Tuesday 16 April 2019

Remembering the talented Carol White

The actress Carol White was a rare talent. Not only did she successfully make the transfer from child actor to grown up, fully fledged star, much like her Carry On Teacher co-star Richard O'Sullivan, Carol was also that precious commodity of the era - a genuine working class heroine. Sadly Carol has been gone now for almost thirty years and it's probably true to say she's no longer remembered by many as she so definitely should be. 

Born in Hammersmith in London in 1943, Carol's life did not work out to plan. The dizzying heights she achieved in the 1960s and early 1970s were not to last and nor was her promise as an actress. I don't want to dwell on her private life as it seems prurient and unfair, instead I think we should focus on her talent and what she did achieve before circumstances took her on a different path. Carol, like Richard, Judy and Sally Geeson and Susan George, attended the famous Corona Academy in West London. Here she learned her craft as an actress while also attending to other aspects of her education. At the same time as her schooling and training, White began attending auditions and taking small parts in film and television productions. 

Three years before she played Sheila in Carry On Teacher, Carol worked for Peter Rogers and Gerald Thomas in one of their earliest collaborations, the Children's Film Foundation production, Circus Friends. This family drama told the story of a circus coming to town and the children helping to make the circus a success against a background of rising costs and trouble with local farmers. The cast also included Sam Kydd, John Horsley and Mona Washbourne. Carol played Nan and so impressed Gerald Thomas she was given a sizeable role as one of the errant Maudlin Street kids in Teacher in 1959. Carol's sister Jane also appeared in Teacher playing another pupil, Irene.

Carol popped up, mainly uncredited, in many classic British films of the 1950s as a child actor. There were small roles in two Doctor comedies - In The House in 1954 and At Sea a year later. She also played a school girl in two St Trinian's films - Belles, also in 1954 and Blue Murder in 1957. Other small parts included small roles in An Alligator Named Daisy (1955); Moby Dick (1956) and The 39 Steps in 1959. An early starring role came along the following year when Carol was cast in the film Linda. Playing the title character, the film is a teen drama, focussing on the relationship of a young couple played by White and future Coronation Street actor Alan Rothwell (he'd go on to play David Barlow later the same year). The film tackles prescient teen issues like sex before marriage and gang crime and violence. Apparently Linda has been unseen for decades and the print is currently lost, which is a dreadful shame.

The 1960s saw Carol branch out into television and bigger parts in film. She appeared in a very early episode of The Avengers, playing Jackie in the 1961 episode "Brought to Book". The same year Carol appeared in an episode of Armchair Theatre, entitled "A Head Full of Crocodiles." The hour long play starred Donald Churchill. Other roles in television included a guest part as Winifred Norton in the 1964 police drama series Gideon's Way, which starred John Gregson. Carol also had a recurring part as Jessie Miller in the hospital-set continuing drama Emergency Ward 10 in 1966. However by the mid 1960s Carol's career had really started to take off, mainly thanks to her collaboration with two highly influential figures.

In 1965, Carol was cast in the first of three Wednesday Plays she would appear in over the course of a year. Up The Junction was written by Nell Dunn and directed by Ken Loach. It told the story of three young working class women in South London and featured themes such as sex, abortion and both work and family life for people the small screen was only just beginning to discover. Carol played Sylvie in the play and it was a massive step in the right direction. The television play went on to become a film three years later, although Carol was not part of the cast. Carol worked for Ken Loach again the following year in another Wednesday Play and this one is still remembered today for its gritty portrayal of life on the streets in 1960s Britain. Cathy Come Home, written by Jeremy Sandford (who was at one point married to Nell Dunn), tells the story of an ordinary young woman who, through difficult circumstances loses her home, her husband (Ray Brooks) and eventually has her child taken into care. Filmed in a documentary style, it was an unflinching portrayal of what life was really like for many faced with the uncertainties and lack of flexibility in the British welfare state at the time. Nothing quite like Cathy Come Home had ever been seen on the television before and it left a lasting impact.

