In the latest of the guest blogs written for this site, Sarah has blogged about what some of our favourite Carry On actors got up to during the war. It's a fascinating read and I'm so grateful to Sarah for taking the time to research and write this great blog...
I am of the opinion that the post war period was the golden age of British cinema. The Ealing comedies and the early Carry On films for example all showcase talent that I don’t think we will ever see the like of again. I can’t think of any modern day actors that can touch the on-screen charisma of our stars from the 1950s. The kind of film that is released today fades from memory overnight; whereas we will be watching ‘Carry on Nurse’ or ‘The Titfield Thunderbolt’ for decades to come.
I think that the reason for this lies in the Second World War. This conflict mixed up society and moved people around on an unprecedented scale. Ordinary British workers came into contact with situations and colleagues that they would never have previously imagined. It gave them the opportunity to discover and develop strengths and talents that lay dormant or were unappreciated. This is particularly relevant in the case of our actors and entertainers because of the huge need for their talents during wartime.
When war broke out on 3rd September 1939, cinemas and theatres were immediately closed down. However, it was soon realised that entertainment was essential to morale. ENSA (Entertainment National Services Association) was already in the process of being set up. This organisation comprised civilian entertainers who toured around various locations including army camps, factories and field hospitals. Later on, a service personnel version called Stars in Battledress would be formed. Think of any household name in the field of entertainment from the post war period, and the chances are that they did their bit for one of these organisations. Established entertainers also continued to work in cinema and theatre, tirelessly keeping up the spirits of a bombed and worn out nation.
Wartime work such as this was by no means an easy task, and many worked in dangerous situations. During the Blitz, if an air raid siren sounded, the show went on for those that chose to not take shelter. Actors, singers and dancers all performed near enemy lines and traversed the Middle East and North Africa to get to their audiences. There’s nothing like the sound of bullets and bombs in the near distance to focus the mind on the job in hand! I think that this combination of circumstances gave us the actors and scriptwriters that made British film great in the years afterwards, as that momentum continued.
The Carry On actors can be used as an example of how this worked, and I thought that it would be interesting to have a little look at the Carry On stars at war…what did they get up to?
The most fascinating of war time stories belongs to Peter Butterworth. At the outbreak of war he joined the Royal Navy. In 1940 he was captured in the Netherlands and then became a prisoner of war for the duration. He escaped from his first prison camp but was recaptured by a member of Hitler’s Youth movement. Peter was then sent to Stalag Luft III, where he met none other than Talbot Rothwell. The pair formed an entertainment duo, which was deliberately rubbish. The ensuing boos and catcalls as they performed effectively masked the sound of tunnels being dug by other potential escapees!
Kenneth Connor was another active serviceman. He was an infantry gunner, but he came from a family that liked to put on shows and he had acted from an early age. His love of the stage led him to carry out some work for Stars in Battledress. He was particularly noted for a role in Terence Rattigan’s play ‘Flare Path’. As soon as he was demobbed he received an invitation to join the Bristol Old Vic.
Sid James served in the entertainment section of the South African army. Biographies describe in detail how he used this ideal opportunity to refine the comic persona that we all know and love. He also produced shows and auditioned participants. It was his army gratuity that paid for his passage to Britain after the war ended.
Kenneth Williams was a little younger than those mentioned above, and didn’t receive his call up papers until 1944. By the time he had completed his training the war in Europe was almost over. He was posted to the Royal Engineers and arrived in India in April 1945. After a while, he secured a transfer to the Combined Services Entertainment (which had taken over from ENSA by then). This is where it all began for Kenneth, as he toured the Far East doing plays, revues and radio shows. His diaries from this period mention several familiar names including Stanley Baxter (who would become a lifelong friend), John Schlesinger and Pete Postlethwaite. This shows how easy it was to become part of an “old boy’s network” and to make contacts that would prove useful in civilian life. The first entry in his book of post war letters was addressed to Val Gielgud at the BBC, describing his radio experiences and stating that he was “anxious to obtain work in the field of broadcasting.”
Away from the army, Joan Sims was too young to serve, being only nine years old at the outbreak of war. However, in her autobiography she describes her very first acting role as being a wounded casualty at the local St John Ambulance training sessions. Later on in the war, she would keep the spirits of Laindon up by performing in the local amateur drama club. Hattie Jacques meanwhile was at the sharp end of medical matters, while working as a nurse during the Blitz. It is obvious to draw parallels with her status as Britain’s favourite matron – but I think that these experiences must have affected her profoundly. Hattie must have been witness to some truly awful sights. I wonder how much these turned her into the apparently compassionate and caring lady that she is often described as – and informed her performances. Matron was never a one dimensional character no matter what the script presented to Hattie – she knew how to make her seem human. She re-started her acting career in 1944 in revue, after leaving nursing and taking a job as a welder.
Only two of the actors most associated with Carry On were already established in the acting profession in the 1930s. Charles Hawtrey had worked in theatre and film since the 1920s. He was a conscientious objector, but he continued to perform throughout the war. Esma Cannon was in her forties and so would not have been required to take on war work, and she continued to tour the country in various plays. Both probably got the opportunity to tackle a wider range of roles than they had done previously.
So, if it had not been for the war, Sid James might have stayed in South Africa, Kenneth Williams might never have developed his range of radio personas and Peter Butterworth might not have met Talbot Rothwell. It doesn’t bear thinking about, does it?!
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