Monday 21 December 2020

Remembering Rosalind Knight


It was announced yesterday that the actress Rosalind Knight had died at the age of 87. A firm favourite with fans of classic comedy, Rosalind appeared in two of the very early black and white Carry On films in the late 1950s. She was one of the few tangible links to these gentle comedy films of the past and we all mourn her passing.

As with every actor who appeared in the Carry Ons however, there was so much more to the career of Rosalind Knight than her Carry On roles. Despite the headlines labelling her ‘Carry On actress’, which of course she was during late 1958 and early 1959, Rosalind enjoyed a diverse career in comedy and drama; film, television and the stage, over seven decades. Even though she had an early brush with Britain’s most famous and long running film comedy franchise, she was clearly not pigeonholed or typecast. All power to her for that.

Rosalind Knight was a completely unique performer. She played such a variety of character roles across all mediums yet was always eye-catching. She was never one to blend into the background. Coming from a respected theatrical family – her father was the actor Esmond Knight, her mother the comedienne Frances Clare and her stepmother the actress Nora Swinburne – Rosalind devoted her life to the theatrical profession. The line has continued too, following her marriage to the theatre director Michael Elliott in 1959, the couple had two daughters, the actress Susannah Elliott-Knight and the theatre director Marianne Elliott. Marianne is married to the actor Nick Sidi.

It was Knight’s father who first sparked Rosalind’s desire to become an actress. Taking her to see productions at the Old Vic in 1949, Rosalind was left spellbound and from that point on, taking to the stage was all she wanted to do. She soon won a place at the Old Vic Theatre School and trained there for the next two years – one of her tutors was the legendary George Devine, who would go on to create the renowned Royal Court Theatre. Working her way up through repertory theatre in England, she played various small parts and worked in the role of Assistant Stage Manager. During this time the young Rosalind worked alongside another future great of the theatre, a certain Joe Orton. Years later, Rosalind would appear in Orton’s play What the Butler Saw as Mrs Prentice and even go on to play the role of a RADA Judge in the 1987 film about Orton’s life, Prick Up Your Ears.

Rosalind’s first substantial film part came in 1957 when she was cast as Annabel, one of the infamous grown up school girls in the film Blue Murder at St Trinian’s. With a cast including Joyce Grenfell, Terry-Thomas, George Cole, Alastair Sim, Richard Wattis and Lionel Jeffries, this was clearly a big turning point in Rosalind’s career. One of her fellow school girls was another future Carry On actress, Dilys Laye. I am quite sure Rosalind’s role in this film led to her being cast in Carry On Nurse the following year. Nurse, the second film in the Carry On series and the first of the films with a medical theme, saw Rosalind appear in the small but striking role as accident prone student nurse Nightingale. Filming her scenes with Susan Beaumont and Ann Firbank, Rosalind’s brief scenes are a high point and it was clear to see she was a natural fit with the very British brand of comedy these early Carry Ons achieved.

In the spring of 1959, Rosalind joined the Carry On team once more, this time for a starring role, billed with the main team, as the rather severe and haughty school inspector Felicity Wheeler in Carry On Teacher. She shines here in a chalk and cheese comedy partnership with fellow inspector, none other than Leslie Phillips. Teacher is pretty innocent compared to many of the later series entries and remains a cosy favourite for many fans. It boasts a superb cast – Kenneths Connor and Williams, Hattie Jacques, Joan Sims, Charles Hawtrey and guest star Ted Ray – and a brilliant cast of young actors (Richard O’Sullivan and Carol White among them) mainly hired from the Corona Academy. One of the main strands of Teacher is the melting of Felicity Wheeler’s harsh exterior as she falls for the accident prone, hapless science teacher, marvellously played by Kenneth Connor. Rosalind and Kenneth have wonderful on screen chemistry and it’s just a shame they didn’t work together again. Although she did not appear in any further Carry Ons, Rosalind was always kind to fans of the series and attended several conventions later in her career. She also appeared in a celebration of all things Carry On, Carry On Forever, in 2015, which saw her back at the location used for Maudlin Street School in Carry On Teacher. It was a joy to see her reminisce.

