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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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