Tuesday 4 September 2018

Bernie Carries On … As Gripper Burke!

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 grunting, snarling wrestler Gripper Burke in the 1970 film Carry On Loving.

By 1970 times were most certainly a changing. The cosy postwar years which launched the Carry Ons were long gone and everything was a lot more liberated and up front, as it were. After nearly twelve years of hit films, the Carry On team were still at the top of their game but perhaps there was felt to be a need to adapt and change to maintain their position at the top of the comedy charts? Carry On Loving saw an attempt at this. Basically Loving is a saucy seventies tribute to Norman Hudis' classic 1961 film Carry On Regardless. Instead of the Helping Hands Agency of the earlier film, this 1970 update saw Talbot Rothwell set the film at the Wedded Bliss Matrimonial Agency, run by Sid and Sophie Bliss. Loving even saw the outside of the Wedded Bliss Agency filmed on the same location in Windsor that had been used for Regardless almost a decade earlier.

Sid James and Hattie Jacques are the stars of Loving, running through the hotch potch action and large cast of favourites. Sid and Hattie had tremendous chemistry which had been honed as far back as the Hancock shows in the 1950s. They first appeared together as a romantic duo in Carry On Constable in 1960 with further double acts in the likes of Carry On Cabby in 1963. Although my favourite Sid pairing is with Joan Sims, Sid and Hattie were also very believable as husband and wife. Sid and Hattie provide the backbone for all the youthful, romantic antics in Loving. Peter Rogers brought in a number of fresh young faces to balance out the more established stars such as Joan Sims, Charles Hawtrey, Bernard Bresslaw and Kenneth Williams. In the likes of Richard O'Callaghan, Jacki Piper, Imogen Hassall and Julian Holloway, had Peter found the foundations of the next generation of Carry On stars?

Well not quite, although all but Imogen would return for more films. Terry Scott was also on board bridging the gap between younger cast and the more mature stars. Hattie's main interactions in the film are with Sid, Kenneth and Charles. Her nemesis was Joan Sims as the object of Sid's affections, Esme Crowfoot. Of course Hattie and Joan were the best of friends in real life but they made for the best of adversaries in this Carry On, although sadly they don't get to share much screen time. 

So what about Bernard's role in the film? Well I think this is probably Bernard's smallest role in all of his fourteen Carry Ons. It's pretty much a cameo role and he only really makes his first appearance around half way through the picture. Much like his other film cameo of 1970, as the wrestler in Frankie Howerd's Up Pompeii, Bernard is on grandstanding form as a picture of hulking, brutish, potent masculinity! Gripper, returning from his travels, hopes to pick up where he left off with girlfriend Esme Crowfoot (Joan Sims). However in his absence Sidney Bliss (Sid James) has started sniffing round and they are pretty much caught in flagrante delicto. As poor Esme tries to calm a snarling Gripper, Sid makes for the exit dressed in Esme's frillies, down her back entrance, as it were. Sadly for the innocent abroad in all this, Bertie Muffett, he picks this moment to turn up looking for a date with Esme. This gives Bernie a chance to throw some shapes as he tosses a stunt double Bertie round Esme's very seventies flat! 

Bernard makes his next appearance much later in the film, as an unwitting accomplice to the cunning Sidney Bliss! After his common law wife Sophie (Jacques) takes up with the snooty Percival Snooper (Kenneth Williams - who else) Sid plots to get Sophie back. Sending an unsuspecting Esme round to Snooper's all dolled up and be-cleavaged, Sophie takes off after catching Esme ripping off Percival's trousers to reveal a rather fetching pair of bright orange boxer shorts! As Esme makes with the seduction techniques, in bursts Gripper who attacks Snooper! Which brings us to one of my favourite scenes in the entire film, as Patsy Rowlands storms in, playing Snooper's lovestruck housekeeper and teaches Gripper a few new moves!

It's a lovely moment and provides yet another dollop of pure farce but it's expertly played by some of our finest comedy actors. Poor Bernie plays the hapless Gripper with a combination of pure grunting butch and comedic thicker and it's yet another role he could easily have phoned in had he wished. Of course a talented, committed professional like Bresslaw would never do such a thing which is why, much like Charles Hawtrey in Up The Jungle, Bernard's small role in Loving almost steals the film.

Bresslaw makes one final appearance in Carry On Loving and it's as part of the climatic wedding reception cake fight scene. It's actually Gripper Burke who sets the events in motion as he spots Sid's suit as the one drying in Esme's flat! Before he can properly kick off, Esme clouts him one with the end of a champagne bottle. Too late though, as all hell breaks loose! Bernie is last seen as the final credits role, been beaten over the head by a baguette wielding Hattie Jacques!

Sure Bernard had better roles in the series and certainly bigger ones, but I love his snarling turn as wrestler Gripper Burke. I don't know why it wasn't a bigger part (I'm sure someone out there can tell me what else Bernard was working on at the time) but as ever I'm just glad to see him as part of the cast.

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

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