Friday 16 November 2018

Bernie Carries On … As Peter Potter

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 Peter Potter, in the 1973 beauty pageant farce 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 solid turns from reliable actors like June Whitfield as the feminist Augusta Prodworthy, Kenneth Connor as the bumbling Mayor 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. 

Bernard plays advertising executive Peter Potter, an old contact of Sid's Councillor Sidney Fiddler, who Sid persuades to visit Fircombe to help publicise his much-heralded beauty contest. Bernard plays Peter completely straight, quite innocent and quietly suspicious of Sid's motives! The chalk and cheese partnership is a fruitful one and provides much of the comedy in the film. Bernard grabs more screen time than in previous films thanks to the absence of the likes of Hattie Jacques, Charles Hawtrey and Kenneth Williams. Indeed, with Sid and Barbara playing totally to type and Joan in an underwritten role on nagging wife autopilot, it's up to Bernard to carry a lot of the film. 

Probably the highlight of Bernard's performance in Girls is the infamous drag sequence. Of course Sid is behind this conniving stunt as he persuades Peter to masquerade as a beauty contest entrant, Patricia Potter. This is all done with the full intent that Peter is defrocked, literally, for additional publicity. The sight of Bernard Bresslaw in long flowing wig, pearls and feminine underthings is something I'll never forget, no matter how hard I try. And once he's in his very seventies frock and stood next to the pint sized Barbara Windsor, the comedy contrast is exploited to the full. 

Once Bernard is in the line up alongside all the other nubile young lovelies, it's only a matter of time before the truth comes out. Augusta Prodworthy's band of feminists descend on the hotel together with David Lodge's police inspector and it's all good fun, if you're prepared to overlook Jimmy Logan's dreadfully over the top camp performance as TV host Cecil Gaybody. The success of the whole drag sequence is down to Bernard playing it completely straight and because he's a big butch bloke, it makes it really very funny. A shame the rest of the film didn't hold up to this level of panto farce.

The arrival of Peter Potter's fiance, Paula Perkins, puts a dampener on proceedings. For once Valerie Leon is playing dowdy rather than glam and the change is quite astonishing! Of course it isn't too long before a transformation sequence takes place and Valerie is back to her glamorous best. Paula is very anti-beauty pageant and suspicious of one Sidney Fiddler (quite rightly too!) After a little coaxing from Barbara's Hope Springs, Paula decides to enter the contest herself and in a jaw-dropping moment reveals herself in a rather startling bikini to all and sundry. One question which has never been answered is why Valerie's performance was subsequently dubbed by co-star June Whitfield. I don't think Valerie has ever mentioned it and when June was asked some years ago, she confirmed it was her voice but couldn't remember doing it! 

In the end, the beauty contest is completely sabotaged by Augusta Prodworthy's band of feminists and Sid, Bernie and the girls are at their mercy under a drenching of water, soot and itching powder. Once again Bernard is the straight man to Sid's wheeler dealer but it's a relationship which functions like a well oiled machine. Sadly it was the last time the pair would work so closely together on screen, although they would both appear in the next in the series, Carry On Dick. I believe the friendship was so strong that Bernard turned down Carry On England in 1976 because Sid had just passed away. What a loyal, lovely chap.

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

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