Sunday, 10 May 2015

The Legendary Charles Hawtrey

There was just nobody quite like Charles Hawtrey and there never will be again. He was a truly unique screen actor. Hawtrey's career spanned seven decades and took in all manner of work but it is for the Carry On films that he is best remembered today.

Of course Charles had a love-hate relationship with the films, frequently falling out with Peter Rogers about billing and money but Hawtrey always returned. This was partly because the Carry Ons needed him and Rogers and Thomas knew what they had in him and partly because he was, by that stage, not offered much work elsewhere. Spats with the bosses aside, Hawtrey's off screen battle with the demon drink was probably also tolerated by the paymasters at Pinewood for much longer than in any other line of work. It was noticeable on screen from time to time and sadly proved the final straw, leading to his departure after Carry On Abroad in 1972. His last performance in that film, as Eustace Tuttle, portrayed him cruelly as an alcoholic mummy's boy. In what is otherwise a delightful example of Carry On, it is a painful thing to watch.

Away from the Carry Ons, Hawtrey had carved out an incredible career. He began in the days of silent films, working frequently with Will Hay and playing a perpetual school boy character. However, once he got too old for this part his career began to hit the skids. He did have a long running role opposite Patricia Hayes on radio, playing schoolboys in a BBC Children's Hour programme called Norman and Henry Bones, The Boy Detectives. This series ran from the early 1940s up until the 1960s which is incredible when you think about it!

Hawtrey also appeared in the classic Ealing comedy, Passport to Pimlico, before finding television fame in the ITV sitcom, The Army Game. It was here Hawtrey first met and worked with future Carry On colleagues Bernard Bresslaw, Norman Rossington and William Hartnell. It was undoubtedly this casting and the huge success of The Army Game that led Charles to be cast in the very first Carry On film, Carry On Sergeant, in 1958. The rest is cinematic history.

Nobody else could have played Charles Hawtrey's parts in the Carry Ons, something Jimmy Logan would happily attest to after his gruesome attempt at Cecil Gaybody in Carry On Girls. Hawtrey was a natural for the series and his unique mannerisms and delivery would be seized upon by Gerald Thomas over the 23 films in which he appeared. Only Kenneth Williams and Joan Sims made more Carry Ons than Charles and his contribution is immense. 

From Mr Bean the music master in Carry On Teacher and Pint Pot in Carry On Cabby to Private Widdle in Up The Khyber and the camp Mr Coote in At Your Convenience, Hawtrey was a regular scene stealer. Some of his roles in the films were little more than cameos and he normally played away from the main team, but that didn't matter. It didn't feel right if a Carry On was made without Hawtrey and the series most definitely lost something after his departure.

A loner, he was relatively close to the likes of Joan Sims and Barbara Windsor. He lived down in Deal in his later years and became quite the local celebrity, not always for the best of reasons! While Kenneth Williams struggled with his sexuality, Hawtrey embraced it regularly and notoriously! A famous visit down to see Hawtrey is recorded in Kenneth Williams' diaries and is both hilarious and rather sad. As always, we don't know how much of this record is Williams embellishing the facts but it does feel like there's some truth in it all. 

Hawtrey's career dried up after the Carry Ons. He did do some regional stage work although his drinking made him increasingly unreliable and one to avoid. He appeared very occasionally on television, such as a wordless cameo in a version of Eric Sykes' The Plank in 1979 and finally, a role in Super Gran in 1987. He was interviewed by Roy Hudd for television in the early 80s, dressed in the most dreadful floral green shirt and tie combination you could imagine! Unfortunately it is a rather sad appearance as he had obviously indulged quite seriously beforehand.

Charles Hawtrey became very ill in the late 1980s. Despite decades of film, television and theatre work, money was scarce. Eventually threatened with losing his legs due to his poor health, Hawtrey made the brave decision not to follow the advice of his doctors. He passed away in October 1988 at the age of 73. Such was his reclusive nature by that stage that many former colleagues were not aware of his passing until some time later.

It was a tragic end for an actor who created so much laughter and so many wonderful characters over such a long career. Fortunately we have Charles Hawtrey's classic Carry On performances to remember him by so despite the sadness that dominated his life, Charles still left us a wonderful legacy. 

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  1. Charles was the only actor to break the fourth wall in the Carry Ons, to my knowledge. He did it in Camping (when he met the girl moving the cow), and I remember, or rather can't remember another time he did it. I would have to watch them all again to find it.....sigh, research is so tough 😝

    1. Charles had a very particular style of acting and his profile was pretty much always facing the camera whatever the reason!

  2. Didnt Frankie Howard do it at end of Doctor ... To Camera 'with any Luck' .... And Joan Sims at end of Camping as being pulled into Tent by Sid?

    1. Frankie did do it in Doctor and I'm sure there are some other examples... Phil Silvers I think...

  3. Interesting bio on his work, I always find it interesting to see him in a film outside of his Carry On Career. You're Only Young Twice was on Talking Pictures Tv last week he was nearly 40 yrs old but still playing a university student, his mannerisms were there though, not as embellished as they were later on, but you could certainly tell it was him.

    1. Yes it's great to see people like Charles in other roles, he had a very long, broad career and the Carry Ons did come to dominate.