Monday 4 February 2019

Butterworth Carries On … As Bidet

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.

Follow on from my first two blogs in this series on Peter's roles in Carry On Cowboy and Screaming, today I'm looking at his performance as the conniving if slightly slow-witted CItizen Bidet in the 1966 film, Don't Lose Your Head. This French Revolution romp was an important picture for Peter Rogers Productions as it was the transition film in many ways. After parting company with Anglo Amalgamated earlier that year, Peter signed on with The Rank Organisation as the Carry On films' distributor. However Rank were not keen on using the Carry On moniker as it linked the series too much with their rival, Anglo. Hence why the film was released in the first instance simply as Don't Lose Your Head. After this entry and the next in the series performed less well at the box office, they were both re-released with the Carry On title and took off up the charts! Given that the films were made by the same crew, written by the same writer and starred many of the same faces, it was surely only a matter of time.

Don't Lose Your Head is another costume heavy, period comedy parody, sending up films like The Scarlet Pimpernel. The film pitches goodies versus baddies and English versus French as landed gentry Sir Rodney Ffing and Lord Darcy (Sid James and Jim Dale) head to France and the guillotine to rescue their French aristocratic counterparts, including the foppish Duke de Pommefrite (Charles Hawtrey). Much of the film sees the enraged and increasingly deranged revolutionary leader Citizen Camembert attempting to unfrock the English Master of Disguise and this cat and mouse game is very funny when it's Sid pitched against the high camp of Kenneth Williams. It's a glorious film full of delicious performances, brilliant sets and locations, cracking costumes and plenty of action. 

So what about Peter Butterworth's role in proceedings? Peter grabs one of his most substantial supporting turns in Don't Lose Your Head. As with his other roles to date, Peter is playing second in command as part of a hugely successful double act. This time he's partnering Kenneth Williams and as the toadying CItizen Bidet, Butterworth excels. Kenneth always wrote very fondly of Peter in his diaries and it's clear there was a great deal of affection between the two actors. No mean feat really, given how picky Williams could be. As Bidet, Peter is on fine comedic form as the snivelling, grovelling Bidet, constantly muttering on about 'the glorious new French Republic'. The timing and exchanges between the two actors is consistently sublime and really makes the film.

When Camembert and Bidet are joined by their third wheel, the pretty but ditzy, high pitched Desiree Dubarry (Joan Sims), we're all set for a delicious romp. Joan's first scene is pure high camp with comedic misunderstandings and Peter's drooling underling unable to keep his eyes off her. When the three French baddies go rather unconvincingly undercover in England in a bid to trap Sid's 'Black Fingernail' we are treated to some rather lavish (for a Carry On) scene at Sir Rodney's ball (yes, 'you've always had magnificent balls…and I wouldn't miss one of them'). With Bidet sent to trap the Fingernail in action we are treated to Peter's brilliantly inspired range of funny faces and delightful sight gags. He never misses a trick or an opportunity to pull a face in the background, upstaging his co-stars. When those stars are Sid, Joan and Kenneth Williams, you can understand that it takes a supremely talented comedy actor to achieve this! And that's what Peter was. 

Being a true professional, Peter throws himself into all manner of scrapes, being bashed over the head, falling into mucky ponds and basically enduring whatever the script demanded. One of my favourite scenes sees Bidet fooled by Sir Rodney into thinking Robespierre (Peter Gilmore) has instructed that Camembert is actually the Black Fingernail in disguise. This set up sees Butterworth and Williams in a wonderful comedy of misunderstandings, bickering and slapstick which defines them as the closest the Carry Ons ever got to the work of Laurel and Hardy. Yes, I think as a double act they are that good. Kenneth and Peter imbue their characters with so much comedic charm that the audience loves to hate them. We may even feel a touch of sympathy for the pathetic Bidet and all he endures at the hands of the nasal, camp Cammy. 

The climax of Don't Lose Your Head, and as all fans know, every Carry On needs a big climatic sequence, sees Camembert's country pad in lockdown as Sir Rodney attempts to rescue the lovely Jacqueline (French actress Dany Robin) from Camembert's fiendish clutches. While you could argue this final scene goes on a tad too long, it does provide plenty of spectacular action, stunts and set pieces as Sid, Jim and Charles Hawtrey takes on Kenneth's men and destroy his precious home and priceless artefacts in the process. Even Kenneth Williams struggles to maintain the momentum as he flings himself about the place clutches smashed porcelain and slashed chairs. He does have one lovely moment though when he runs nostrils first in a harp! 

Peter has a running gag (literally) throughout this sequence as he continually fails to come to Camembert's aid. First of all he's pretty much blown up by an exploding front door, then he's continuously pushed behind said heavy door and squashed by a variety of opponents. Peter really did have a gift for physical comedy and in his safe hands he provides several big laughs which act as a counterpoint to some of Kenneth's overacting. Right at the end of the sequence, just when you think Bidet is coming good for his nasty boss, sadly he goes awry once again and single handedly demolishes the palace. As Sid leads the rest of them to safety, Camembert and Bidet run up the stairs clutching bits of furniture for protection!

All is well in Carry On Land as Sid and Jim win the day. Sadly though for Camembert and Bidet there is an unpleasant final twist as the two snivelling wretches go to the guillotine. In a final flourish the executioner is revealed to be none other than Sid James as the Black Fingernail. With his characteristic chuckle he pulls the leaver and it's goodnight Vienna! A fairly gruesome end really, for a comedy at least if you think about it. Don't Lose Your Head is always up there as a favourite for me. I think it's production values raise it up to a different level, much like Screaming or Cleo. A lot of that is down to it's period costume setting. Several key players are missing - there's no Bernard Bresslaw, Barbara Windsor, Kenneth Connor or Hattie Jacques - but the handpicked cast of favourites do a sterling job and Peter puts in one of the most consistently funny performances. He really did work terribly hard for his laughs in so many of his Carry On roles. Lots of physical comedy, face pulling and inspired reactions to other lines and funny situations. Always a true pro.

So there we have it, my take on Peter Butterworth's glorious turn as Citizen Bidet in Don't Lose Your Head. Coming up next is my blog on Peter's role as Simpson, manservant to Bo West in the Foreign Legion Carry On caper, Follow That Camel.

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