Tuesday 4 July 2017

The Wonderful World of Wilfrid


Wilfrid Hyde-White represents the quintessential English character actor, as far as I am concerned anyway. During a long, varied and successful career in films, on the stage and latterly, on television, Wilfrid often played to type and yet never seemed to be typecast. For such an English figure, he also transferred the second half of his career to the United States where he became prominent in guest spots on television during the 1970s and 1980s. Much of this popularity stateside was probably due to one of the films I'm going to mention in this blog.

I've found myself watching several films recently featuring Wilfrid Hyde-White so I thought I would put together a blog on some of my favourite Hyde-White performances over the years. I guess I have to start off with ...


Carry On Nurse (1959)

Carry On Nurse was the immediate follow up to the original Carry On, Sergeant, made earlier the same year. Many of the same faces returned for this gentle romp around the hospital wards however there were one or two new additions to keep the action fresh. In a prominent guest starring role was Wilfrid Hyde-White as the grumpy, yet kindly old Colonel. Apparently Wilfrid's role was filmed in under a week, mainly due to his scenes being shot in a private room away from the other patients. Indeed only once is he seen on the main ward with the likes of Kenneth Williams and Bill Owen. It's a delightful supporting role though and Hyde-White shares some very natural scenes with fellow racing enthusiast Mick, the hospital orderly played by Harry Locke. He also has a lot of fun with the young nurses (as it were) in the form of Joan Sims and Susan Stephen.

Despite limited screen time, Wilfrid does stake a claim to being part of one of the most infamous, legendary finales in Carry On history. He features in the very last sequence which sees Sims and Stephen get their own back on the old Colonel involving a certain daffodil. However the prank is interrupted by the arrival of the bombastic Matron (Hattie Jacques) who's hard exterior finally softens when she spots the offending flower! This ending made the film however allegedly Hyde-White was unhappy with being involved with something so indecent (even though nothing was shown) and threatened to sue the producers! Fortunately all was resolved amicably in the end!


Northwest Frontier (1959)

One of my favourite BBC Two Saturday afternoon matinee treats, I would often watch this with my dad or my grandmother. It's quite simply a belting little film of the kind we don't seem to make any more in this country. J Lee Thompson's film is set in British India at a time when tensions were rising between Hindu and Muslim Indians. The film is basically a good old fashioned adventure movie with plenty of lovely set pieces, action, peril and glorious stiff upper lip performances. The wonderful Kenneth More stars as Captain Willoughby Scott who is charged with taking the young son of the maharajah to safety on an old steam train through enemy territory. Joining him on this journey are the boy's nanny (Lauren Bacall), the British governor's wife (Isabel Jeans) and a rather dodgy journalist played by Pink Panther actor Herbert Lom. 

And of course Wilfrid Hyde-White is along for the ride too as cheerful British ex-pat Mr Bridie. This is classic Hyde-White as he jollies along his fellow passengers, acts as the perfect gentleman to the ladies present and is wise to the fiendish cunning of his enemies. Wilfrid works really well in this rather tense picture, never losing his old fashioned British cool and providing some much needed light moments amidst all the tension. I could quite easily watch the likes of More and Bacall reading from the Yellow Pages however Hyde-White almost steals the show from these great movie stars with his gentle, unassuming performance.


Crooks Anonymous (1962)

Back to comedy now and another classic from the golden age of British cinema. This Ken Annakin film sees one of the earliest appearances on screen from a certain Julie Christie, playing stripper Babette but we're more interested in Wilfrid. The film follows perpetual criminal and habitual liar Dandy Forsdyke (Leslie Phillips) as he attempts to give up his life of crime so he can marry his girlfriend Babette. Unfortunately he can't resist temptation for long so Babette gets in touch with an organisation called Crooks Anonymous, which helps criminals go straight. 

Picked up mid-job by Stanley Baxter's Brother Widdowes we soon meet the founder of the organisation, the kindly but firm Mr Montague (Hyde-White). Together Montague and Widdowes put Forsdyke through a series of tests before he is eventually released into the wider world, securing a job in a department store as Father Christmas. However he can't resist temptation for long, but I won't spoil the ending. Again dabbling in the wrong side of the law, Wilfrid Hyde-White plays to type as the gentle Englishman of a certain age, belying his criminal past. You can't go wrong with a film that features Phillips, Baxter and Hyde-White along with the likes of James Robertson Justice, Michael Medwin and Norman Rossington. 


Two Way Stretch (1960)

I watched this film again only last night and it stands up remarkably well for something that was made nearly fifty years ago. This prison crime caper starring Peter Sellers, Bernard Cribbins and David Lodge is light, bright and hilarious from the off. One of the successes of the film is the casting of so many delightful British character actors who add real depth and quality to their parts. Surely any film which co-stars the likes of Irene Handl, Beryl Reid, Maurice Denham, Lionel Jeffries, Liz Fraser and George Woodbridge has got to be worth watching more than once?

Wilfrid grabs joint top billing opposite Peter Sellers and his eye-catching, yet under-played role as Soapy Stevens is totally memorable. In disguise as a gentle, kindly old vicar, Stevens is actually a sharp as they come villain with a new and tantalising job in mind for Sellers, Lodge and Cribbins. Easily working his way round the daft as a brush prison governor (Denham - regular references to his prize marrow never fail to amuse), Stevens soon masterminds the perfect crime. It's a brilliant role for Hyde-White, so often cast as the mild, gentle, posh Englishman. With his role as Soapy he manages to turn that ideal on it's head. It's probably my favourite of all Hyde-White's film performances and he's easily a match for all the other prime comedy talent in this amazing, wonderful British film comedy.

My Fair Lady (1964)

I can't go any further without mentioning what was probably Wilfrid Hyde-White's most famous film role, as Colonel Hugh Pickering (he played a lot of Colonels) in the Hollywood musical adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion. Starring Audrey Hepburn as poor flower seller Eliza Doolittle and Rex Harrison as the arrogant phonetics Professor Henry Higgins, the film charts Eliza's journey from Cockney rags to the world of high society and "proper English". The film also stars Stanley (father of Julian) Holloway and Gladys Cooper.

Without a doubt this was the film which cemented Hyde-White's career in the United States. it was hugely successful at the time and continues to be so in the present day. As Colonel Pickering, Hyde-White is at the centre of the narrative as the idea that Higgins could teach anyone how to speak properly and improve themselves comes from his character. The joy of this role is that it's simply Hyde-White doing what he always did on screen, only in a much bigger budgeted picture and to a larger, transatlantic audience. In much the same way as Charles Hawtrey always played to type, so did Hyde-White and it worked out very well and very successfully for him over a career that spanned seven decades. In saying he always played to type, that does not diminish his qualities as an actor. Far from it, Wilfrid was always worth watching and as I hope I've demonstrated, appeared in many brilliant films. 

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