Saturday 12 September 2015

In Praise of the Great British Supporting Actor

I absolutely love a good British character actor. We don't see the same quality in supporting actors these days as we did when the Carry Ons were at their peak. British film and television was littered with well known supporting actors who clocked up endless credits without ever being a star in their own right.

As a child, discovering the Carry Ons for the first time, it was always a joy to spot familiar faces from the films both in other films and in the myriad of television dramas and comedies produced during the 60s, 70s and 80s. It became a bit of a game, looking out for some of my favourite Carry On actors, often looking very different or playing parts in surprising series you wouldn't expect to find Carry On actors appearing in.

Only the other evening the very first episode of The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin was broadcast on BBC2. Who should appear towards the end of the episode as an employee at Sunshine Desserts but Myrtle Plummer herself, Jacki Piper! The other week a friend spotted the delightful Dilys Laye in an episode of the Peter Davison 1980s series Campion. And thankfully it still happens today, with Carry On favourite Anita Harris making an appearance in Casualty earlier this year while Amanda Barrie also guest starred in the ITV comedy, Benidorm.

Some of my favourite guest starring appearances have been from series regular Patsy Rowlands. Patsy was one of those character actresses who popped up in everything and anything. I remember vividly seeing her in an episode of the 1960s nonsense that was The Avengers. She was also memorable in episodes of series as diverse as Bottom, The Bill, Juliet Bravo and Robin's Nest. 

Dilys Laye was also a prolific character actress. She appeared, memorably, as a lady with Alzheimer's in Coronation Street and was incredibly convincing. Dilys continued to act right up until her death and it was always a joy to see her, whether it be in Midsomer Murders, playing the Queen opposite Jane Horrocks in The Amazing Mrs Pritchard or one of her final performances as Frankie Howerd's mother in Rather You Than Me. I remember also hearing her in a recording of a Frankie Howerd radio show from the 1970s. Dilys was always quite impish and giggly with a tremendous sense of fun and it was wonderful to hear her desperately try to suppress the giggles while acting with Francis!

Julian Holloway is another supporting player who turns up all over the place. In the 1970s he had a run of classic British dramas, from Rebecca with Joanna David and Anna Massey to guest spots in the likes of The Sweeney, The Professionals and Minder. Julian always added quality support to whatever series he was appearing in. 

Another face who turns up in a host of productions is Carol Hawkins. The glamour girl in Please Sir and two Carry Ons was a regular face on British telly for several years. I remember spotting her in the Christmas special of Porridge from 1975, an episode of the Wendy Craig vehicle And Mother Makes Five and a guest role in the legendary 1970s sci fi series Blake's Seven! Carol continued to appear on television right up until the early 2000s, with guest turns in The Bill, Doctors and Trial and Retribution.

One of my very favourite actresses is Liz Fraser. Away from her many film roles, she turned up in a series of wonderful guest spots in a wide variety of shows. I loved her as a woman on the wrong side of the law opposite Martin Shaw and Lewis Collins in The Professionals. She was fantastic as a drunken mother in the classic Miss Marple adaptation of Nemesis for the BBC in the 1980s and even played Steed's assistant for a week in The Avengers. I would dearly love to track down her appearance opposite Jean Boht in the television play Eskimos Do It, in which she played a lady dying of cancer. Not the cheeriest of topics perhaps, but always good to see a great actor being challenged. 

The Carry On films were a success mainly because of the quality of actors cast over and over again. The familiarity was comforting for regular viewers but it also guaranteed a quality of performance many similar films of the era lacked. These actors worked hard for little money, always turning in terrific performances. While I love the main regular stars of the Carry Ons, the film series owes a huge debt to the army of supporting players who made them the joy they very often were. 

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