Sunday 30 July 2017

Carry On Blogging Interview: Robin Askwith (Part 1)


It's not every day you end up on the phone to Malta for an hour and a half with the actor Robin Askwith. Robin has been in my life for many years, thanks to his incredibly prolific and diverse acting career across film, television and theatre. Robin's career has come to be dominated by the legendary Confessions series of comedy films, however there is an awful lot more to the man than that. 

Always one to speak his mind, something that's really rather refreshing these days, Robin began our chat by discussing the modern trend of social media. Due to the growing popularity of his one man show performances, Robin is tentatively thinking about developing more of a following on Twitter, despite being wary about the internet. I think Twitter would be a much better place for a bit of Askwith so I hope he, for the want of a better expression, follows through. 

Robin and I spoke at some length so I've taken the decision to split this interview into two blogs. Today, we'll start off with some of Robin's early film appearances as well as his work for Peter Rogers Productions, which brought him into contact with the likes of Sid James, Carol Hawkins, June Whitfield and Margaret Nolan.

I've stitched the interview together from my many pages of notes - as Robin himself admits, he doesn't like formal question and answers, he prefers his answers to drive the questions! Here's how we got on:

One of your earliest film roles was that of Keating in If. It's a really iconic movie – what was it like to be a part of?

If was my first film part. I'd done some bits and pieces before that, like television commercials, but it was the big one. It's actually 50 years next year since we made that film and I'll be celebrating that with a tour I'm doing in 2018. It was an extraordinary film to get as my first role on the big screen. As you know I went to quite a posh public school and I took part in lots of school plays. The director of If, Lindsay Anderson, came to see one of the plays and I had a mishap with the false nose I was wearing. I made a joke of it and was told by the school that they wouldn't have me in another production. Lindsay loved it though and it was that that got me the film. 


Originally I was up for the part Richard Warwick played but they changed the ages of the characters and I ended up playing Keating, which was great as I had more time to learn about the process of filming. I remember having many, many auditions with the casting director, a lady called Miriam Brickman. Lindsay Anderson became a good friend though and I worked for him again in the film Britannia Hospital, playing the same character but in a larger role. He had tried to get me to do a couple of parts on stage at the Royal Court but I was too busy filming in the end. Lindsay Anderson was a great director, mainly in the theatre, but he was a guiding force for me in my early career.

You worked for the Italian film director Pier Paolo Pasolini in his rather extraordinary version of The Canterbury Tales in 1972. What are your memories of that filming experience?

That part happened by accident. I had worked with one or two Italian film directors by that stage and I was a bit wary of them, not the best experiences. My girlfriend at the time was the actress Cheryl Hall (who eventually started in Citizen Smith and married its star Robert Lindsay). Cheryl was going for an audition with the Italian director, Pier Paolo Pasolini at the Hyde Park Hotel so I went along with her. It was the days of the tight purple trousers, tight t-shirts and love beads. The first thing Pasolini actually said to me was in English - he looked me up and down and said "You look like you use your c*ck a lot". I replied by getting it out and saying "does it look like it?!". He loved it, I was cast in the film and we remained friends until his sad death. 


The same year you appeared with many of the Carry On team in the film version of Bless This House. Was that a fun film to do and did you enjoy working with Sid James?

Bless This House is still such a popular film. Here in Gozo where I live, friends who are parents are always telling their kids that I'm a famous film star and they ask what I've been in - the only film I made that kids can really watch is probably Bless This House and they love it. It's such an English film and I don't know what all these Southern Europeans love about it but they go mad for it. A lot of the fan mail I get these days is about Bless This House and I get sent photos of me from the film. It's incredible, but I guess it's down to the terrific cast in the film and the fun of it all. 

Sid was great to work with, I really respected him and all the work he'd done. He'd made some terrific films, worked on the BBC series Taxi, which I loved and all the radio with Tony Hancock. There was a great deal of respect for Sid and he really was the leading man of the Carry Ons. He spotted me and took to me, he liked what I was doing and it was great to work with him. I did also appear in a one off episode of the series Bless This House, and I was originally considered for the part of Sid's son Mike. It went to Robin Stewart in the end but I think Sid wanted me for the part.  

I loved making the film. There was one sequence in particular, when I'm cooking in the cafe and we did the whole thing in one take - I was just allowed to go for it and it was all really spontaneous. The result was fantastic and Sid James told me it was genuinely the funniest thing he'd seen since the comic Charlie Cairoli. Sadly there was something wrong with the negative from the original take so we had to shoot it again. I was happy with it but it didn't have the edge of the original version. I remember Alan Hume, who was the Director of Photography, being such a giggler. We used to have to go again because he'd broken up laughing at what we were all doing. I think it was that film that made me realise I could do comedy. Until then I had been doing more straight stuff, more realistic. It was Sid's fault really as he kept telling me to go bigger and over react more in performance! And from that film I got Carry On Girls. 

