but did rather well out of it” (123).

He himself, blessed with a more equable temperament and unridden by the demon of “melancholy”, could be said to have done even better but to have left a less enduring mark. Nevertheless, one of the charms of his autobiography is that it preserves some Evelynian ephemera: had they not been recorded here, history might have lost the handwritten Augustan prose instructing visitors on the vagaries of a lavatory at Piers Court and the Yardley’s Lavender Hair Tonic that EW put on his head when he changed for dinner (43).

EW writes in The Loved One (1948) of how death strips “the thick pelt of mobility and intelligence” from the body, leaving it “altogether smaller than life-size”. Will This Do? preserves a few tufts of his own pelt and although as the years pass the book will, alas, be read increasingly out of an interest in the father, not the son, AW had no illusions about his own importance in the scheme of things. It’s true that he may have laid booby-traps of fantasy and exaggeration in the stories he tells about his father, but what more appropriate rite of filial pietas could he have performed?

[A review first published in 2006.]

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Front cover of Olivier by Philip ZieglerOlivier, Philip Ziegler (MacLehose Press 2013)

It’s difficult to be objective about big artistic names, so it’s good when you can admire them unaware. I once heard a song called “Dear Prudence” by Siouxsie and the Banshees and, not expecting much, was surprised by how good it was. I didn’t know then that it was by the Beatles. I was pleased when I found out, because I knew I had judged them on their merits, not on their big name.

Something similar happened to me with Laurence Olivier (1907-89). I was watching Spartacus (1960) and was struck by the skill of an actor playing a Roman general. Kirk Douglas is fun to watch, but the other actor was on a different plane. I had no idea who it was, so I watched for the name in the credits. And there it was: Laurence Olivier. Again, I was pleased when I found out and for the same reason. Olivier really was as good as he was said to be. And it’s almost frightening to think that Spartacus isn’t one of his best performances in what wasn’t his best medium:

Orson Welles remarked that Olivier was the master of technique and that, if screen acting depended only on technique, he would have been supreme master of the medium. “And yet, fine as he’s been in films, he’s never been more than a shadow of the electric presence which commands the stage. Why does the cinema seem to diminish him? And enlarge Gary Cooper – who knew nothing of technique at all?” He might equally have cited Marilyn Monroe; a woman who barely knew what acting was yet who, twenty years later, was to outshine Olivier in every scene [of The Prince and the Showgirl (1957)]. (ch. 3, “Breakthrough”, pg. 52)

Why does the camera love some people and not others? It’s a mystery. But so is acting in general. Those who witnessed Olivier play Othello at the National Theatre in the mid-1960s heard the “hum of mighty workings”:

Billie Whitelaw took over the role of Desdemona from Maggie Smith. “It was like being on stage with a Force Ten gale,” she said. He himself realized he was achieving something altogether extraordinary, which he could scarcely comprehend. One night, when he had given a particularly spectacular performance, the cast applauded him at curtain call. He retreated in silence to his dressing room. “What’s the matter, Larry?” asked another actor. “Don’t you know you were brilliant?” “Of course I fucking know it,” Olivier replied, “but I don’t know why.” (ch. 19, “The National: Act Three”, pg. 284)

The pagans might have explained it as literal inspiration – entrance of a spirit – by something divine. In other roles, perhaps Olivier was the medium for something diabolic:

Olivier had concluded from the start that the relish with which Richard III gloats over his villainy was always going to contain something of the ridiculous … But though his [performance] raised many laughs, they were uneasy laughs; it was Olivier’s achievement to be at the same time ridiculous and infinitely menacing. Never for a instant did the audience forget that it was in the presence of unadulterated evil. (ch. 8, “The Old Vic”, pg. 129)

The critic Melvyn Bragg suggested that Olivier’s initial “reluctance to take on the role” was from the fear that it might permanently affect his psyche. If it was, Olivier overcame his fear. But he often did that: he was courageous not just in the parts he chose but in the physical risks he took with leaps, jumps and falls. For Olivier, acting was a sport, not just an art and craft. He tried to master every aspect of the profession, from performance to direction, from voice-projection to make-up.

