Thursday 21 June 2018

Bernie Carries On … As Little Heap

Over the past year I have written a series of blogs covering each of the roles of some of our favourite Carry On stars. I began my looking back at each film role played by the three leading ladies in the series - Joan Sims, Hattie Jacques and Barbara Windsor - and most recently I've written about all of Kenneth Connor's Carry On performances in the run up to the great man's centenary. 

Today I am beginning a new strand of this series by turning the spotlight on that gentle giant of British comedy, the late Bernard Bresslaw. Probably one of the most under-rated actors in the main team, Bernard was a part of the series for ten years and fourteen films, tackling a superb range of crumbling villains and delightfully dimwitted foils to the likes of Sid James and Kenneth Cope. Bernard enjoyed a long career away from the Carry Ons and spent much of his later life wowing audiences in legitimate theatre. However he will forever to remembered for his clutch of hilarious Carry On supporting turns. 

Bernard joined the Carry On team in the mid 1960s and along with Peter Butterworth was the last main team member to join the gang. Along with Butterworth, Bernard played a series of smaller, supporting roles to begin with before graduating to major roles towards the end of the decade. Bernard fitted in effortlessly with the rest of the team and he's the kind of actor who is working hard but making it look oh so easy. A quiet, erudite, thoughtful family man away from the film studios, I often think Bresslaw has never received the credit he's due as like Connor and Butterworth, he didn't ever seek the limelight or splash his life over the front pages.

So today, we'll start off this new series looking at Bernard's role as Little Heap in his first Carry On, the classic Carry On Cowboy in 1965.

Cowboy, released in 1965, saw the Carry On team hitting the cinema screens all guns blazing in a rip roaring mickey take of the famous Hollywood Westerns. Not only did Cowboy garner impressive reviews from even the poshest of posh papers, it was also a firm favourite amongst many of the Carry On cast. Sid James loved his role as the gun-toting Rumpo Kid and clearly relished the macho part. Jim Dale had also risen through the ranks to secure his biggest role to date and bagged some excellent screen time as the English sanitary engineer Marshall P Knutt. The film also saw Carry On debuts for several popular actors - Angela Douglas as Annie Oakley, Peter Butterworth as Doc and Bernard Bresslaw as Little Heap (!)

The main plot of Cowboy sees Jim Dale mistakenly sent to Stodge City as a new peace marshall to drive Sid's Rumpo and his gang out of town. Kenneth Williams' cowardly Judge Burke has lost all control as Rumpo is in charge of Stodge. All the usual Carry On characters are on display although for the regular audience it must have been strange to see them not only in period costume but also with American accents. Most of them manage to pull it off fairly convincingly with only Dale and Charles Hawtrey's hilarious Big Heap keeping their English accents intact. It's a fantastically colourful romp with plenty of action and set pieces, some laugh out loud moments, brilliant costumes and a wonderfully dressed Western set out on the back lot at Pinewood Studios. Writer Talbot Rothwell had really come into his own after the previous Carry On adventure, Carry On Cleo the year before and Cowboy is film brimming with confidence.

For Bernard, joining a high profile comedy team really hitting its' stride, he must have felt a combination of excitement and nerves. I'm sure he already knew many of his fellow actors and at the same time, he was joining at the same time as the wonderful Peter Butterworth so I'm sure he already had a friend. Bernard quickly formed firm friendships with leading men Sid James and Kenneth Williams and was well thought of my the rest of the team. A gentle, kind man, his down time on set was usually spent doing the Times crossword. In Cowboy, Bresslaw plays a role as far removed from reality as possible, as the slow-witted son of Charles Hawtrey's character Big Heap! As native Indians, they begin the film as pawns in the Rumpo Kid's game to take over Stodge City and drive out Jim Dale's bogus peace marshall. 

Of course this being a Carry On, the native Indians are soon firmly in charge, albeit in a bungling, whisky guzzling way! Bernard's portrayal may be concerned a bit suspect these days in what could be called more enlightened times, however there's no doubting how funny he is on screen and what a great partnership he forms with Hawtrey. While Bernard delivers his role with an accent and the rest of the cast (apart from Dale's English character) take on American accents, Hawtrey's Big Heap remains delightfully little England! Bresslaw provides a real hulking height and definitely adds a new dimension to the series. Popping in and out of the action, Bernard isn't given a huge amount to do but he is memorable so it's not hard to see why he was asked back for further roles in the series. 

Little Heap's climatic scene comes towards the end of Cowboy when Sid's Rumpo uses him to blow his chums out of jail. Unfortunately it doesn't go to plan and Bernard disappears in a puff of comedy smoke! Little Heap isn't Bernard's finest Carry On performance by a long chalk - it's no Bungdit-Din or Bernie in Carry On Camping - however it remains really important as it marked the beginning of his wondrous Carry On career. And as an aside, of course this wasn't Bresslaw's first time in a Carry On. Carry On purists will be aware that Bernard's feet were spotted briefly in Carry On Nurse seven years earlier, doubling for those of star Terence Longdon! 

So that's my take on Bernard's baptism of fire with the Carry On team. Coming up next, Bernard's role as Sockett the butler in Carry On Screaming! 

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