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Charles Hawtrey
Born George Frederick Joffe Hartree
30 November 1914(1914-11-30)
Hounslow, Middlesex, England
Died 27 October 1988 (aged 73)
Deal, Kent, England
Occupation Actor
Years active 1922–1987

George Frederick Joffre Hartree (30 November 1914 – 27 October 1988), known as Charles Hawtrey, was an English comedy actor.

Beginning at a young age as a boy soprano, he made several records before moving onto the wireless. His later career encompassed the theatre (as both actor and director), the cinema (where he regularly appeared supporting Will Hay in the 1930s and 40s in films such as The Ghost of St Michaels), through the Carry On films, and television.

Contents

Life

Born in Hounslow, Middlesex, England in 1914, as George Frederick Joffre Hartree, he took his stage name from the theatrical knight, Sir Charles Hawtrey, and encouraged the suggestion that he was his son. However, his father was actually a London car mechanic.[1]

Hawtrey made an early start to a career that was to span a period of almost 60 years, and broke through in all the major entertainment media of the time. Following study at the Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts in London, he embarked on a career in the theatre as both actor and director. Finally he moved into the cinema where he regularly appeared supporting Will Hay in the 1930s and 40s in films such as The Ghost of St Michaels through the Carry On films, to the television screen.

Very little is known about Hawtrey's early years or later private life. He guarded his relationships very carefully, perhaps no surprise in an age where male homosexual behaviour in Britain was illegal and punishable by a prison sentence.[2] His outrageous drunken promiscuity however, did not portray homosexuality in a positive light to an unsympathetic world, and nor did his general demeanour and increasing eccentricity with those around him earn him many (if any) close friends.[1]

Nevertheless a few anecdotes told by his colleagues shed a little light on the character off-screen. Kenneth Williams recorded a visit to Deal where Hawtrey owned a house full of old brass bedsteads which the eccentric actor had hoarded, believing that "one day he would make a great deal of money from them".[3]

A lot of strain was put on him by his mother, who suffered senile dementia in later years. Another anecdote recounted by Williams[3] described how his mother's handbag caught fire when her cigarette ash fell in. Hawtrey, without batting an eyelid, poured a cup of tea into it to put out the flames, snapped the purse shut and continued with his story. His mother would also collect toilet rolls and on another visit to the studios blocked the women's toilets with paper. Hawtrey was also prone to such tendencies and again in his diaries, Williams recounted his gathering up of the leftover sandwiches from a buffet for the Carry On cast.[3]

In her autobiography, Barbara Windsor[4] wrote about Hawtrey's alcoholism, and his outrageous flirting with footballer George Best. While filming Carry On Spying she thought he had fainted from fright at a dramatic scene on a conveyor belt—in fact he had passed out because he was drunk. When he came on set with a crate of R. White's Lemonade, everyone knew that he had been on another heavy drinking binge. Nevertheless he was an integral face to the Carry On family, smoking Woodbines profusely and playing cards between takes with Sid James and his gang.[5]

Hawtrey finally retired to Deal in Kent in the 1980s, where he devoted much time to the consumption of alcohol. He cut an eccentric figure in the small town and was well known for promenading along the seafront in extravagant attire, waving cheerfully to the fishermen, and his frequenting of establishments patronised by students of the famous Royal Marine School of Music.[1]

He caused a news scandal in August 1984 when his house caught fire after he went to bed with a teenager and left a cigarette burning. Newspaper photos from the time show a fireman carrying an emotional, partially clothed and sans toupee Hawtrey down a ladder to safety. In October 1988, he was taken to hospital after breaking his leg in a fall in front of a public house. He was discovered to be suffering from peripheral vascular disease, a condition of the arteries brought on by a lifetime of heavy smoking. Hawtrey was told that in order to save his life, his legs would have to be amputated. He refused, allegedly saying he preferred to die with his boots on, and died almost a month later, aged 73. On his deathbed, Hawtrey supposedly threw a vase at his nurse who asked for a final autograph - it was the last thing he did. His ashes were scattered in Mortlake Crematorium, close to Chiswick in London and no friends or family attended.[1]

Film career (1922–1972)

Hawtrey acted in films from an early age, appearing in an impressive array of movies while still a boy, and as an adult his youthful appearance and wit made him an excellent foil to Will Hay's blundering old fool in the comedy films Good Morning, Boys (1937), Where's That Fire? (1939), The Ghost of St Michael's (1941) and The Goose Steps Out (1942). In all he appeared in over 70 films, including Hitchcock's Sabotage.

