Sunday 6 January 2019

Butterworth Carries On … as Doc!

A couple of years back I started a regular series of blogs which profiled each of Joan Sims' fabulous 24 Carry On roles. I enjoyed giving each performance a turn in the spotlight so once I completed the mammoth task of writing about everything from Nurse Stella Dawson to Mrs Dangle, I went on to blog about all of Hattie Jacques' roles in the series and then those portrayed by Dame Barbara Windsor.

More recently I have carried out the same task for two of Carry Ons' unsung heroes - Kenneth Connor and Bernard Bresslaw. Now I will turn my attentions to all sixteen of Peter Butterworth's delightful supporting turns in the Carry On series. Peter, along with Sid James and Joan Sims, has long been one of my very favourite comedy actors and favourite members of the Carry On troupe. Sadly, Peter has received scant attention from the wider press, with only diehard fans really giving his acting talent the praise it so rightly deserves.

Peter joined the Carry On team in 1965 for Carry On Cowboy and remained a loyal servant to the series pretty much right through until the end of the original series in 1978. He was also a frequent contributor to many of the team's small screen outings and appeared alongside Sid James, Barbara Windsor and several others in the Carry On London stage farce in the early 1970s. He never put a foot wrong and was the master scene stealer. 2019 marks not only one hundred years since Peter's birth but also, sadly, forty years since he passed away. It therefore seems fitting to devote some blogging time to his wonderful performances.

We start today, as one always should, at the very beginning. In 1965 the Carry On team went way out west (well as far as Black Park and Chobham Common) for a comedy western the like of which British cinema had never seen before and probably hasn't seen since! Carry On Cowboy was the perfect demonstration of the series' growing confidence at parody and pastiche following the huge success of their previous effort, the glorious Carry On Cleo. With all but Jim Dale and Charles Hawtrey attempting American accents and many of the cast demonstrating their skill in the saddle (as it were) there were many actors present living out some fantasies in this wonderful film.

Peter Butterworth was cast for the very first time in a Carry On, as Stodge City's resident medical man, known simply as Doc. Doc, as with many of Peter's roles in the films, was a supporting part, playing second fiddle to the likes of Sid James or Kenneth Williams. In this outing, he runs around pulling the most exquisite of comedy faces behind Stodge's Mayor, Kenneth Williams. Unlike some of the other regulars, Peter doesn't appear to have worked for Peter Rogers Productions in other films before graduating to a role in the main team. He did work briefly for Peter's wife Betty Box in the 1963 comedy, Doctor in Distress, playing an Ambulance Driver, but that seems to be it. I wonder how the casting was decided upon? Whatever the reason, Peter had been a recognisable face in films since the late 1940s and a beloved children's entertainer on television during the 1950s alongside his wife, actress Janet Brown. He fitted in with the Carry On team perfectly. 

Carry On Cowboy tells the story of a peaceful town way out west which is suddenly turned upside down by the arrival of the roguish scoundrel, The Rumpo Kid, played by the magnificent Sidney James. Kenneth Williams' Judge Burke is horrified by Rumpo's hard drinking, womanising, criminal ways and sends for a new U.S Peace Marshall. In true Carry On style, there is a farcical mishap in Washington DC and instead of an able new law enforcer, Stodge City gets Marshall P Knutt, an innocent sanitary engineer from England (Jim Dale). 

The story is a simple one. It's good versus bad, Jim versus Sid as the locals look on. It's comedically brilliant, fast moving, energetic and takes a few risks. And I love it. The regular team of Sid, Kenneth Williams, Charles Hawtrey and Joan Sims are joined by Jim Dale in his first main starring role, following a series of eye catching supporting turns. There are also several new faces in the cast including Angela Douglas, in the first of four roles, as Annie Oakley and Bernard Bresslaw as the native Indian, Little Heap. And of course Peter Butterworth himself, providing beautiful support as Doc. 

Peter pops in and out of the action throughout the film, usually as part of the gaggle of locals led by Kenneth Williams and rancher Sam, played wonderfully by character actor Sydney Bromley. Peter has immediate chemistry with Kenneth Williams which the film makers would exploit again over the years, particularly as the fabulously villainous duo in Don't Lose Your Head. As with many of Peter's parts he contributes little to the actual narrative of the film, such as it is, with Jim Dale, Angela Douglas and Sid James driving most of the action and taking the majority of the screen time.

However without the supporting cast of thoroughbred comedy actors like Peter Butterworth, these films would be nothing. Each and every film during the series' prime featured a rogue's gallery of comedy grotesques and I mean that in the very nicest way possible. Peter, trained in rep and all manner of stage productions up and down the country, was always throwing in a bit of business, be it a comedic glance, some physical comedy or an unexpected reaction shot. Although we've been told time and time again that improvisation wasn't really tolerated on the Carry Ons, it must have been hard to avoid with such a talented actor like Peter Butterworth in the cast. He just couldn't stop himself!

Peter obviously impressed Peter Rogers and Gerald Thomas with his supporting turn in Carry On Cowboy as it was the film which began a working relationship of nearly fifteen years. Butterworth was a beloved member of the cast with even the picky, hard to please Kenneth Williams becoming a close friend and admirer. The pair enjoyed informed, erudite conversations on set between shots and the friendship endured. For me, the arrival of Peter Butterworth at Pinewood was one of the most important moments in the series' history. 

Stay tuned for my next blog on Peter's Carry On roles, with my thoughts on his performance as Detective Constable Slobotham in the superb 1966 film, Carry On Screaming.

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