Friday 3 February 2017

The Brilliant Bernard Bresslaw


Ah the gentle giant Bernie Bresslaw. I don't know why but Bernard's towering contribution to the Carry On series is sometimes overlooked. While the likes of Sid James, Kenneth Williams and Barbara Windsor tend to steal the limelight, as with Peter Butterworth and Kenneth Connor, Bresslaw is part of the Carry On furniture, turning in some glorious supporting turns over the years but never quite receiving the praise he deserved.

I think a main reason for this is that there has never been any scandal about Bernard. As with his fellow actors Butterworth and Connor, Bernard was a quiet, middle class family man who away from the film studios could easily have been mistaken for a bank manager. However Bernard was a wonderful actor, capable of not just great comedy performances in the Carry Ons, but also and probably most importantly, on stage. Once his Carry On journey came to an end in 1975, Bernard concentrated on stage work. Bresslaw spent decades on stage, working with the Young Vic, the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company. 


Perhaps his focus on the stage contributed to him being somewhat less of a star in the traditional sense than the likes of Barbara and Kenneth. His early death at the age of 59 in 1993 also robbed us of many more years of performances from an extremely talented man. However for me, his Carry On performances were just the best. He appeared in fourteen of the films, joining with Carry On Cowboy in 1965 and appearing every year up until his farewell in Behind in 1975. Bernard was also an active player in the Carry On television productions as well as the eighteen month run in Carry On London at the Victoria Palace from '73 to '75. 

Bernard tended to play two different types of character in the Carry Ons. His early roles in the series were all crumbling villains in the historical epics - think of Abdul Abulbul in Follow That Camel, Sockett in Screaming and of course, Bungdit-Din in the classic Carry On Up The Khyber. Bresslaw brought terrific power to these roles and they are definitely some of his best. Bernie is however best remembered for his dim-witted "I only arksed" characters, most frequently opposite Sid James in films like Camping, Convenience and Matron. This was very much a contrast with the learned, bookish, intellectual man he was in real life. Such was the skill of the man.

Kenneth Williams always spoke with great affection about Bernard. Every mention of him in his infamous diaries are kind and considerate and Williams obviously respected his colleague and friend. They often had quite intellectual discussions on the set of the Carry On films and frequently completed The Times crossword together. Joan Sims also wrote fondly of both Bernard and his wife Liz in her autobiography while I understand Sid James counted him as one of his closest friends in the Carry On cast. In many ways I like the fact that little is known about Bernard's home life and the man behind the comedy characters. In the modern age where famous actors' lives are picked over again and again, it's refreshing to have a beloved actor who was allowed to live their life away from the spotlight. 


While Kenneth, Sid and Barbara are all legendary performers who deservedly grabbed the limelight, I think it's time to look again at brilliant Bernie's wonderful work.

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