Buoyed by this success, Carol was now a British star. Courted by many, she chose to work once again with Ken Loach and Nell Dunn the following year in the film Poor Cow. Co-starring Terence Stamp, the film tells the story of a young woman who makes a series of bad choices in life. She's in a relationship with an abusive young man who turns to crime and ends up in prison. Left alone with a child, Carol's character Joy soon takes up with his friend, but his life follows the same path as her husband and it sets her on a spiral of bad relationships and dubious choices. Later that year Carol worked for Michael Winner in a very different kind of film. I'll Never Forget What's'isname is all about London in the swinging sixties. Starring the likes of Orson Welles, Oliver Reed, Marianne Faithfull, Edward Fox and Wendy Craig, Winner's film focusses on Reed's frustrated young advertising executive Andrew Quint.

In 1968 Carol was lured to Hollywood, first of all to play the lead in Mark Robson's film Daddy's Gone A-Hunting. Carol plays Cathy Palmer, a young British woman who moves to San Francisco to begin a new life. She soon becomes romantically involved with a young man called Kenneth Daly (Scott Hylands) however she then becomes pregnant and deciding she doesn't want to be with Kenneth, breaks off their engagement and her an abortion. The rest of the film deals with the implications of these decisions as she marries again and wants to start a family. Carol soon decided to make her home in Los Angeles and to begin with, major film parts came her way. There was the Dean Martin Western, Something Big in 1971, as well as Dulcima, which saw Carol co-star with British actor John Mills. The following year she also led the cast of Made, a drama telling the story of a young single mother and her fraught relationship with an insecure rock star, played by Roy Harper.

Sadly, difficulties in Carol's private life meant that her career faded by the mid-1970s. Carol did have a large supporting role in a British film, The Squeeze in 1977. Directed by Michael Apted and written by Minder creator Leon Griffiths, The Squeeze is a tale of a violent gang who kidnap a woman and her daughter to extort money from her rich husband. Carol stars alongside Stacy Keach, Edward Fox and David Hemmings in perhaps another film which deserves to see the light of day once again. Based in London again, Carol made one final attempt to get her career back on track, working again with the writer Nell Dunn. In 1981 she starred in Dunn's play Steaming in London's West End at the Comedy Theatre. Sadly, despite publicity from the play and a biography of White which was published at the same time, Carol struggled to stay afloat and unable to revive her acting career, returned to America for the rest of her life. 

Carol was married three times during her life and had two sons from her first marriage. She died at the young age of just 48 in September 1991, in Florida. There have been several different reports on what led to her early death but that material is for a different blog. I just think it's such a terrible shame and a very sad loss, particularly to her family and all of us, the audience, who were robbed of what might have been. Such early promise and such a shining, original talent sadly did not come to fruition in later life. Still, at least we have several memorable screen performances from Carol White's wonderful mid-1960s career peak to enjoy. 

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  1. Fabulous Graeme, thanks for all that detail. She was a great actress and a natural talent x

  2. Another great blog. I've just been studying Cathy Come Home again, still one of the most powerful and confronting dramas ever. I think Carol's own children also featured, which made the improvised scene at the end when they're forcibly taken away all the more real.

    I had no idea of Carol's Carry On connection. Keep up the fantastic work.

    1. Oh thank you George, I appreciate it. Glad you enjoyed the blog.

  3. Watched poor cow on talking pictures last night a great film gritty witty and true to the time .carol was a natural talent

  4. One of the great British actresses.

  5. I loved her in Dulcimer with the late sir John mills she will always be remembered I watched all of her films she was brilliant

  6. She’s my favourite actress a beautiful lady Iv seen all her films a sad loss

  7. My grandfather ran an antique stall in London's Portobello Road in the 1970's and 1960's and I used to spend a lot of time up there and I recall being introduced to Jane who ran the stall next door. Jane was Carol White's sister.