The photographs reveal how good he was at make-up and the facial control that complements it: it’s remarkable how different he looks from role to role. Sometimes it’s hard to recognize him, which helps explain why Ziegler chose to begin the book with these two quotes:

“I can add colours to the chameleon;
Change shapes with Proteus for advantages;
And set the murderous Machievel to school…”

Henry VI, Part Three.

“Rot them for a couple of rogues.
They have everyone’s face but their own.”

Thomas Gainsborough on David Garrick and Samuel Foote.

But there was almost more make-up than man for Olivier’s leading role in one production of Macbeth, which prompted Vivien Leigh to say: “Larry’s make-up comes on, then Banquo comes on, then Larry comes on.” The French director Michel Saint-Denis was the guilty party: “a fine director with a wonderful imagination”, said Olivier, “but he let his imagination run amok” (ch. 4, “Birth of a Classical Actor”, pg. 66).

Another guilty party isn’t named: the person responsible for putting a shot from The Entertainer (1960) on the back cover of the book. Olivier is in make-up as the failed and fading comedian Archie Rice. He doesn’t look good and it wasn’t his biggest or best role. But he did say it was his “best part”, according to Ziegler (ch. 21, “Challenges”, pg. 321). He presumably meant the most interesting or challenging to play, but perhaps he was joking at his own expense. He often did that:

The graft [for playing James Tyrone in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night] was almost too much. Derek Granger at one point asked him whether he was enjoying the part. “Crazy wife, drunken old ham actor, don’t you think it’s just a little near the bone?” Olivier replied. “Some of us have lived a little, boysie.” (ch. 21, “Challenges”, pg. 331)

The “crazy wife” was the beautiful but unbalanced Vivien Leigh, whom Ziegler treats sympathetically but objectively. She was Olivier’s second wife and she does seem to bear the chief blame for the breakdown of their marriage. But not all of it, although when Olivier divorced her and married Joan Plowright, he didn’t stop his philandering. His “phil” never included “andros”, according to Ziegler, who says that Olivier didn’t have an affair with Danny Kaye, as other biographers have alleged:

[Olivier] could be extremely camp; he was by instinct tactile, quick to lay an affectionate arm around the shoulder of another man or woman; his epistolary style, even by luvvie standards, was extravagant – “Darling boy,” he began a letter to David Niven, ending with “All my love dearest friend in the world, your devoted Larry.” Nobody who knew him well, however, can have doubted that he loved women, lusted after women and would have considered a sexual relationship with another man a pitiful substitute for the real thing. (ch. 11, “Life Without the Old Vic”, pp. 166-5)

That’s Olivier as amorist; more interesting is Olivier as genius. It’s not as easy to judge genius in the arts as it is in mathematics or the sciences, but Olivier definitely had something extraordinary. The key to it lay inside a box of bone he is shown cradling to his cheek as Hamlet in one of the photographs. That was Yorick’s empty skull; in life, Olivier’s skull must have contained a very powerful and unusual brain. He wasn’t widely read or wide-ranging in his interests, but his memory was prodigious, his will adamantine and he could inhabit a staggering variety of roles, from Romeo to Toby Belch, from Uncle Vanya to Julius Caesar, from camp comedians to Nazi dentists.

