Thursday, 2 May 2019

Butterworth Carries On … As Mr Smith

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 blogs in this series on Peter's roles in Carry On Cowboy, Screaming Don't Lose Your Head and Follow That Camel today I'm looking at Peter's performance in the classic Carry On Doctor, made in 1967. 

Carry On Doctor is one of my favourite Carry Ons. The films seemed to lend themselves so well to the hospital setting and Doctor, Talbot Rothwell's tribute to Norman Hudis' iconic Carry On Nurse almost ten years earlier, features the gang firing on all cylinders. Following a trend for period costume Carry Ons (Cowboy, Screaming, Don't Lose Your Head etc) the team were back in the present day for this romp through the wards. Almost all the regular faces of the era feature in the film. Only Kenneth Connor who was at the time on a break from the series, does not appear. It is an absolute joy to see Sid James and Hattie Jacques return to the fold after previous absences; to see Jim Dale take centre stage as the romantic, bumbling hero of the piece; Kenneth Williams on sublime pompous villainous form as Dr Tinkle (!) and the likes of Bernard Bresslaw, Dilys Laye and Charles Hawtrey bring the wards to life. Throw in a delightful cameo role from Joan Sims and a stunning guest starring performance from Frankie Howerd and you have near perfection!  

The basic plot of the film sees the patients of the hospital revolt after the fiendish team of Matron, Dr Tinkle and Sister Hoggett (June Jago) rule over the wards for too long, culminating in the axing of popular Doctor Kilmore (Dale). It's a lovely story that allows the audience to root for the underdog. Of course all is well in the end and the film comes to a satisfying conclusion. Rothwell includes some lovely references to Carry On Nurse, no better than the infamous daffodil sequence which is joyfully brought back to life briefly by Frankie and Valerie Van Ost. Watch out also for a framed portrait of the brilliant James Robertson Justice in character as Sir Lancelot Spratt - it is between the lifts in the hospital foyer. This is of course a tribute to the Doctor series of films, a franchise to which the Carry Ons owe a debt of gratitude. The Doctor films were produced by Peter Rogers' wife Betty Box and directed by Ralph Thomas, brother of Gerald. Peter sought permission to make Carry On Doctor from his wife before going into production.

So what about Peter's role? 

In a cast bursting with talent Peter is given less screen time than his previous couple of outings with the gang. While this a shame, Butterworth still shines whenever he's given any kind of opportunity large or small. Only ever known as Mr Smith, no first name given, he is very much the everyman on the ward. He's there as part of the Greek chorus, reacting to the drama on the wards and the fiendish acts of the hospital senior staff. Peter blends in with his other male co-stars and adds real depth alongside Bresslaw, Hawtrey and James. He's given little to do but plays a full part in the climatic scenes which see the patients rise up and send a clear message to the crooked Dr Tinkle and Matron Lavinia!

Mr Smith's reason for being in hospital is never made particularly clear however for most of the film there are veiled references to a mysterious lump! He eventually has it off (as it were) but remains in the ward for a visit from his irritating wife, played by Jean St Clair in her only Carry On appearance. As she sits and witters on about this that and the other, she fails to take much interest in her husband as she even goes so far to scoff all the grapes she's brought in for him! Peter's farewell to his wife as she leaves is a thing of beauty, clutching the  bare stalk in his hand!

With much of the action revolving around Kenneth Williams, Hattie Jacques and Jim Dale and big name guest star Frankie Howerd grabbing most of the screen time, the likes of Charles Hawtrey, Joan Sims and Peter Butterworth are left to play second fiddle but in a cast where really only Kenneth Connor is missing it must have been hard to give everyone their fair share of funny lines in a film which barely ran to 90 minutes. Where Butterworth excels as ever is stealing scenes with the slightest glance, reaction shot or comedic mannerism. Even his reaction to dropping Kenneth's Dr Tinkle into the ice bath is played beautifully despite it only lasting a couple of seconds. Peter was a gift to these films and his natural flair for comedy and sense of what would make the audience laugh meant he stood out even when, as with Carry On Doctor, his part was fairly small and insignificant. In the hands of a lesser actor it wouldn't be remembered at all. 

Still, compared to his major supporting turns in Camel and Screaming, Butterworth fans may be disappointed by Doctor. Better is thankfully still to come as Peter's next two roles in the series are crackers. Stay tuned for my take on his turn as Brother Belcher in Carry On Up The Khyber coming up next!

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