Saturday 22 April 2017

The Pinewood Rep Company: Leslie Phillips


One of the joys for me of the Carry Ons and all the comedy films turned out during their long reign was the continuity provided by the reliable Pinewood Rep Company. Oh this was never a formal company of actors, if faces reappeared it was because Peter Rogers and Gerald Thomas could trust them to turn up on time, say the words in the right order (and only once) and accept the low pay terms in return for regular work and friendly circumstances.

While the same faces appeared again and again in the Carry Ons, many often also crossed over and worked for Peter's wife Betty and Gerald's brother Ralph on their productions. A quick bit of research shows that during the 1950s and 60s in particular, many actors went back and forth between the two successful stables with somewhat alarming regularity! So let's take a look at one of my own personal favourites: Leslie Phillips. 


Leslie Phillips has spent a lifetime playing the wolfish, lovable rogue on the big and small screen. His links to Pinewood Studios date back decades, probably longer than anyone else still living today. When the studios were celebrating seventy years in film making, it is alleged that Phillips was the only person still around who they could track down to attend the celebrations who had been making films there from the very beginning. Leslie started in the business as a bit part actor as a child. 

What we are interested in for the purposes of this blog though are Leslie's connections with film producing powerhouse couple Peter Rogers and Betty Box. Leslie Phillips has made hundreds of films during his long career however ten of those were for Peter and Betty. Leslie first worked for Peter Rogers towards the end of 1958. Having returned from Hollywood where he had been making the musical film Les Girls, Leslie was offered the role of Jack Bell in Carry On Nurse. It was this film which created the infamous persona Leslie would inhabit for the rest of his career. The wolfish, rakish ladies man with a twinkle in his eye was out of the traps and didn't look back. While Phillips frequently bemoaned being saddled with this persona and the catchphrase, no matter how many serious, worthy roles he played in later life, he could never resist turning on the old Carry On charm with a cry of "Ding Dong!" 


In Nurse, Leslie was paired with fellow living legend June Whitfield as his screen girlfriend Meg. Jack Bell arrives quite late into the film but his pesky bunion and desire to get away with his girlfriend leads the rest of the male patients to attempt to conduct the operation themselves, culminating in the famous laughing gas scene at the end of the film. Phillips was such a hit with Peter Rogers that he was swiftly brought back in the spring of 1959 for a starring role as Alistair Grigg in Carry On Teacher. In Teacher, Leslie forms a wonderful double act with prim school inspector Felicity Wheeler, beautifully played by Rosalind Knight. The film also sees Leslie share romantic scenes with the lovely Joan Sims - the pair had delightful chemistry together and would work together frequently in the years to come.

Later in 1959 Leslie was back for his final Carry On of the original run, Carry On Constable. In Constable he plays newly qualified policeman Tom Potter (none hotter!) and joins fellow new recruits Kenneths Connor and Williams and Charles Hawtrey at Sid James' police station during a flu epidemic. Leslie formed part of the infamous shower sequence which was the first occasion of nudity in a Carry On, albeit it four male backsides, not the copious amounts of Windsor we'd get used to in later entries. Sadly Leslie decided not to make any further Carry Ons at this stage of his career, although thankfully he continued to work for Peter in other films.


The late 1950s and early 1960s saw Leslie working as one of Peter Rogers' most prolific repertory players. Away from the Carry Ons, Phillips played roles in three other Rogers' productions, all still directed by Gerald Thomas and featuring many familiar Carry On actors. The first of these was the classic comedy Please Turn Over, the tale of a young girl who writes a scandalous paperback and shames her family. Leslie plays the local doctor in a cast that also features Joan Sims, Ted Ray, Charles Hawtrey and Joan Hickson. The follow year, Leslie, cast no doubt because of his connections to the long running radio series The Navy Lark, appeared in the naval comedy Watch Your Stern. Heading up the cast in this underrated gem were Eric Barker, Joan Sims, Kenneth Connor and Hattie Jacques. The film also guest starred such comedy legends as Sidney James, Spike Milligan and Eric Sykes. 

Leslie's final film for Peter Rogers and Gerald Thomas, for at least thirty years, was the music school comedy Raising The Wind, which was written by original Carry On composer Bruce Montgomery. Leslie joined a team of actors including Kenneth Williams, Liz Fraser, Jennifer Jayne and Jimmy Thompson, who were all rather too old to be playing music students, but never mind! It's all rather glorious, lightweight techni-colour fun with a large supporting cast of classic British character players. Leslie also forms a rather delightful romantic double act with Liz Fraser and I only wish they'd worked together more often.

Meanwhile, Leslie had been moonlighting with Peter's wife Betty Box and Gerald's brother, Ralph Thomas. Dirk Bogarde had shot to fame in the Doctor comedies playing young doctor Simon Sparrow. The matinee idol embraced the broad appeal and fame this role brought him rather reluctantly and after a run of three films in the 1950s, he was ready to concentrate on other projects. Box, as much a commercial operator as her husband, wanted to keep the Doctor bran alive and kicking. So who better to turn to than the reliably excellent comedy actor Leslie Phillips? 

Leslie would go on to appear in three of the four remaining Doctor films produced over the next decade. Instead of replacing Bogarde as the sole star of the 1960 film Doctor In Love, Phillips shared star billing with another member of the Pinewood Rep, the handsome Michael Craig. As Doctors Burke and Hare, Phillips and Craig were a winning combination and the film a huge success. However, the following film, Doctor In Distress, saw both actors absent as Dirk Bogarde returned to the fold for one final time. However Leslie was back again in 1966 for the swinging sixties film Doctor in Clover. Playing Dr Gaston Grimsdyke, the character is pretty much the same as his earlier outing. This time around his co-stars included James Robertson-Justice, John Fraser, Joan Sims, Fenella Fielding and Arthur Haynes.


Leslie's final film for Betty Box was also the final Doctor film, released in 1970. Doctor In Trouble was more near the knuckle and less of a success than previous series entries and although Leslie turned in his usual professional performance, it spelled the end of the line for the franchise. The film featured the usual fine supporting cast including Joan Sims again (in her fifth Doctor comedy), Harry Secombe, Irene Handl, John Le Mesurier and Robert Morley. Sadly James Robertson-Justice was not well enough to appear in a major role, having starred as Sir Lancelot Spratt in every other Doctor film. Trouble also saw Leslie working for the first time with his future wife, the late Angela Scoular.

After a gap of over twenty years, Leslie returned to Pinewood for one last Carry On. In 1992, Peter Rogers and Gerald Thomas regrouped to bring us the well-intentioned but misconceived Carry On Columbus. Mixing a bunch of current, on trend comedians with a smattering of familiar faces from the old days, Columbus was a huge flop at the box office. Joining the likes of Jim Dale and Bernard Cribbins was Leslie playing the King of Spain in a cameo originally written for Frankie Howerd. Although Columbus is rubbish, it does have a satisfying quality in that it reunites Leslie with his sweetheart from Carry On Nurse so many years before, June Whitfield.


Leslie Phillips has played a hugely significant part in the British film industry. A wonderful actor who has worked with almost everyone, his appearances for Peter Rogers and Betty Box are rightly cherished by fans of British comedy.

Stay tuned for more blogs on members of the legendary Pinewood Rep Company.

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