Tuesday 18 September 2018

Bernie Carries On … As Bernie Hulke!

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 continuing 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 continue this new series looking at Bernard's role as the simple Bernie Hulke, second in command to the union leader Vic Spanner in the 1971 film Carry On At Your Convenience.

Although Carry On At Your Convenience is now seen as a classic Carry On, with stand out performances from a core team of favourite stars, an outrageous script jam-packed full of wonderful innuendo and a storyline that takes in natural Carry On territory of a toilet factory and a trip to Brighton, back in 1971 it was a very different tale. Convenience was the first film to bomb at the box office, with the working class audience less than impressed with the film's treatment of the trade unions. While Kenneth Cope and Bernard Bresslaw put in terrific performances as the union men who are permanently on strike, they are basically a pair of idiotic clowns. This was a rare miss-step on the part of Peter Rogers and Gerald Thomas, who immediately attempted to regain popularity with their next entry, the classic Carry On Matron.

These days, Convenience is a fan favourite. The canteen scene at the beginning of the film is just one innuendo after the other with Joan Sims and Sid James having a whale of a time. The other highlight for me is the trip to Brighton which crams in so many wonderful British seaside moments. Chief amongst those is the brilliant fortune teller scene with Sid in drag. It's sublime. While the rest of the cast make it Brighton, sadly Hattie Jacques is stuck at home but her role does provide some wonderful 'domestic sitcom' from her and Sid James. However the two form an irresistible double act yet again, delivering the goods as only they could. Hattie's character Beattie Plummer spends her entire day stuck indoors talking to her pet budgie. Husband Sid is understandably fed up with her slovenly ways until he cottons on to the fact that the budgie can predict the winners in every single horse race. 

So what about Bernard's role in proceedings? Well Convenience is a pivotal role in Bernard's Carry On career as it began a continuous run of appearances across all the gang's cinema releases until his last, Carry On Behind in 1975. This was, in part, due to production going down from two to one film per year. The 1970s films see Bernard's prominence increase though as the team had already lost leading man Jim Dale and after Abroad, there would be no more Charles Hawtrey either. 

Convenience sees Bernard play another version of his rather dim-witted but kind Army Game persona, not unlike his characters in Carry On Doctor or Carry On Camping. Bernard often played second in command in a double act, usually with Sid James, however here he's paired with newcomer to the series, Coronation Street and Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) star Kenneth Cope. Bernard and Kenneth are excellent together as the bickering Union reps and their delightful comedic chemistry is at the heart of the film. Bernard certainly has more screen time than previous efforts and once again acts as a useful bridge between the older more established talent and the younger actors (Cope, Piper and O'Callaghan). 

Bernie Hulke is a sometimes unwilling accomplice to Cope's Union leader however, bound my loyalty to the cause, he backs him to the hilt and we see that early on when Vic Spanner calls a stoppage of the works and conducts a hilarious scene in the canteen. In many ways this sequence is Carry On in its purest form and there is sparkling byplay between Cope, James, O'Callaghan and a raunchy, twinkly Joan Sims. Bernie chips in with some perfectly timed misunderstandings and the whole thing is a joy. Once the strike has been called Bernie acts as a foil to Vic as the latter follows the object of his affections, Myrtle Plummer (Piper) on a date with snooty bosses' son Lewis (O'Callaghan). This leads to some excellent, funny scenes as Vic and Bernie attempt to remain inconspicuous in the back of a cinema while a blue movie is played - impossible when you're with a towering Bernie in motorcycle leathers and crash helmet! The sequence culminates in Bernie taking off on his bike, leaving Vic behind in the road, minus his trousers! 

I also love the scene when Bernie turns up as Mrs Spanner's house to collect Vic and, engine revving wildly, completely misses Mrs Spanner's colourful instructions for him to pipe down. Hard to do when Mrs Spanner is brought to life by the incredibly vivid Scottish character actress Renee Houston! We also get to enjoy a spot of coy Bernie embarrassment and misunderstanding as he later interrupts Agatha Spanner and Charles Hawtrey's Mr Coote mid-way through a game of strip poker! Bernie's bulging eyes of incredulity as Charles answers the door in his boxer shorts is one for the scrap book!

Of course, as I've already mentioned, the highlight of Convenience is the deliciously bawdy and outrageous works' outing to Brighton that takes up the latter part of the film. Here Bernie is provided with a love interest in the shapely shape of Margaret Nolan, playing a character called Popsy. Quite. Bernard and Maggie are great together and my only complaint is that Nolan wasn't brought into the film earlier in the action. The scenes of Bernie and Maggie enjoying the delights of Brighton pier are the stuff of legend, especially when they take on the helter skelter - "What's that sticking in me?" asks Popsy…"It's only me camera!" Not to mention their misadventures no the ghost train which I'm sure Bresslaw rather enjoyed!! Down wiv 'em! 

By the end of the film, with support for Vic's strike waning, his men gradually drift away from him. Bernie stands by him until the end though, when faced by the local females in uprising about the state of the factory and their loss of earnings. Yes, it's another fairly right wing, capitalist moment in the film, but when it involves the likes of Joan Sims, Marianne Stone and Hattie Jacques storming the barricades as Renee Houston puts Kenneth Cope over her knee for a spanking, the film makers can almost be forgiven! In the end, Bernie packs it in and temporarily deserts his mate. All is right in the end though with Vic having learnt his lesson as they, wait for it…Carry On Working! 

So those are my thoughts on Bernard's role in Carry On At Your Convenience. Stay tuned for my next blog in this series, as I look back at Bernard's role in the classic Carry On Matron!

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