Further film roles included that of Mrs Fitzpatrick in the Oscar winning 1963 picture Tom Jones, which starred Albert Finney, Susannah York and another actress who would go on to Carry On fame – Patsy Rowlands. Rosalind appeared in a variety of films throughout the rest of her career, including such diverse titles as Eskimo Nell (1975); The Wildcats of St Trinian’s (1980); Afraid of the Dark (1991); About a Boy (2001) and The Lady in the Van (2015). Perhaps a more prolific television performer, Rosalind took many guest parts in a wide variety of familiar shows across several decades. She popped up in, amongst others: Mapp and Lucia (1985); a particularly memorable guest role as a landlady in Only Fools and Horses in 1989; two episodes of Midsomer Murders (2003 and 2011); the daytime soap opera Doctors in 2005 and 2009); Poirot in 1992; Heartbeat (2000); Casualty (2002) and Sherlock in 2012. Based in Manchester for many years, it is therefore no surprise that Rosalind also appeared in several Granada Television productions – most notably Coronation Street in 1981 and Sherlock Holmes three years later.

Perhaps Rosalind’s most famous (or should that be infamous) television creation was that of retired prostitute Beryl Merit and elderly landlady of 69 Paradise Passage in the BBC2 sitcom Gimme Gimme Gimme. The series, written by Jonathan Harvey and starring Kathy Burke and James Dreyfus, won great acclaim and still enjoys a loyal following. This series introduced Rosalind to a whole new generation of fans. Yet again proving she was above any form of typecasting, her role as Beryl saw Rosalind dabble in innuendo even the Carry Ons wouldn’t have dreamt up – at one point Beryl was involved in shop lifting, bootlegging and even worked as an escort…Fondly recalled by her co-stars yesterday on Twitter, it is clear Kathy Burke and James Dreyfus loved working with Rosalind.

Before I end, I wanted to write a little about Rosalind’s strong links to Manchester and in particular, the Royal Exchange Theatre in that great city. Rosalind acted on stage throughout her career in a wide range of productions, most notably at the Royal Court, the Old Vic and the Royal Exchange. Her theatre career saw her work alongside actors of the calibre of Vanessa Redgrave, Arthur Lowe, Rex Harrison and her own father, Esmond. After her marriage to Michael Elliott in 1959, she worked alongside him to develop the Royal Exchange Theatre during the 1970s. Elliott became one of the founding directors and a driving force behind many important productions there until his death in 1984. Rosalind continued her close allegiance with the Exchange and appeared in productions there from the late 1970s right through until the late 1990s, when she was directed by her daughter Marianne in a production of Noel Coward’s Nude With Violin.

Rosalind continued to work right up until this year, with more recent parts on screen including a guest role in The Crown and a recurring part as ‘Horrible Grandma Goodman’ in the hit Channel 4 comedy, Friday Night Dinner.

Her family paid warm tributes to Rosalind yesterday when her death was announced. The outpouring of sadness and affection for Rosalind Knight on Twitter and in the press shows just how widely she was celebrated, both within the profession she so dearly loved and by fans of all generations.

Friday 11 December 2020

Remembering Dame Barbara Windsor

Dame Barbara Windsor has passed away at the age of 83. A cliché of course, but Barbara was someone you could imagine being around forever. Made public in 2018, her battle with Alzheimer’s disease was a cruel end to a life so full of energy, humour and passion. Barbara fought it bravely, in character with the way she lived her life. Gutsy, determined, full of spirit. And all with her beloved husband Scott by her side.

Barbara Windsor wasn’t my favourite Carry On star. She grabbed many of the headlines over the years and had a firm place in all our affections, but for me Joan Sims and Hattie Jacques were my leading Carry On ladies. I admired Barbara more for her other work – and there was so much of it. She was a grafter who endured many ups and downs during a professional life which spanned seven decades. She will forever be known for her nine Carry On films and her long run as pub landlady and fierce East End matriarch Peggy Mitchell in EastEnders. There was much more to Barbara than that.

