Tuesday 14 August 2018

Guest Blog: The Importance of Being… an Actor!

it's time for another lovely guest blog. Today it's over to regular reader Simon Copley who has written a really good piece on the difference between comedians and actors and why it was so important to the success of the Carry Ons that the talent they employed were comedy actors...

Whilst I was on a recent holiday, I saw an excellent production of the classic farce Don’t Dress for Dinner at the local theatre.  The cast were all very good and one of them, who had perhaps the best comedy part in the play, reminded me of the likes of Hattie Jacques and Joan Sims, not in terms of physical resemblance, but ability to act comedy, different voices and characters, physical comedy, facial expressions and reactions.  (Her name is Lauren Verrier and you can follow her on Twitter, hopefully she will be going places, given her talent, if she gets the breaks always required in the business.)   This got me thinking about the importance of acting to good comedy, whether sitcoms or films.

Also whilst I was away, there was the 50th anniversary of Dad’s Army and the 60th anniversary of the Carry On films.  2018 seems to have been a year of anniversaries and commemorations – we’ve also had the 100th anniversaries of the births of both Spike Milligan and Kenneth Connor, the 50th anniversary of the death of Tony Hancock and the 30th anniversary of the death of Kenneth Williams, and, one which may have passed you by, the 30th anniversary of First of the Summer Wine.  (For those who fondly remember this 1980’s prequel to Last of the Summer Wine, set just before the start of the war, there are plenty more details and cast interviews on my website – www.firstofthesummerwine.wordpress.com.)

In an interview with the Radio Times to mark the Dad’s Army anniversary, Ian Lavender mentioned that most sitcoms these days star comedians, rather than actors.  I reflected on the superb talents of the leading lights of Dad’s Army, how they could communicate and react with just a look or gesture, their mastery of pauses and tones of voice, all making it a classic of relationship based and situation based comedy.  I have watched Arthur Lowe in a number of other sitcoms, none of which come anywhere close to Dad’s Army in terms of the writing, but all of which show his talents and skill as an actor, something respected not only by colleagues in these comedies but by the leading “serious actors” of the day too.  John Le Mesurier’s own comment about acting -  “always play the same part and if possible wear the same suit” – downplays his years of experience in filmmaking and his ability to milk every detail and nuance in a role, which must have contributed to his eventual BAFTA award for Traitor.  John Laurie of course had years of experience playing Shakespeare with the greats and a substantial film career too.

My thoughts then turned to the Carry On anniversary the following day.  What part did acting play here?  Was the same true as for Dad’s Army? 

Hattie Jacques, whilst may be best remembered for her battleaxe Matron, had talents far beyond that.  Look at the depths and complexities of her role as Peggy in Carry On Cabby, and then the fiery tempered cook, Floella, in Abroad, and the softer and more sensible sister she played in the TV series Sykes. 

Sid James, in my opinion, was a much more versatile actor than we often got to see – Sir Rodney ffing in Don’t Lose Your Head is proof of that and to a lesser extent the Rumpo Kid in Cowboy and the harassed authority figures in Constable and Cruising.  Also in the sitcom Citizen James as the camera cuts at the end of a scene we get a momentary glimpse of what a great dancer he was too.  

Joan Sims played a more diverse set of roles across the series, posh, common, glamourous, drunk, often changing seamlessly from one to another, even within a scene.  Her role in Teacher, as Miss Allcock, playing out the romance with Leslie Phillips’ character, Mr Grigg, showcases perfectly her abilities. 

Kenneth Williams, as Adam Endacott’s superb book, The Kenneth Williams Companion, reminded me, built up his acting skills in weekly rep, was acclaimed for his role of the Dauphin in St Joan on the London stage, took part in Orson Welles’ innovative production of Moby Dick and ably filled in all the extra roles in Hancock’s Half Hour, which must have been so much harder than building up a single, regular character (although admittedly of course he did play a number of them as Snide).

Kenneth Connor, in many ways the leading man in the early films, beautifully plays out the nervousness, excitement and shyness in his on screen romances with Rosalind Knight in Teacher and Dilys Laye in Cruising, making them some of my favourite scenes of the whole series.

The Carry On team was a bit like a repertory company.  Based initially around Kenneth Connor, Kenneth Williams, Charles Hawtrey, Hattie Jacques and, from the second film, Joan Sims, with Sid James joining shortly after, and many capable guests coming and going, the acting skills of the cast were key to making the series what it was and still is today.  Very different in tone to Dad’s Army, but played with great skill and attention to detail.  Ironically the series perhaps led to many of its stars becoming typecast in certain types of roles or supposed caricatures of themselves, so that the very acting skills that made the films a success, weren’t able to flourish and be showcased to their full extent elsewhere.  Let’s hope that the admiration and the affection for not just the films but the actors themselves, 60 years after the series started, more than makes up for this, and that this carries on, as they journey forwards towards their centenary.

Thanks again to Simon for submitting this excellent blog. If you fancy having a bash yourself,  either drop me a direct message over on Twitter or email your idea to carryonfan15@gmail.com

You can follow me on Twitter @CarryOnJoan and on Instagram

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