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Posts Tagged ‘Errol Flynn’

Drawn from Paradise by Richard Attenborough and Errol FullerDrawn from Paradise: The discovery, art and natural history of the birds of paradise, David Attenborough and Errol Fuller (Collins 2012)

A book about feats for the eyes that also is a feast for the eyes. The second set of eyes are human; the first are avine – specifically, the eyes of female birds of paradise. The gorgeous plumage of the males has been created by female preference over many generations. The more attractive a male’s feathers and the more energetically and skilfully he displays, the more likely he has been to mate and leave offspring. As the most attractive males in each generation are selected, so the features that make them attractive grow ever more exaggerated, even – or especially – if they become a handicap in escaping predators and so on.

Darwin called this “sexual selection” and it’s most famous in the peacock. Peahens are drab and inconspicuous by comparison, but they are the driving force for the spectacular feathers of the male. If peacocks didn’t exist, would any artist have been able to create them? I don’t think so. The same goes for the birds of paradise: it’s not just their beauty and extravagance that are astonishing. So is their variety. Some have golden feathers, some have scarlet, some have celestial blue. Some have plumes, some ruffs, some sprays, some wires and some “flank feathers” that rise “to form a perfect ellipse”, framing the male’s head during courtship (ch. 6, “The Sicklebills”, pg. 142).

That’s the brown sicklebill, Epimachus mayeri. The superb bird of paradise, Lophorina superba, does something even stranger, raising a cape of feathers on its back to create a kind of cone around its head, in the shadow of which two white head-feathers glimmer like eyes. But it wasn’t until artists saw these birds in the wild that they knew precisely how to represent them. Before that, they’d used guesswork and inevitably got many things wrong. For a long time, as Attenborough describes, artists were working from dead specimens, sometimes traded several times before they reached Europe and sometimes lacking their wings and feet. This gave rise to the legend that the birds floated rather than flew, living permanently in the sky till they died and fell to earth. Hence the name “birds of paradise”:

In 1522 the first of many, many bird of paradise plumes arrived in Europe. Within just months they attracted the attention of a celebrated artist, Hans Baldung Grien. His picture may have been a comparatively flimsy affair, but it began a tradition among artists that has continued to this day. The list of artists who have felt compelled to paint or draw birds of paradise is studded with some illustrious names: Brueghel, Rubens, Rembrandt, Millais. Then there are men who actually specialised in painting birds: [Jacques] Barraband, [Josef] Wolf, [William] Hart, [John] Gould, [John Gerrard] Keulemans. And, of course, there are modern painters. Walter Weber produced a series of iconic images for The National Geographic magazine during the early 1950s. William T. Cooper illustrated two major monographs on birds of paradise, and Raymond Ching is known throughout the world for his poetic and highly charged paintings. (Introduction, pg. 32)

The work of these artists illustrates the book. There are no photographs, just paintings, drawings and engravings from the six centuries during which Europeans have been fascinated and dazzled by the Paradisaeidea. Errol Fuller, the co-author of the book, is one of the artists. He’s a skilful painter, but he has to be: birds of paradise are challenging subjects, the visual equivalent of a complicated piece for violin or piano. An artist has to have full command of colour and line. The artists here do: you can almost smell the jungle in some modern paintings.

Jacques Barraband, Petit oiseau de paradis

Jacques Barraband, Petit oiseau de paradis


But that realism is the influence of photography and of personal observation. The Frenchman Jacques Barraband (1761-1809) never got to Papua New Guinea or northern Australia, so he never saw the living birds, but he remains one of the great paradiseans, able to bring dead specimens to life on canvas. The biographical section at the end of the book, describing “People Associated with the Discovery and Visual Representation of Birds of Paradise”, says this:

Despite the incredible beauty of his images, and the great influence they have had, comparatively little is known of Jacques Barraband and it has not proved possible to find a portrait of him. He was the son of a weaver, and it seems he worked originally as a tapestry designer at Gobelin’s, and later turned his hand to decorating porcelain at the famous factory in Sèvres. (pg. 236)

So we know he existed, but we don’t have an image of him. The opposite applies to some birds of paradise: we have images, but don’t know whether they ever existed. Some paintings and drawings are mysterious. Are they are invented or based on real specimens that are now lost? Birds of paradise often hybridize, adding more phantasmogoric variety to the family, and a few species may have gone extinct or be awaiting re-discovery.

Those are tantalizing prospects, but the biological interest of this book isn’t confined to birds. The biographical section at the back contrasts with what’s gone before. Birds of paradise come in many colours and shapes, but the “People Associated with” their “Discovery and Visual Representation” are overwhelmingly white males of northern European ancestry. They’re the ones who have created the beautiful art and run the enormous risks. New Guinea has always been a dangerous place, with its fast rivers, mountainous terrain, violent tribes and tropical diseases. That’s why it attracted one of the twentieth century’s greatest adrenalin-junkies:

Adventurer, bar-fly, beachcomber, boxer, brawler, drifter, entertainer, freedom fighter, lover, platypus and bird fancier, prospector, self-confessed thief, sailor, writer, Hollywood icon, Errol Flynn [1909-59] packed every conceivable human activity into his whirlwind tour through life. He starred in almost 60 films, wrote two novels and an autobiography, before dying at the comparatively early age of 50 from the effects of a totally worn-out body. (pg. 240)

I was surprised to find Errol Flynn here, but his presence and the quote about collecting birds of paradise from his memoir My Wicked, Wicked Ways (1960) make the book even stranger and even more satisfying to read. White men like Flynn are as spectacular for their achievements as male birds of paradise are for their plumage. Perhaps sexual selection explains both sets of phenomena. Certainly some kind of evolution does, because genetics are responsible for the feats of both. There is much more to this book than birds, but phantasmagoric feathers are why it’s such a feast for the eyes.

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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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