One of your main co-stars in the Bless This House film was Carol Hawkins. I think you went to drama school with her too? What was it like to work with Carol?

I was very friendly with Carol, we got on really well. My agent at the time was a lady called Hazel Malone and her sister ran the Corona Academy, a school which trained young actors, producing the likes of Judy and Sally Geeson, Susan George, Richard O'Sullivan and Dennis Waterman. I had already had quite a serious schooling but I went along to Corona because it was just a great place to be. Also, my school had been a boys' school and Corona had girls! I had already made a few films and done some television at this stage but I got to know Carol before her career got going. We acted together there in a production of Private Lives I remember. 

Carol was responsible for drawing Gerald Thomas' attention towards me when he was casting the film of Bless This House. She had been working on Carry On Abroad with Sally Geeson just before and both Carol and Sally went on to do the Bless This House film straight after. Robin Stewart, who was playing Mike Abbott in the television series, was not going to appear in the film version and Gerald was looking around for a young actor. Carol suggested me. Gerald had no way of seeing what I had done as once one of the films I'd been in had been on in the cinema, it was gone. There were no DVDs in 1972 or even VHS. For instance, just before this I'd done a series for Yorkshire TV called On The House, with Kenneth Connor and Derek Griffiths. Once it was shown it was gone so it didn't really help. So Carol persuaded him to see me. I had Sid, Carol and Sally in my corner and I didn't have to read for the part. I remember as I arrived to meet Gerald, my main rival for the role, Christopher Timothy, was just leaving. He's a great actor but he was ten years older than me and not known for comedy. Gerald was a tremendous man and great to work with. 


In 1973 you played June Whitfield's son in Carry On Girls. You shared a memorable scene on Brighton beach with the lovely Maggie Nolan. Do you have fond memories of filming Girls and working with Maggie?

Carry On Girls was great fun. Originally my part of the photographer had been a wordless role but they built it up for me. I remember Barbara Windsor kept saying "'ere, that Askwith, his part's getting bigger and bigger!" (At this point I compliment Robin on his absolutely stunning Dame Barbara impersonation). June Whitfield was fantastic to work with, she called me "her son" off screen as well as on. She was (and is) a lovely lady and really great. We'd done something before Girls came along and many years later I appeared in panto with her. 

I remember at one stage I used to stay in a great hotel down in Wimbledon run by a man called Ray Slade. June and I had neighbouring suites in the hotel and he used to say he'd know what was going on in the June Whitfield suite and he'd always know what was going on in the Robin Askwith suite! At the time I had a girlfriend who kept budgies and once she brought them to the suite. We had a lot of fun joking about how I had three birds in my suite. 


I have fond memories of working with Maggie Nolan, she was great. That scene on the beach at Brighton was good to do but I was a total professional. I remember she was very political and at the time I think she was married to Tom Kempinski? She tried to sign me up to the Workers' Revolutionary Party but I declined! (I mention the infamous fight sequence in the film between Nolan and Barbara Windsor and tell Robin that Maggie was actually pregnant at the time). I didn't know she was pregnant but now you mention it I do recall she was a bit reticent about doing that scene. In the end I think they both really went for it though. Gerald Thomas wanted me to do more Carry Ons but of course I ended up going off to do the Confessions films, which in a way saw the eventual decline of the Carry Ons. I don't think he ever forgave me for that, which is sad. I got on very well with Gerald for a long time and used to go and see him at his house in Burnham. 

One of your regular co-stars in the Confessions comedies was the legendary Liz Fraser. What was she like to work with?

Liz is a great actress and had made a great many wonderful films. She did the first Confessions film because she was a great friend of Linda Hayden. I remember she was fun to work with, particularly in Driving Instructor when we had that scene in the bath. She was very down to earth and pretty much up for anything. She played the scenes really well and just got on with it.


I hope you have enjoyed the first part of my interview with Robin. Watch out for Part 2 coming up tomorrow when we delve further into the world of the Confessions films, before coming up to date with Coronation Street, a reunion with Judy Matheson and Robin's association with the Misty Moon Film Society.

Finally, a massive thank you to Stuart at Misty Moon for helping to set up the interview! 

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1 comment:

  1. Fantastic interview! Looking forward to the next installment.