Hawtrey also took a hand at directing films himself, including in 1945 What Do We Do Now? a musical-mystery written by the English author George Cooper, and starring George Moon (later to be seen as Mr Giles in Carry on Dick). In 1945, Hawtrey directed the distinguished British actress Dame Flora Robson in Dumb Dora Discovers Tobacco.[6]

He became a leading participant in the Carry On series of films throughout the 1960s and 1970s, mostly playing characters that ranged from the wimpish through the effete to the effeminate. His last film was Carry On Abroad (1972), after which he was dropped from the series. Hawtrey's growing alcohol consumption, which had begun to noticeably worsen since Carry On Cowboy in 1965, was beginning to affect his work.

The last straw occurred in 1972 when, in a bid to finally gain higher billing, Hawtrey withdrew from a Carry On Christmas television programme in which he was scheduled to appear, giving just a few days' notice for his absence (and despite appearing in promotional material). After this, producer Peter Rogers stopped using him for Carry On roles.[5] Without these films, Hawtrey slipped into the relative obscurity of pantomime and provincial summer seasons, where he played heavily on his Carry On persona.

Filmography

Theatre career (1925 onwards)

Charles Hawtrey made his first appearance on the stage in Boscombe, on the English south coast, as early as 1925. At the age of 11 he played a street Arab in Frederick Bowyer's fairy play The Windmill Man.

His London stage debut followed a few years later when, at the age of 18, he appeared in yet another 'fairy extravaganza' this time at the Scala Theatre singing the role of the White Cat and Bootblack in the juvenile opera, Bluebell in Fairyland. The music for this popular show had been originally written by Walter Slaughter in 1901, with a book by Seymour Hicks (providing the inspiration for Barrie's Peter Pan).

Hawtrey continued to appear in a number of plays throughout the 1930s and 1940s in the run-up to the Second World War. In Peter Pan at the London Palladium in 1931 he played the First Twin, with leading parts taken by Jean Forbes-Robertson and George Curzon. This played in several regional theatres, including His Majesty's Theatre in Aberdeen, Scotland. Five years later in 1936 he played in a revival of the play, this time taking the bigger role of 'Slightly', alongside the celebrated husband-wife partnership of Elsa Lanchester and Charles Laughton (playing Peter and Hook respectively). A review in the Daily Telegraph newspaper commended him for having "a comedy sense not unworthy of his famous name"...

By 1937, Hawtrey was playing in Bats in the Belfry, a farce written by Diana Morgan and Robert MacDermott, and which opened at the Ambassadors Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, on 11 March. The cast included Ivor Barnard, and Dame Lilian Braithwaite, as well as the soon to be famous Vivien Leigh in the small part of Jessica Morton. The play ran for an impressive 178 performances, before moving to the Golders Green Hippodrome in Barnet on 16 August 1937.

In 1939, Hawtrey had another success, when he notably took the role of Gremio in Tyrone Guthrie's production of The Taming of the Shrew at the Old Vic, also earning favourable reviews. Roger Livesey starred as Petruchio and his wife, Ursula Jeans, as Katherine.

Hawtrey's rave notices in music revue continued for Eric Maschwitz's, New Faces (1940) at the Comedy Theatre in London, particularly for his "chic and finished study of an alluring woman spy". New Faces was particularly remembered for the premiere of the song, 'A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square', which quickly became a wartime favourite. During and after the Second World War he also appeared in the West End in such shows as Scoop, Old Chelsea, Merry England, Frou-Frou and Husbands Don’t Count. In 1948, he appeared in the celebrated Windmill Theatre, Soho in comedy sketches presented as part of "Revudeville".

