Thursday 29 March 2018

Favourites in Five: Morris Bright MBE

To celebrate my third year of blogging about my beloved Carry On films, I have a special blog to post today. Morris Bright has been a supporter and friend to this blog since it started and his kindness, encouragement and enthusiasm is second to none. So who better to write me a guest blog on his greatest influences in the business on this special day? Over to Mr Bright:

What better time to write about my favourite five figures from the world of entertainment than the 60th anniversary of the start of filming on what became the Carry On film series and the third anniversary of this wonderful Carry On Blogging site. I have so much time and admiration for both. 

Picking five is far harder than it sounds and I have been incredibly self-indulgent by choosing five people who were heroes, who I then met in real life and who were still heroes after that. Five who lived up to everything that I could have hoped for in a perfomer who’d brought me so much joy, laughter and tears, in my formative years. So I’m not missing out Will Hay or Tony Hancock because they are not among my favourites. Far from it. I still enjoy watching and listening to them today. It’s just I have to be disciplined. And those of you who know me will know that’s no mean feat. 


Norman Wisdom was that rarest of creatures and no I don’t mean a huge star in Albania. Which of course he was. Norman was a true clown. He could make you laugh and he could make you cry. He wasn’t just the little man in the ill-fitting suit, he was a talented performer who could turn his hand, his voice and body to anything in an effort to entertain and take the audience with him on a journey full of laughter and pathos. While his films and their 1950’s shtick may now seem to some a little dated, I challenge anyone not to watch his first BAFTA-award winning big screen outing, Trouble in Store, without laughing out loud and shedding a tear too when he sings Don’t Laugh At Me. I was honoured to know Norman for the last 20 years of his long and productive life. I visited him at his homes in Epsom and on the Isle of Man. I organised a 50th anniversary in Showbusiness tribute to Norman at Pinewood Studios in 1997 and took Norman back to Pinewood one last time when he was in his early 90s. A final opportunity to say thank you Norm for all the joy. I still miss him. 


If ever there was master of the acting craft it was Thora Hird. In a career that spanned over 80 years, Thora learnt her stock in trade from her family who were on the stage as well as appearing in hundreds of plays and dozens of films playing both straight and comedic roles with equal aplomb. By the late 1950s Thora was the highest paid performer in Blackpool being paid £1000 a week. Thora went on to become one of the most well regarded actresses of the 20th century and won the BAFTA for Best Actress in television drama two years in a row when she in her late 80s. I first met Thora when she came to the tribute I ran for Norman Wisdom at Pinewood in 1997. She said: “I hope we’ll stay friends!” And we did for the next 15 years until she died. I put on an evening with her in London and would spend many hours in her Bayswater Mews flat talking about the old days. And I’d push her round in a wheelchair while out and about on location for Last of the Summer Wine. The public loved coming up to her and saying hello. They felt they knew her: “They think I’m Beryl Reid you know!” she used to quip. 


What can I say about Leslie Phillips that hasn’t already been said. Leslie was a cockney having been born within the sound of Bow bells though elocution lessons ensured he will be forever associated with typical plummy Englishman roles throughout his career, from cad to silly arse. But he has shown himself to be far more than a farcical actor who squeezes out a laugh by a flash of the bum or dragging up to the nines. His straight roles in Chekov and other plays won him great and much deserved acclaim. And that’s because Leslie Phillips is, first and foremost, a bloody good actor. 

I adored him in the early Carry Ons and his Doctor film outings and will forever remember him in his BAFTA nominated role opposite Peter O’Toole, in Venus four decades later. He was a hero to me from a very young age. I always felt happy when I was watching Leslie on screen or hearing him in shows such as The Navy Lark. To get to know the man was a joy. To have him at my wedding in 2006 was an honour. One of my happiest ever evenings was sitting in a restaurant in Solihull when I had taken Leslie and his friend and mine, actress Angela Douglas to a memorabilia convention in 2006. Just the three of us, talking and laughing about the industry and the old days. Just being who they really were away from acting. Thoroughly lovely people. 


It’s noticeable that three of my top ten films star one of the greatest American actors, Jack Lemmon. My favourite film remains Some Like it Hot. And in that list too is The Apartment and the big screen version of The Odd Couple. If my list extended to 20 films or so, it’s highly possible Glengarry Glen Ross, Days of Wine and Roses, and Avanti would, all starring Jack Lemmon, be in there also. Even when a film wasn’t always brilliant, his performance either comedy or serious would lift a production. He gave it his all. A consummate professional, worthy Oscar winner and I had heard he was one of the nicest guys in the business. 

So getting to meet Jack Lemmon the night I got engaged (for the first time) back in 1989 was always going to be make or break for me in the hero expectation stakes. Would he be as I hoped/dreamt/imagined? Jack was appearing onstage at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in London’s West end in a drama called Veterans Day, also staring Michael Gambon. After the show to celebrate our engagement, my fiancĂ©e and I drank champagne with Jack in his dressing room. “What did you think of the play?” he asked. He saw I looked a little uncertain how best to answer and he smiled and quickly put me out of my misery. “Did you actually understand it?” (I hadn’t really if truth be told.) “Cos, I’ve been in it for three weeks and I still don’t know what’s going on!” And we laughed. He couldn’t have been lovelier. Jack Lemmon truly was a great actor and even greater guy. 


And so I leave my absolute number one favourite to the end. Kenneth Williams was always my entertainment hero. The man with the funny voices and the deepest of intellects. The man who could make you laugh uproariously but who led such a sad private life. I can never remember a time when he wasn’t my favourite. I recall at school the English teacher asking us to write an imaginary letter to someone who we would want to come to school speech day. I wrote mine to Kenneth Williams. I was 11. 

I loved him in the Carry Ons. If Sid James was the Father of the Carry Ons, Kenneth was the Master of the series. I still listen in my car to Ken in classic editions of Just A Minute and adore watching his interviews with the likes of Michael Parkinson alongside Maggie Smith and Sir John Betjeman, where he showed himself to be more than just a master of mimicry. In 1985, while a student, I saved up my money and bought my first ever hard back book, Just Williams, Ken’s autobiography. It was the week it came out and at a recording of Just A Minute I queued eagerly for him to sign it. He turned to me and smiled and said: ” ‘ere… you’re a bit previous aren’t you. A bit keen. The book only came out yesterday.” And he signed it and gave me a copy of his previous book Acid Drops as a gift! I met Kenneth Williams a few more times in the late 1980s before he died. I went to drama school with Clement Freud’s niece and we would sit in the front row of the Paris Theatre where the shows were recorded, next to Ken’s Mum, watching him with deep adoration. He left a great legacy of laughter for me and future generations to enjoy. I shall always be thankful to him for being so entertaining but also being so nice when I met him. He’s still my hero.

I'd like to thank Morris ever so much for taking the time to write this wonderful guest blog to help celebrate my three years online. I interviewed Morris back in 2016 and you can read that again here and here

You can follow me on Twitter @CarryOnJoan and on Instagram

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