Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Carry On Blogging Interview: James Hogg on Michael Ward


 

I recently caught up with the writer James Hogg. James was fortunate enough to get to know the wonderful actor Michael Ward towards the end of his life in the 1980s and 1990s. James looked after Michael and has set up a terrific website to help celebrate his memory. Michael starred in many classic films and television shows over the years, including supporting roles in no less than five Carry Ons - Regardless, Cabby, Cleo, Screaming and finally, Don't Lose Your Head. Carry On Reading to find out more about Michael Ward, one of the very best British character actors of his generation.
 
First of all, it would be good to find out more about how you came to know Michael Ward in the first place?
I went to interview him not long after I moved down to London in 1989. It would have been about June, I think. I was always a fan and after purchasing a copy of Peter Noble's Film & TV Yearbook, which had Michael's number in it, I gave him a call and asked for a chat. He obliged and around I went. As soon as he picked up the phone I knew it was him and I don't think I'd ever been as nervous. Anyway, when I got to his flat he was in a wheelchair and was obviously desperately lonely. In fact, apart from home-helps, who were worse than useless and couldn't give a damn, he had virtually no visitors at all and I felt very, very sorry for him. I was new to London at the time and didn't know anybody else so despite the age difference (about 72 years!) we became great mates and got on fantastically. 
After that I would stay at his a few nights a week and would take him to visit friends and family. He hadn't been out of his basement flat for over two years when I got to know him!  ​

Michael Ward with his mother. © James Hogg
Very little is known about Michael's life away from his acting roles. Can you tell me anything about his early life and how he became an actor?
He was brought up in Cornwall, the only son of a vicar.​ His father was quite old when he was born and so he didn't really have much of relationship with him. He was extremely close to his mother though and after an idyllic childhood in Cornwall the family moved up to Bedfordshire when he was in his teens. After his father died in 1939 he became an ambulance driver for the duration of the war and I think that was when he developed an interest in acting. He wrote letters to various agents and the majority who met Michael told him he didn't stand a chance because of the size of his nose and his peculiar voice! This simply drover him on and I think one of the first jobs he ever got was understudying Vic Oliver in a show called The Night & the Music at the London Coliseum. That would have been in 1946. He attended the Central School of Speech and Drama for a time after winning a scholarship although I don't know exactly when. Probably after the war though.

Can you tell me more about Michael's stage career? He is mainly known for his  film and television appearances and it would be good to know more about this area of his career.
This was quite sporadic although he did appear in the West End a few times at the beginning of his career. Two shows that spring to mind are The Gay Pavilion which was on at the Piccadilly Theatre and a production of Hamlet at the New Theatre (now the Noel Coward) in 1949. There were also lots of pantomime appearences at places like the Wimbledon Theatre but not much else. Once film and then TV took over he never had time. ​

Michael Ward aged 6/7. © James Hogg
You knew Michael for several years towards the end of his life. What was he like to be with and did he talk much about his life as an actor?
Michael was an extremely complicated character and never really recovered from the death of his mother in the late 60's. He was also gay (openly from the late 1960's) which caused him a lot of problems. Michael was a very sensitive man and needed to be reassured regularly. I have letters from Norman Wisdom written during Up in the World reassuring Michael that he and the other members of the cast like him. I used to find it very sad. He did talk about his career but only after a few whiskeys! 

He and Harry Fowler, who was a great friend of his, were once sacked by Ken Tynan during the rehearsals of a play simply for laughing. Michael was dreadful giggler and one day it got out of hand. When I stayed at his flat we'd sit in the kitchen for hours and the more drunk we got the funnier the stories became. The director John Paddy Carstairs was probably Michael's best friend (he too wrote many letters of reassurance) and when he died in 1970 that also hit Michael very hard. The only actor who seemed to keep in touch with him latterly was Jonathan Cecil. He and I arranged Michael's funeral and he was a great help. He was a lovely chap too, and like Michael is much missed. The Wisdom films were his favourites, I think. Especially Trouble in Store.  

Why do you think Michael is still so popular with fans of British comedy?
Because he's unique, both in terms of his voice, appearance and ability. And because he represents a golden age of film. There are probably twenty or thirty such actors - Michael, Ian Wilson and Cyril Chamberlain, et al​ - whose filmographies read like an AtoZ of British Comedy Classics. The Carry On's, The Doctors, The Ealings and the Wisdoms. Films by the Boulting Brothers and Launder & Gilliat. Everything about that era was golden, not least the supporting players.  

What qualities do you think Michael had that made his appearances in films like the Carry Ons so memorable?
He could do "effete" or "aloof" like nobody else on earth and so whenever such a character arose Gerald and Peter would pick up the phone. I used to know Gerald Thomas relatively well and whenever I mentioned Michael's name he would smile broadly and start asking me how he was. The BFI once sighted Michael's "What, with Tweeds?" gag from Carry on Cabby as one of the best ever delivered in a British comedy and when I mentioned this to Michael - probably in the early 1990's - he talked about nothing else for weeks. It was probably his proudest moment. 

What's your own favourite of Michael's many film and television performances? 
Probably Up in the World, which is my favourite Wisdom film. ​Although he was gloriously OTT in Don't Lose Your Head.

How do you think Michael would have liked to be remembered?
I don't think there's any particular film or show. I think he'd just like to remembered. In fact I know he would!

Michael Ward in "The Gay Pavilion at the Piccadilly Theatre © James Hogg


Do you think Michael would have expected the popularity of the Carry On series to have endured so long after they were made? 
No!! It used to baffle him. I used to take him to my parent's place sometimes for lunch, and even out with my girlfriend once or twice which was fun, and whenever people used to ask him about Carry On films - which they invariably did - he'd shake his head in disbelief and say, "are people still watching that stuff?" ​


You have set up a website in Michael's memory. How important do you think it is to keep the memory of actors like Michael alive in the 21st Century?
Massively important. In fact I've been thinking about creating one for that marvellous stable of character actors Michael belonged to. Blue plaques are all good and well but if you want to shout about somebody's talent, and to to as many people as possible, a website is ideal. I've got lots of photographs of Michael as a child and pretty soon I'm going to update the site and add more to it.
 

I'd like to thank James for sharing his memories of Michael with me. You can visit James Hogg's website dedicated to Michael Ward here

I'd also like to thank James for providing the photos for this blog from his own collection - they are the copyright of James Hogg. 

You can follow me on Twitter @CarryOnJoan and also on Facebook
 

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