Box of bone: Olivier as Hamlet (1948)

Box of bone: Olivier as Hamlet (1948)

If you’re looking for an explanation of his genius, I think there’s something significant in his ancestry, which was Huguenot on his father’s side. Olivier was a patriotic Briton, but his charisma wasn’t purely British. Ziegler dissects his friendship and rivalry with his fellow Brits Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud, who were great actors too. But they didn’t act with Olivier’s flash, swagger and fire. I also wonder about much more ancient genetics: Olivier looks elegantly handsome in some photos, but ape-ish in a few others, and before his hair was “refashioned”, a director said that it made him look “bad-tempered, almost Neanderthal” (ch. 2, “Apprentice Days”, pp. 33-4). That was decades before it was proved that Homo sapiens interbred with Neanderthals after leaving Africa. The genes we acquired then may have conferred some cognitive or psychological advantage: Neanderthals had inhabited the colder and more demanding environment of Europe for many thousands of years by then.

If those acquired genes were expressed more strongly than average in Laurence Olivier, perhaps they helped him become one of the greatest actors who ever lived. I also wonder whether acting extends to olfaction: can great actors control their pheromones as they control their faces, voices and gestures? If so, perhaps that helps explain why Olivier didn’t manage to reproduce on camera what he did during extended sessions on stage. I’ve not finished this book, because I got bored with the minutiae of Olivier’s later career and want to see more of what he left on film before I try it again. But it’s full of interesting stories and ideas and it’s already helped me better understand and appreciate acting and the theatre.

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Front cover of The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets by Simon SinghThe Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets, Simon Singh (Bloomsbury 2013)

I don’t like The Simpsons and I don’t think Simon Singh is a very good writer. But there is some interesting maths in this book. As the Emperor Vespasian said when criticized for taxing urinals in Rome: Pecunia non olet – “money doesn’t smell”. And simple sources can yield riches in other ways. There’s a good example of that in chapter 9 of this book, “To Infinity and Beyond”, where Singh looks at the mathematics of pancake-sorting. It was first discussed in 1975 by the geometer Jacob E. Goodman of the City College of New York. Suppose there’s a pile of pancakes of different sizes. You can insert a spatula at any point in the pile and flip the block of pancakes above it. Goodman posed this question about sorting the pancakes into order of size:

If there are n pancakes, what is the maximum number of flips (as a function of n) that I will ever have to use to rearrange them? (ch. 9, pg. 110)

It sounds simple, but isn’t. As the pile gets higher, the problem gets harder. The answer is 20 flips for 18 pancakes and 22 flips for 19. And 20 pancakes? Surprisingly, mathematicians don’t know: “nobody has been able to sidestep the brute computational approach by finding a clever equation that predicts pancake numbers”. The best mathematicians can do is find the upper limit: pancake(n) < (5n + 5)/3 flips.

This limit was proved in a paper “co-authored by William H. Gates and Christos H. Papadimitriou” in 1979 (pg. 112). The first co-author is better known now as Bill Gates of Microsoft. The Simpsons enter the story because David S. Cohen, a writer for the series, extended the problem in a mathematical paper published in 1995: the pancakes don’t just come in different sizes, they’re burnt on one side and have to be flipped both in order of size and with the burnt side down. Now the number of flips is “between 3n/2 and 2n – 2” (pg. 113). The source of the problem may seem trivial, but the maths of the solution isn’t. Pancake-flipping has important parallels with “rearranging data” in computer science.

Cohen has degrees in both computer science and physics, but his expertise isn’t unique: “the writing team of The Simpsons have equally remarkable backgrounds in mathematical subjects” (ch. 0 (sic), “The Truth about the Simpsons”, pg. 3). They have degrees and doctorates in tough subjects from colleges like Harvard, Berkeley and Princeton. And they’ve been engaged, according to Cohen, in a “decades-long conspiracy to secretly educate cartoon viewers” (back cover). They haven’t had much success with that, but they’ve succeeded in other ways: TV is no good at education, but very good at propaganda and manipulation. That’s one reason I dislike The Simpsons, which is obviously inspired by cultural Marxism, despite its occasional un-PC jokes. Another reason is that I think the characters and colours are ugly and dispiriting. Or is that cultural Marxism again? But I have to admit that the series is cleverly done. To appeal to so many people for so long takes skill, but explicit maths has been low in the mix.