Barbara made her name as part of Joan Littlewood’s famous Theatre Workshop troupe of actors, based at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East. Barbara rose to fame there, becoming Joan’s ‘Little Bird’. Starring in Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’be and Oh! What a Lovely War, she was a sensation. Her association with Joan led to her big screen break in Sparrows Can’t Sing in 1963. From there, film comedy stardom beckoned.

Barbara’s mother had started it all. Sending her daughter for elocution lessons, this led to training at the famous Aida Foster School. 1952 saw Barbara make her West End debut in the musical Love From Judy – where she first met fellow comedy legend Dame June Whitfield. Barbara stayed in the chorus for two years. Early film roles soon followed, including that of a school girl in 1954’s The Belles of St Trinian’s, a young girl in the chemist’s in Lost (1956), a switchboard operator in Make Mine a Million (1959) and Mavis in On The Fiddle in 1961. Each of these films brought her into contact with future Carry On co-stars. At the same time, Barbara was appearing in cabaret at Winston’s nightclub in London’s West End, alongside another future star – Amanda Barrie.

Barbara first joined the Carry On team in 1964 when she played super spy Daphne Honeybutt in Carry On Spying. She was a breath of fresh air for the series and for me, this first role is her best performance in the films. It mixes saucy humour and a certain knowingness with a sweetness and innocence which was lost in later entries. She also looks absolutely stunning in Alan Hume’s crisp black and white photography. She holds her own in Spying opposite more experienced, male comedy actors in Kenneth Williams, Charles Hawtrey and Bernard Cribbins. All three men would become lifelong friends to Barbara.

Indeed, Kenneth and Barbara were inseparable and in many ways similar characters. So close were they that Kenneth, his sister Pat and mother Louie even joined Barbara on her honeymoon abroad in 1964. Such stories are the stuff of legend for Carry On fans. Although the ideal fit for the Carry Ons, it would be a further three years before she appeared again with the famous comedy team. Returning for a supporting role as Nurse Sandra May in Carry On Doctor, her status as a comedy icon was confirmed. Barbara, dolled up in her nurses uniform mincing up to Peter Gilmore, Bernard Bresslaw or Sid James for a bout of obvious innuendo are images forever imbedded in the nation’s psyche.

Perhaps her most famous Carry On role remains that of the cheeky overgrown schoolgirl Babs in Carry On Camping. The classic, oft replayed exercise sequence with Kenneth Williams and Hattie Jacques’ Matron is part of cinematic history. It gains a reaction from audiences no matter how many times we’ve all seen it. Barbara always talked fondly (if also realistically) about making these low budget films and to her credit, even though for much of her life she was type-cast by them, she never forgot them or her wonderful co-stars. After many of her Carry On colleagues had passed away, Barbara became the main focal point of love and affection for the Carry Ons. As the films became popular and even fashionable again with younger generations, she was a tangible link to the past and never shied away from that. A Carry On ambassador in the 21st century.

If anything was going to eclipse the Carry On image, it was her brave career move to the BBC soap opera EastEnders in 1994. Following several years in the wilderness – summer seasons and the odd television guest role – Barbara was back in the public eye. And for many, it was a surprise to see Barbara flexing her serious acting muscles in the role of Peggy Mitchell. She challenged our perceptions of that fluffy Carry On image by putting in some heart breaking dramatic performances, never less than when her character was diagnosed with breast cancer. Barbara was never afraid of taking a risk or pushing herself and her EastEnders character provoked strong reactions on occasion. She was a star all over again, winning awards for her portrayal of such a strong woman. In retrospect, the role had been waiting for her all her working life.

Departing EastEnders for good back in 2016, her farewell was poignant and final. We did not yet know the serious battle she was facing in real life too. Courageous, steadfast, determined, feisty but with a heart of gold. Barbara was old school showbiz, revered by colleagues old and new. Her final battle may have taken her from us but her light will never be dimmed. She was a national treasure, a one-off, a star who transcended generations and genres. The very best of British. Our Babs.