Tuesday 29 March 2016

A Year of Carrying On: Whatever Happened to Esma Cannon?


As Carry On Blogging reaches its first anniversary, I wanted to look back and share the top three most popular blog posts I've written so far. So now for the most popular blog I've written so far. In this post I look back at the life and career of a real fans' favourite, the delightful Esma Cannon.

So many of the actors who appeared in the Carry On films are well known to us. Their lives have been well documented both on screen and off. While we always love hearing about them, sometimes it can feel a bit repetitive or that we are collectively raking over old coals.

I want to start an occasional series of blog posts looking at some of the lesser known actors who appeared in Carry On films. Sometimes we will know a fair amount about them but for whatever reason they have not garnered much publicity. Others will be a complete mystery. 

So far I've written about Carry On supporting actors Gail Grainger and Marianne Stone. Now I promise I will focus on some male actors in this series of blogs, but today I want to cover a diminutive actress who brought memorable comedic turns to four early Carry On films. Yes, you guessed it, Esma Cannon. 

As a child I loved the early black and white Carry On films. They had a charm and innocence that some of the later films in the series lacked. I always loved Esma Cannon's characters in these entries. She was one of those character actresses who cropped up in a myriad of British films and television and her run of Carry Ons marked her career peak but also her career swan song.

Esma Cannon first appearance in a Carry On film came with a delightful cameo as a deaf, dotty old lady in Constable at the tale end of the 1950s. On location in Ealing, Constable Kenneth Williams attempts to help her cross the road and ends up being whacked with Esma's big baguette! Obviously catching the eye of Rogers and Thomas, Cannon was back with a more substantial supporting turn in the next film Carry On Regardless. In Regardless she played Miss Cooling, assistant to Bert Handy, owner of The Helping Hands Agency. Sid James and Esma Cannon formed a delightful double act in this film with their scenes acting as bookends between the Carry On calamities of the likes of Kenneth Williams, Liz Fraser and Joan Sims. Cannon shares a memorable scene with Kenneth Connor which leads into his famous send up of The Thirty-nine Steps.

In early 1962 Esma Cannon reunited with a smaller cast for Carry On Cruising. This is probably her most effective and substantial contribution to the series. As Bridget Madderley she has a difficult task as most of her scenes are on her own with nobody to play off. It is a delightfully twittery performance, particularly the scene she shares with Dilys Laye where both characters proceed to get rather drunk, rather quickly! Cannon's timing and presence on screen are brilliant throughout.

Esma Cannon returned for one final Carry On film, Carry On Cabby, shot in the Spring of 1963. This is a different role to her previous contributions. She is much more worldly and streetwise as Flo Sims, a lady who helps Hattie Jacques' character Peggy Hawkins set up the wonderful Glam Cabs firm in direct competition with husband Charlie's Speedee Cabs. Esma plays this one very down to earth and straight forward but it is a terrific part for her. As usual there is a real twinkle in her eye throughout. The combined forces of Jacques, Cannon, Liz Fraser and Amanda Barrie bring Sid and the lads to their knees!

Sadly that was Esma's last appearance in a Carry On film and pretty much her last film role. She retired not long afterwards at a time when offers of work must have been pouring in. So what other film and television appearances is Esma Cannon well known for? On television her main role was as part of the runaway comedy success, The Rag Trade. She played Lil in that series opposite the likes of Sheila Hancock, Barbara Windsor, Peter Jones and Miriam Karlin, between 1961-1963.

Her career dates back to 1936. Over the next three decades she appeared in a wide variety of classic British films such as: Here Come the Huggetts (1948); Simon and Laura (1955); Further Up The Creek (1958); I'm All Right Jack (1959); Raising The Wind (1961); The Fast Lady (1962), On The Beat (1962) and Nurse On Wheels (1963). Most roles played to type but it brought her into contact with the likes of Joan Sims, Margaret Rutherford, Leslie Phillips, Stanley Baxter and Norman Wisdom. Not a bad run!

So what else do we know about Esma Cannon? Well, we know she was actually born in Australia in 1905. For whatever reason, she decided to travel to Britain in the early 1930s, slowly building up a list of acting credits and achieving notable success up until the early 1960s when she decided to leave the acting profession. And that's almost all we know about her.

Esma was most certainly married and apparently had children, or at least a son. In the audio commentary for Carry On Cruising, the late actress Dilys Laye recalled working with Esma Cannon with great warmth and affection. Apparently every year on their son's birthday Esma and her husband would give each other gifts too in celebration of all they had achieved together. Sadly, Esma Cannon passed away at the age of just 66 in 1972. This news was apparently not reported in the press as many of her colleagues were unaware of her passing until years later. At the time of her death, Esma was allegedly living in Camden, North London although records show she is buried in France. Again, we have no idea what was behind this.

I guess we will never know much more about this elusive yet wonderful comic actress. Who knows if any of her family are still alive today? While it is a shame we do not know more about Esma Cannon, at least we can still enjoy her wonderful acting talents not only in those early Carry Ons but also a wide variety of classic British films of the 40s, 50s and early 60s.

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