It had to be, because The Simpsons wouldn’t have been successful otherwise. It has a lot of stupid fans and stupid people aren’t interested in Fermat’s Last Theorem, strategies for rock-scissors-paper or equations for pancake-numbers. That’s why you need to freeze the frame to find a lot of the explicit maths in The Simpsons. Or you did before Singh wrote this book and froze the frames for you. The implicit maths in The Simpsons is everywhere, but that’s because maths is everything, including an ugly cartoon and its science-fiction offshot. Singh discusses Futurama too and the “taxi-cab numbers” inspired by the Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan (1887-1920). I’ve never seen Futurama and I wish I could say the same of The Simpsons. I certainly hope I never see it again. But it’s an important programme and this is an interesting book.

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Front cover of Whatshisname: The Life and Death of Charles Hawtrey by Wes ButtersWhatshisname: The Life and Death of Charles Hawtrey, Wes Butters (Tomahawk Press 2010)

Food was rationed during the war, so Britons couldn’t eat to excess. This is supposed to have made them very healthy. Something similar may apply to Charles Hawtrey and the Carry On films. You look forward to his appearances and savour them while they last, because they’re often very brief. He was rationed, so he couldn’t act to excess. That’s part of why Hawtrey is my favourite Carry On actor. He didn’t have Kenneth Williams’ talent or range, but he spent much less time on-screen and couldn’t outstay his welcome.

He didn’t have Williams’ desire to chronicle his own life either, so he left no diaries or long letters. In this biography Wes Butters has to rely on what Hawtrey left on screen and in newspaper archives and the memories of his fellow actors. Hawtrey was carefree and sociable on screen, so his “Oh, hello!” catchphrase delighted pantomime audiences – if he was sober enough to ration it. But off screen and off stage he lived up to the stereotype of the miserable funnyman. He centred his life on his mother and his cat, then on the bottle. After his mother died, he used her name as another way to keep the world at a distance:

Dear Mr. Alan Coles,

Thank you for your letter addressed to Mr. Charles Hawtrey.

Mr. Hawtrey is no longer available, his whereabouts are private, and no letters are forwarded to him.

Yours truly,

Alice Dunne. (ch. 11, “The Deal Years”, pg. 232)

Butters notes that the signature is in Hawtrey’s handwriting and that the letter is typed on the same machine “used for all those begging letters stored in the BBC’s Written Archive” (pg. 233). Hawtrey was begging for work in his early years, even though he appeared “pretty much weekly on their radio network” (ch. 6, “Desperate Times”, pg. 104). Perhaps he was trying to prove to the world that he existed. But acting, like alcohol, was no cure for his existential ills. Ernest Maxin, a television producer who worked with Hawtrey during the 1960s, says that:

I always felt very sorry for him, he was a very lonely man and odd in type. He was rather like a character that you read about in a comic, a drawing rather than a real person. I always felt that when I was speaking with him, with Hattie [Jacques] and Bernard [Bresslaw] I was speaking with real people, but with Charles it was more like a Disney character. … The only time I saw him walking was on the set! It was spooky in a way. I honestly don’t think there was a real Charles Hawtrey. (ch. 8, “Carry On Charlie”, pg. 155)

Maxin notes this elusiveness elsewhere in the book:

You never saw him go or arrive [on set]! It was amazing. You’d get in for early morning rehearsals … and he’d just appear like a ghost! Same too when he left, he’d never say goodbye. … After we did Best of Friends I often used to ask people if they’d seen Charles but no, and the strange thing is nobody ever spoke about him. It was almost as though he wasn’t a real person. (ch. 7, “On the Up”, pg. 131)

Other people thought the same:

Spencer K. Gibbons: We never ever saw him sign an autograph. I never saw him come out of the theatre. It was as if he disappeared, by magic! (ch. 10, “Drink! Drink! Drink!”, pg. 215)

So Hawtrey was both unhappy and elusive. He was also part of a famously English film-series. It’s no surprise that Manchester’s Most Miserabilist Messiah was a fan:

