Wednesday 16 January 2019

Butterworth Carries On … As Slobotham!

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.

After my first blog in the series last week on Peter's debut in Carry On Cowboy, today we're moving on to the film which started production at Pinewood the following January, over fifty years ago. Carry On Screaming has gone down in British cinema history as not just one of the finest Carry Ons ever made but one of the best horror comedies ever produced in the UK. A pastiche of the wildly popular Hammer Horror films, then at their peak, Screaming sends up these scary classics as only the team could. The production values are superb, from costumes to set dressing and even the appearance of a couple of classic motorcars. The script is one of Rothwell's finest and the performances from the team are second to none. Throw in a couple of excellent guest actors in Harry H Corbett and the superb late lamented Fenella Fielding and you surely have one of the best Carry Ons ever made.

Screaming tells the story of a mysterious and creepy brother and sister who send their towering monster Oddbod into the local woods to kidnap young ladies who are then vitrified into tailor shop dummies! One such unfortunate is Doris Mann, out courting with Albert Potter. When Potter takes the disappearance of his girlfriend to the local police, police detectives Bung and Slobotham decide to investigate. As always the plot takes second place to the comedy situations and performances and Screaming doesn't disappoint. With Corbett, Fielding and Williams grabbing most of the screen time and Jim Dale once again int he role of romantic hero, Screaming also excels with its supporting cast of typical rogues gallery favourites. Joan Sims is on fine form as Corbett's nagging wife Emily while Bernard Bresslaw and a certain Peter Butterworth both return for their second outings with the gang. With the action focussed so much on the aforementioned stars, the likes of Charles Hawtrey and Angela Douglas have smaller parts than usual but as ever the more familiar faces involved the better.

So what about Peter's performance as Slobotham? Quite frankly I think it's one of Peter's greatest Carry On appearances. Still hovering down the cast list with the focus on Dale, Williams and Fielding, Peter still manages to grab more screen time than some of his other Carry On roles and he never misses an opportunity to make the most of it. First of all, I think Peter and Harry H Corbett are a revelation together. Given that the role was pretty much written for Sid James, who in the end couldn't join the film, Harry plays the part of Sidney Bung to perfection and the double act with Peter is a complete and utter joy. Much comedy fumbling and idiocy ensues as the ineffective policemen fail to spot obvious clues. Despite this and of course because we have great affection for these actors and their characters, the audience still roots for them right to the very end.

As with many of his other roles, Peter is the everyman character in Screaming. He's often in the background and is constantly reacting to events and the performances of other actors. And this is where Butterworth excels as a visual comedy performer. That face! I mean really. It's a face created for this kind of comedy. I'm sure there were plenty of ad-libs from Peter in this film, despite so many stories that Gerald Thomas didn't allow them. With an actor like Peter, he just couldn't help himself. He was firing on all cylinders in this film and clearly having a ball. The sheer skill of the man is proved time and time again as no matter who is on screen with him and no matter what they are doing, you end up watching Peter's classic reactions, be they very physical business with the old car in the woods or just the merest flicker of an eye. He never misses a trick and that's why he's worth his weight in comedy gold.

The scene where Harry and Peter deliberate over clues with the blackboard and chalk in the police station is pure nursery humour. In the hands of others it would fall completely flat, but with Butterworth in particular on board, it's hilarious and a classic Carry On moment. I also love his reaction when he, together with Harry and JIm turn up at the Watt mansion for the first time and are greeted by the menacing sight of Bernard Bresslaw's butler. He doesn't need to do very much to achieve instant laughter from the audience, and in saying that he's competing with two outstanding comedy performers in the form of Harry H Corbett and Jim Dale. This scene leads into the wonderful exchange with Kenneth Williams' twitching Orlando with some excellent fast, revue-like word play as Bung and Slobotham look for evidence. Expertly played by a collection of handpicked, hugely experienced performers. Actors like Peter really do make it look so effortless and easy and therein lies the skill of the man.

I think the climax of Peter's role in Carry On Screaming is his wonderful drag sequence as he and Sergeant Bung attempt to catch the mysterious monster in the woods. With Peter's Slobotham dolled up like "a bag of nutty slack"! the pair make their way to woods to pretend to be a courting couple. With Jim Dale also in situ on the hunt of the creature and Joan Sims' suspicious wife also on their trail, what could possibly go wrong?! Unlike some actors, Peter clearly revels in being done up in drag, possibly reminiscent of so many of his great roles in pantomime. Butterworth makes the perfect drag act for a Carry On as he's so obviously a man it just makes it completely hilarious, much like Bernard Bresslaw in Carry On Girls. When Slobotham is kidnapped and taken back for vitrification the whole story comes to a climax as Bung and Potter come to his rescue. As the trio fend off the gruesome monsters, Peter once again indulges in some inspired horseplay, still in his corsets and unconvincing wig! 

Of course all ends well as it must do in Carry On land. Kenneth Williams' evil Dr Watt is himself vitrified, Jim Dale's handsome hero is reunited with his girlfriend, 'that man Doris' and Harry's Sidney Bung gets his wife back, although perhaps she's just not the woman she once was. And Fenella's Valeria takes on a new role as Bung's sexy housekeeper! Who knows what happened to Peter's Slobotham as he isn't present in the final scene which is a shame. 

Despite that, Peter's role in Carry On Screaming remains a triumph and no doubt solidified his position as the go-to man for priceless supporting turns. He fitted in so well with the established Carry On team and very quickly became such a fan favourite. Peter would be back in another significant supporting role in the very next film in the series, as the unforgettable Citizen Bidet opposite Kenneth Williams' Camembert in Don't Lose Your Head. My blog on that role and that film coming up next! 

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