Saturday 5 May 2018

Connor Carries On … As Frederick Bumble

Next June will mark Kenneth Connor's centenary. This feels like the right time to celebrate the man's legacy and what better a legacy that his seventeen glorious performances in the Carry On films. As I've already done with the three main leading ladies of the series, I plan to embark on a series of blogs profiling each of Kenneth's roles in the Carry Ons, giving my own take on his contributions.

Kenneth is another one of those actors who worked steadily, prolifically and across all mediums throughout his career. From his very early days in film before the outbreak of World War Two, through the 1950s which saw him become an integral part of British radio comedy to the Carry Ons and his unforgettable roles in several 1980s sitcoms, Connor was an incredibly gifted actor. He worked right up until his death at the age of 75 in November 1993. However unlike Sid, Kenneth Williams or Barbara Windsor, I feel that Connor never really got the credit he deserved. He didn't have an outrageous private life, no scandals to be told. He shunned the limelight and his many performances as the ordinary man in the street mirrored his own life away from the cameras. 

Kenneth was also one of the precious few actors who's career spanned pretty much the entire run of the Carry Ons. He was there at the very beginning in Carry On Sergeant and, a five year gap in the mind 1960s aside, remained loyal to the films until the very end of the original run in 1978. Connor, along with Williams and Eric Barker were the only actors to appear in the very first and the very last of the series. Kenneth was still around when Columbus was made in 1992 but declined to take part, probably very wisely. This new series of blogs will be a celebration of all those wonderful comedy performances in the Carry Ons - from bumbling romantic lead through to crumbling character parts, Kenneth could play them all.

So let's continue with Kenneth's thirteenth role in the series, as Mayor Frederick Bumble in the 1973 film, Carry On Girls!

I've written about Carry On Girls before and I'll reiterate now that it's probably one of my least favourite films in the entire series. The film misses Kenneth Williams, Hattie Jacques and Charles Hawtrey keenly while I disagree with the promotion of Barbara over Joan Sims at a time when Sid and Joan's on-screen relationship had hit a new level of fabulousness in Carry On Abroad. Girls is rather a shoddy looking film, and I know it's supposed to be set in a down at heel seaside resort but still... Girls, which tells the story of Fircombe's attempts to generate publicity and income with a beauty contest, pushed the series nearer the knuckle than ever before. It's much bawdier than any previous film in the series and it really does reflect changing times both in society and the British film industry. 

There are good points in the film of course. The cast includes sold turns from reliable actors like June Whitfield as the feminist Augusta Prodworthy, Peter Butterworth as a lecherous old Admiral and Joan Hickson as the absent-minded hotel resident Mrs Dukes. Best of all is the superb Patsy Rowlands as the mayor's wife Mildred. Rowlands enjoys better than average screen time in this film and it's great to see her grab a proper comedy role in the series. Apart from that, Girls is really the Sid and Barbara show. Sid is Sidney Fiddler, the mastermind behind the contest while Babs is Hope Springs, his love interest and the main contestant. 

So what about Kenneth Connor's role as Mayor Frederick Bumble? Well quite simply Kenneth is one of the main saving graces of the film. Of all his later roles in the series, I think Kenneth's Bumble is his finest hour. It's a brilliant character study of a typical ineffectual, crumbling middle aged man struggling to hold onto what's left of his authority, not to mention his dignity. As Mayor of Fircombe, Sid's Councillor Sidney Fiddler runs rings around Bumble and June Whitfield's cunningly sly Augusta Prodworthy has him in her sights. Bumble is belittled and bewildered in his professional life and belittled and bewildered in his home life thanks to a super comedy performance straight out of a situation comedy from Patsy Rowlands. 

Kenneth and Patsy were made to work together and their scenes of domestic disharmony are classic stuff which raises the bar amidst the knockabout humour of the rest of Carry On Girls. Quite simply why they were never snapped up for their own sitcom on the telly will forever be a mystery. Patsy's Mildred Bumble begins the film as a downtrodden, careworn wife who at worst ignores and at best puts up with her officious little middle management husband. However during the course of the picture Mildred's inner feminist emerges and by the end she's burning her bra with the best of them and sabotaging Sid's beauty contest. Kenneth and Sid James also share delightful scenes as the wily Mr Fiddler lives up to his name, always being one step ahead of Bumble. 

Kenneth once again works with the great June Whitfield. Following on from their fabulous husband and wife double act in the previous film Carry On Abroad, Kenneth and June are once again at loggerheads in Girls. Polar opposites from the very first scene in the council chambers, June's gloriously named Augusta Prodworthy is sharp tongued and menacing while Kenneth's Bumble is, well bumbling and spluttery! The scene which sees June and her on screen wimp of a son Larry (Robin Askwith) burst in on Mayor Bumble in his bath (brilliantly orchestrating naval manoeuvres!) is a joy and forms one of several near the knuckle yet beautifully played comedy scenes in the film. 

Frederick Bumble is a million miles from Kenneth's earlier black and white leading roles in the Carry On films. Almost unrecognisable from the timid, youthful romantic leads of the likes of Horace Strong and Gregory Adams, surely Kenneth Connor undergoes the biggest changes in the kind of parts the Carry Ons offered him. While Sid, Kenneth Williams and Jim Dale often played similar types of characters, Connor was pretty much the male version of Joan Sims. His range was superb and his characterisations unbeatable. 

Stay tuned for my blog on Kenneth Connor's next role in the series, in the 1974 film Carry On Dick. 

You can follow me on Twitter @CarryOnJoan and on Instagram

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