The normally publicity-shy Morrissey would go on to eulogise Hawtrey in the NME [New Musical Express] as “the very last comic genius. [He was] sixty per cent of Carry On’s appeal. By never giving interviews and, by all accounts, being unfriendly and friendless, Hawtrey’s mystique surpasses Garbo. I personally loved him.” (ch. 12, “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now”, pg. 239)

It’s part of Smithology that Morrissey wanted to sing with Hawtrey, who had made records himself before the war. But Hawtrey never replied to his letter, so Mozza turned to Sandy Shaw instead. It helped revive her career and it might have done the same for Hawtrey’s. Or perhaps it was beyond revival by then. On film, it had stretched from silence to smut. He was born in 1914 and first appeared as a “waif and stray” in Tell Your Children in 1922. Five decades and a world war later, he was appearing in Zeta One (1969), a “soft-core pornographic tale” about a “race of topless, large-breasted women from the planet Angvia” (ch. 9, “Death in Hounslow”, pg. 185).

In between, he’d had hopes of higher things: he had known Laurence Olivier, Errol Flynn and Charles Laughton. But he was never able to match their success. And he resented it: like Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes, he disliked what had brought him most success and popularity, the fey and unthreatening character who appears under various names in the Carry On films. My favourite variations on his theme are Seneca in Carry On Cleo (1964), Big Heap in Carry On Cowboy (1965), the Duke de Pommefrite in Carry On – Don’t Lose Your Head (1966), Captain Le Pice in Follow That Camel (1967), Private Jimmy Widdle in Carry On… Up the Khyber (1968), Charlie Muggins in Carry On Camping (1969), Tonka in Carry On Up the Jungle (1970) and Eustace Tuttle in Carry On Abroad (1972), his last film in the series.

He acted in twenty-three of the thirty Carry On films that appeared during his lifetime. Loyal to the series, he didn’t publicly express his bitterness at how little he earnt or at the typecasting he thought he’d endured:

Let’s face it, the Carry On films aren’t like ordinary films. They’re an institution, a corner of comedy that will be forever England! [They] haven’t made me rich, but they’ve given me a world-wide identity. (ch. 1, “The Death of Charles Hawtrey”, pg. 27)

He was right: they didn’t make him rich. Wes Butters says he earnt “£46,000” from the films and the TV specials that accompanied them. It’s little enough for the pleasure he brought to millions and continues to bring. You can re-live some of that pleasure in the stills and lobby-cards reproduced here. Hawtrey played sunny characters but didn’t live a sunny life:

Sir Laurence Olivier: I was coming down the Pinewood road [and] I saw this pathetic figure in an old mac, with two brown carrier bags struggling along the road, and I was sure I knew him. So I lowered the window and called out, “Isn’t it Charles Hawtrey?” and the figure looked up and said, “Oh, yes, Sir Laurence.” So I said, “Come in and I’ll give you a lift.” He told me he struggles along that road every day, getting the Tube from Uxbridge, to film the Carry On pictures which must make a lot of money. Surely they’d provide a motor-car for him? (ch. 9, “Death in Hounslow”, pg. 193)

No, they didn’t, but they did make him a famous face, if not a famous name. His last film was The Princess and the Pea in 1979, his last appearance in the children’s television series Supergran in 1987. He spent his retirement by the sea in Deal on the Kentish coast, hiring rentboys, being rude to local residents and pursuing “Drink! Drink! Drink!” He and his unhappiness are gone, but his comic creations shine on.

