Monday 29 February 2016

Carry On Hero of the Week: Hattie Jacques


The whole idea of this new series of blogs is to flag up specific individuals who, in my humble opinion, really made the Carry On films what they were. So many of the actors and crew turned up at Pinewood again and again, working closely over the years to produce such a fine body of work. This week it's the turn of the man who had a relatively small role to play in the success of the Carry Ons, but did well given the difficult timing of his arrival on the scene.

Today's hero of the week is that wonderful actress Hattie Jacques. Much has been written about Hattie over the years but we can never lavish enough praise on this brilliant comedy performer. Hattie spent a lifetime playing matronly characters and being the butt of the fat lady jokes but she always played it with dignity, no matter what she was feeling inside. Legend has it she wasn't really a fan of innuendo-based Carry On comedy but she did love the atmosphere at Pinewood and acting as mother to so many of the gang's waifs and strays.


Hattie was with the team from the very beginning, playing fearsome yet nurturing medical officer Captain Clark in Carry On Sergeant. That role, although merely a supporting turn at the time, set the tone for the next fifteen years. Hattie would play Matron, or a version thereof in Nurse, Regardless, Doctor, Camping, Again Doctor and Matron so half her Carry On contributions relied on that type of part. Although it made her a very successful comedy actress, it must have been frustrating for an actor who was clearly incredibly talented with much more to give.

She found a more attractive niche on television playing Eric Sykes' twin sister Hat in the Sykes comedy series for the BBC. Together with the likes of Deryck Guyler, Richard Wattis and occasionally Joan Sims, Hattie returned to the world of Sebastopol Terrace on and off over a twenty year period. I often preferred her role in Sykes as she was always the wise, more intelligent character and the scripts very rarely used her weight as a cheap gag. Other roles on television were tried out but a dramatic part evaded her by the 1960s due to her association with the Carry Ons and the infamous Matron. Hattie's health would also begin to suffer by the 1970s making her an issue for film insurance people - this would ultimately lead to her last Carry On being Dick in 1974. Peter Rogers had to put in place special measures so the Rank Organisation would agree to her being in the film.


Eric Sykes described his first meeting with Hattie on television several times over the years. It was at the Players' Theatre in London. Victorian music hall comedy, singing and sketches. Hattie was a legend there for many years and incredibly popular in their pantomimes. Eric sat entranced as Hattie led a rumbustious music hall number, vigorously encouraging audience participation. She finished her act by triumphantly going into the splits. What a woman! By all accounts, this was Hattie. Full of life, full of love and full of talent. While I think it is a real shame she never escaped the Carry On cliche we must also be grateful for those wonderful performances. The Carry Ons just wouldn't have been the same without her. 

When I think of Hattie I think of all those legendary parties she had at her sprawling Earl's Court home. Her kindness and thoughtfulness to guests is renowned. She used to unwrap Christmas crackers, add a personal gift for each person and re-wrap them again. Kenneth Williams told a story of Hattie tracking down a recording of a song he was particularly fond of and presenting it to him long after their original discussion. It's a special kind of person who does this things and there is no doubt that Hattie Jacques was very special indeed.


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