Thursday, 28 April 2016

Five of the Best: Carry On Character Actresses


Has the great British character actress become extinct? It might sound a rather dramatic question but I'm pretty serious about asking it. These days everyone becoming an actor wants to become a star, talent shows are everywhere and being famous is a dream for many young people. What happened to actors who just wanted to act and saw more to it than a name up in lights? 

I have written before about my love for British character actors and actresses. The sheer quality of their talent enhanced countless films and television shows for decades and none more so than the Carry On films. Without the calibre of these character comedy people, the films simply would not been the success they were and continue to be to this very day. One of the chief joys of character actors is that they amass a huge sum of credits and frequently prove equally adept at comedy and drama. They are nearly always willing to play small roles as well as bigger parts, seeing the quality of the writing and importance in the narrative over billing. A prime example is Liz Fraser's solitary scene as a grieving mother in the Miss Marple drama, Nemesis. Liz only appears for a few minutes on screen but you are left with a complete picture of the character and her back story. It is a masterful performance and shows what can be done with limited screen time yet bags of talent.

So here, without further ado, are some of my favourite Carry On character actresses, in no particular order.


Joan Hickson did become a star, but not until the latter stages of her long acting career when she was chosen to star as Agatha Christie's famous sleuth, Miss Marple. By the time of her debut as Jane Marple in 1984, Joan had been treading the boards for several decades. Hers was a face that popped up all over the place and she was always a high point of any Carry On. First appearing in the second film in the series as the rather put upon, officious Sister in Nurse, Joan would make five Carry On films in total and her roles transcended the series form the early innocence of Carry On Constable in 1959 right through to the saucy larking about in Carry On Girls over a decade later. A wonderful actress who always added quality no matter what the material she was working with! You can read more about Joan Hickson here.

Next up is that fantastic spirited Scottish actress Renee Houston. Originally a star of music hall, Renee found herself acting more and more in character parts in television and on film during the latter half of her career. She could play faded posh and working class energy with equal aplomb and enlivened many productions. Sadly ill health limited her appearances on screen by the 1970s which robbed us of a great talent. Her most famous Carry On role was that of harridan Agatha Spanner in At Your Convenience in 1971. Her flirtatious relationship with Charles Hawtrey's Mr Coote and her browbeating of militant son Vic (Kenneth Cope) provided fantastic material for Houston and it's a real comedy tour de force. Convenience was a return to the Carry Ons for Renee who had cameo roles in two earlier, black and white series entries. She was Molly, the cab drivers' cafe owner in Cabby and was also briefly seen as Madame in Spying the following year. She had been due to play Mrs Dukes in Girls in 1973 but the aforementioned ill health meant the role went to Joan Hickson.
You can read more about Renee Houston here. 


Another character actress with Carry On connections who I felt never got the credit she deserved was Judith Furse. As with Houston, she was frequently called upon to play overbearing battleaxes and as her career progressed it was also dominated by comedy parts. Early on in her career she had a big success as a nun in the classic film Black Narcissus however success eluded her later on and she died fairly young in 1974. She is mainly remembered these days for her infamous turn as the sinister Dr Crow in the classic Carry On Spying. She was portrayed as a hulking, a-sexual James Bond type baddie in this film, her voice dubbed by John Bluthal. I'm not sure what the actress made of this role but it wasn't particularly flattering. Judith also turned up in Carry On Regardless as a headmistress at Windsor and Eton railway station and two years later, as a rather severe passenger in the back of Sid James' cab in Carry On Cabby. You can ready more about Judith Furse here.

One of the most sublime of all the character actresses of this period has to be the late, great Marianne Stone. She was never a star and rarely had much screen time but she still managed to leave a lasting impression. Marianne had an incredibly long and diverse range of credits, some say because her husband was renowned film critic Peter Noble. I prefer to believe her success as a character actress was down to her talents as a fantastic and reliable performer. Marianne was pretty much always the slightly dowdy, working class worker, maid, cleaner or gobby shop assistant. Probably her most memorable Carry On turn was as Maud, Joan Sims' cackling friend in Carry On At Your Convenience. Marianne appeared in a total of eleven Carry On films in some shape or form, more than regular actress Barbara Windsor. As with the likes of Joan Hickson, her roles encompassed nearly the entire run of the series. Her first appearance was as Cyril Chamberlain's wife in Carry On Nurse, her last as Mrs Rowan in 1975's Carry On Behind. She made nine credited appearances, the other two performances being dubbing Lucy Griffiths in Constable in 1959 and a scene as Mrs Putzova in Matron which was eventually cut from the final print. You can ready more about Marianne Stone here.

I cannot end a blog post on female character comedy people without mentioning two of my absolute favourites. The first will come as no surprise - the glorious Patsy Rowlands. I have written about my love of Patsy's performances before and you can read that here. Patsy was a peer of the likes of Hattie Jacques and Joan Sims but was never considered a "star" of the Carry Ons. She worked consistently and constantly in every conceivable media for decades and is a beloved fans' favourite. Appearing in nine Carry Ons, her best remembered roles are probably Miss Withering in Convenience and Mildred Bumble in Girls. I'm always amazed at how underused Patsy could be in a Carry On and wish she'd been a main part of the team. 


I know I said my top five, but I can't go without mentioning my other absolute favourite, the legendary Irene Handl. Irene acted successfully for decades and appeared all over the place, working constantly until her death at the age of 85 in November 1987. A regular scene stealer she worked in all sorts of productions on stage and screen and will soon get an entire blog post all of her own. Many people forget that Irene also appeared in cameo roles in two early Carry Ons - as Bill Owen's anxious wife in Nurse and as a mother looking for her "Little Willy" in Constable the following year. 

Although I would class Irene as a character actress, I also wonder whether she actually was a fully fledged star. Perhaps they all were in their own way. 

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  1. I always enjoy Amelia Bayntun, especially in Camping of course but she makes an impression in Abroad as Charles Hawtrey's mum - and she was five years younger than him! "I'll pray to Him every night to keep your bowels open."

    1. A great character actress! I think Camping and Abroad are her two best cameos by far.