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Front cover of The Trials and Triumphs of Les Dawson by Louis BarfeThe Trials and Triumphs of Les Dawson, Louis Barfe (Atlantic Books 2012)

I don’t like TV and would be happy never to see it again. But I can’t deny that it’s introduced me to some good things. One of them is the humour of the Mancunian comic Les Dawson (1934-93). This biography is pedestrian and occasionally PC, but it’s a good introduction to Dawson’s life and career. One notable thing about that career is that the politically correct don’t have to wring their hands much over it. Dawson’s motto was “Be Nice”. The main source of his humour was himself, his short, fat physique and his alleged difficulties with life. Other comics constantly joked about race in the 1960s and ’70s, but Dawson avoided the topic on TV series like Lez Sez and only occasionally sinned by being homophobic. Unlike his fellow Mancunian Bernard Manning, he never told jokes that began: “A nigger, a paki and a poof walked into a bar…”

And when Dawson told jokes about his mother-in-law, he did so with her full approval, according to Barfe. This was his routine when he appeared with Shirley Bassey in 1979:

DAWSON: Well, I’m glad you noticed that I’m not my usual ebullient self. I never slept a wink last night, Shirley. I kept getting this hideous recurrent nightmare that the mother-in-law was chasing me with a crocodile down the banks of the Nile. I was wearing nothing but a pith helmet and Gannex spats. I could smell the hot rancid breath on the back of my neck. I could hear those great jaws snapping in anger. I could almost see those great yellow eyes full of primeval hate devouring me.

BASSEY: That’s terrible.

DAWSON: That’s nothing. Wait till I tell you about the crocodile. (ch. 5, “Farewell to Leeds”, pg. 182, Shirley Bassey, series 2 show 4, tx 10th November 1979)

It makes me laugh even in print. The routine is also a good example of Dawson’s mock-erudite style, which is another difference between him and his rival Manning. Dawson didn’t lift other people’s material either. He didn’t have to, because he was intelligent and inventive enough to create his own. He had his influences – the phantasmagoric Beachcomber, for example – but his humour was unique and no-one has ever replaced him.
Front cover of Les Dawson's Lancashire by Les Dawson
Another important influence on him was his home-county. His book Les Dawson’s Lancashire (1984) is a good introduction both to the reality and to his surreal humour. And he found an illustrator worthy of his inventions: John Ireland. Lancashire also inspired his famous drag double-act with Roy Barraclough, the gossiping Mrs Cissie Braithwaite, played by Barraclough, and Mrs Ada Shufflebotham, played by Dawson:

CISSIE: Leonard and I went to Greece last year.

ADA: Oh, Bert and I have been to Greece, with Wallace Arnold’s Sunkissed Package Holiday and Inter-Continental Tours.

CISSIE: Oh, really? Did you have the shish kebabs?

ADA: From the moment we arrived. All down that side.

CISSIE: Did you see the Acropolis?

ADA: See it? We were never off it. Our Bert were bent double. He’s not been right for years, you know. There’s no Vaseline over there you know. (ch. 5, “Farewell to Leeds”, pg. 174, The Dawson Watch, series 1, 2nd March 1979)

Part of the joke was that Dawson used his normal voice for Ada, despite wearing woman’s clothes and hitching occasionally at a roaming breast. But Ada doesn’t just speak Lanky: she unspeaks it too. The two women are supposed to be former mill-girls, which means that they had learnt to lip-read amid the din of the looms. So Ada will occasionally mouth her gossip rather than say it. This is funny whether or not you know the character’s background, but knowing it enriches the humour. That’s part of what makes this book valuable: the more you know about Dawson, the more you appreciate his comic skill. He was a highly intelligent and knowledgeable man and though he won a mass audience, his comedy reflected his intelligence and his wide interests.

He wrote books too, but Les Dawson’s Lancashire is the only one I remember clearly. There’s a photograph here of Dawson in what’s called his “book-lined study”, but the books visible are cheap bestsellers (including Child of the Sun, a novel about the scandalous cross-dressing Emperor Heliogabalus). If Dawson had been taller and slimmer, or had received an education worthy of his intelligence, he might never have become a comedian. And if he had, he might not have been as good. This biography can’t prove how good he was, but it does make you appreciate him better on screen and in print.

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