Wednesday 27 September 2017

Whatever Happened to Anna Karen?

I'm continuing my occasional series of blogs on some of the lesser known stars of Carry On today by looking at the life and career of an instantly recognisable actress. Anna Karen may only have played very small roles in two Carry Ons, but she's had a long career in television and film and holds a very strong Carry On connection to this day - namely her best friend, a certain Miss Barbara Windsor.

Anna first appeared in the Carry On films in October 1968 when, at the age of 32 she played one of the girls at Chayste Place Finishing School in Carry On Camping. Although featured throughout the film, Anna has little if any dialogue however her role is often remembered for the legendary cat fight in the school between her character and Babs, played by none other than Barbara Windsor. One can only imagine the fun Anna and Barbara had on location with the likes of Kenneth Williams, Charles Hawtrey and Hattie Jacques in toe!

Anna returned to Pinewood Studios to work for Peter Rogers and Gerald Thomas two years later when she cropped up in the final scenes of Carry On Loving. This dating agency comedy, very much a follow up and tribute to the earlier classic black and white Carry On Regardless, sees Sid James and Hattie Jacques run a rather hit and miss matrimonial agency. The climatic farcical wedding banquet scene at the end sees the action descend into a cake fight with the best the Pinewood canteen could provide flying everywhere. Anna pops up as a disgruntled new wife, partnered with the legendary farceur Lauri Lupino Lane. Another pretty wordless role, poor Anna suffers for her art with a jelly down the front of her decolletage. 

Of course Anna did go on to bigger and better things. These days she is known for two roles on the small screen in particular. In 1969 she found lasting fame as Olive, the put upon, rather dowdy, bespectacled sister of Stan and wife of Arthur in the LWT sitcom On The Buses. Starring alongside Reg Varney, Stephen Lewis, Doris Hare, Michael Robbins and Bob Grant, this bus garage comedy ran until 1973 and proved to be a huge success in the ratings. It also led to three spin-off films, all featuring the same cast and made at Elstree Studios. The first was On The Buses in 1971, followed by Mutiny On The Buses in 1972 and finally Holiday on the Buses the following year. All very much followed the same story arc and featured similar situations. I must admit that although I recognise their lasting popularity, this series and the films they spawned are probably amongst my least favourite of their genre. 

Anna's other best-remembered television role came over two decades after On The Buses. In 1996 she was reunited with Carry On co-star and long-time friend Barbara Windsor when she joined the cast of EastEnders to play Aunt Sal, sister to Windsor's character Peggy. Although never a regular character, Anna has continued to appear in the BBC soap opera over the years, mainly at big events such as weddings and funerals. I always appreciate such continuity in programmes like EastEnders and the chemistry between Karen and Windsor made for some very believable scenes. Anna last appeared in the show when Sal attended Peggy Mitchell's funeral in 2016 after Barbara decided to bow out of the role. 

Anna would work for Ronald Chesney and Ronald Wolfe, the writers of On The Buses, on two further television projects during her career. The first of these was a short-lived period variation on The Rag Trade called Wild, Wild Women. Set in 1902, it featured a very similar set up to the earlier comedy series and starred Barbara Windsor, Pat Coombs and Joan Sanderson. Sadly it only made it to one series as it failed to ignite the interest of viewers. Nearly a decade later when Chesney and Wolfe were asked to bring back their earlier hit The Rag Trade, this time for LWT, they called upon the services of Anna Karen once again. Running between 1977 and 1978, the updated show saw original stars Peter Jones and Miriam Karlin reprise their roles as Harold Fenner and Paddy Fleming with new additions including future EastEnders actress Gillian Taylforth and Carry On England star Diane Langton. Anna played Olive Rudge, her character from On The Buses!

Anna Karen was actually born Ana Caren Krege in South Africa in September 1936. Apparently, one of her first jobs in the profession after arriving in London was as a strip tease artist and dancer in the Panama Club in the capital's West End. By the mid 1960s she had broken into the world of film with appearances in the likes of The Sandwich Man (1966), Ken Loach's Poor Cow (with Carol White) in 1967, the sex comedy What's Up Nurse (1978) and more recently as Marlene in the 1996 film Beautiful Thing. On television, other roles have included appearances in Dixon of Dock Green, And Mother Makes Five, The Dick Emery Show, The Kenneth Williams Show, Super Gran and Roland Rat: The Series! 

Living in Essex for most of her life, Anna was married to the actor and comedian Terry Duggan from 1967 until his death in 2008. As well as continuing with occasional appearances in television and on film, Anna has also taught drama at an arts academy in Hornchurch, Essex. Despite some ill health in recent years, Anna still pops up in documentaries and chat shows, most recently seen in Channel 5's tribute to Dame Barbara Windsor as the star turned 80. 

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