Hawtrey also directed as many as 19 theatre plays, including Dumb Dora Discovers Tobacco at the Q Theatre in Richmond. Built on the Brentford side of Kew Bridge in 1924 (with 500 seats), over 1,000 plays were presented here until it was demolished in 1958. In 1945, Hawtrey also directed Oflag 3, a Second World War play co-written with Douglas Bader.

In the mid-1960s, Hawtrey performed in the British regional tour of the stage musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which also included his Carry On co-star Kenneth Connor.

By the 1970s, he was appearing in shows and pantomime, including Carry On Holiday Show-time and Snow White at the Gaiety Theatre, Rhyl in Wales (Summer 1970), Stop it Nurse at the Pavilion Theatre, Torquay (1972) and Snow White and the 7 Dwarfs again at the Theatre Royal, Nottingham, alongside Bryan Johnson, Syd Jackson and Dick Collins (April 1974).

Radio and music career (1930–85)

Charles Hawtrey was an accomplished musician (and had been a semi-professional pianist for the armed forces during WWII), and recorded several records as a boy soprano. He was billed as "The Angel-voiced Choirboy" even at the age of fifteen. In 1930, he made several duets with girl soprano Evelyn Griffiths (aged 11) for the Regal label.[5]

  • Hush Here Comes the Dream Man (Rec. 15 March 1930 - cond. Stanford Robinson).
  • I Don't Want to Play in Your Yard (Rec. 15 March 1930).
  • Home Sweet Home (Rec. 24 May 1930 - string quartet & Eustace Pett, organ, cond. Stanford Robinson).
  • Sweet and Low (Rec. 24 May 1930).
  • While Shepherds Watched (Rec. 13 September 1930 - string quartet & Muntel organ).
  • Hark the Herald Angels Sing (Rec. 13 September 1930)

By the 1940s, Hawtrey was appearing on radio during Children's Hour in the Norman and Henry Bones, The Boy Detectives series alongside the actress Patricia Hayes (first broadcast in 1943). Later he also played the voice of snooty Hubert Lane, the nemesis of William in the 'Just William' series. His catchphrase was "How's yer mother off for dripping?"

During the 1970s and 80s Hawtrey played parts in a series of radio plays, with Peter Jones, Lockwood West, and Bernard Bresslaw, for the BBC written by Wally K. Daly[7]:

  • Burglar's Bargains (1979) - A gang of crooks rob Harrod's. But they're not ordinary crooks.
  • A Right Royal Rip-off (1982) - A gang are planning to steal the crown jewels.
  • The Bigger They Are (1985) - The gang plan a robbery, giving the Mafia their comeuppance.

Morrissey was an admirer.[8] A 2001 article in the New Statesman claimed that in the early 1980s, The Smiths approached Hawtrey to sing on a new version of their debut single, "Hand in Glove". Hawtrey did not respond, says the article, and Morrissey had to go with his second choice Sandie Shaw.[9] Hawtrey's face, however, did appear posthumously on the cover of The Very Best of The Smiths in 2001, although the album and the cover art were criticised, and Morrissey later distanced himself from the album.

Television career (1956–87)

Hawtrey's television career began in the 1950s with The Army Game, where he played the part of Private 'Professor' Hatchett.

Loosely based on the 1956 movie Private's Progress, the series followed the fortunes of a mixed bag of army conscripts in residence at Hut 29 of the Surplus Ordnance Depot at Nether Hopping in remote Staffordshire. At the forefront of this gang were Pte 'Excused Boots' (aka 'Bootsie') Bisley played by comedian Alfie Bass, Cpl Springer (Michael Medwin), Pte 'Cupcake' Cook (Norman Rossington), Pte 'Popeye' Popplewell (Bernard Bresslaw) and future Doctor Who William Hartnell as bellowing Sgt Major Bullimore. Popplewell's catch phrase "I only arsked" became a national phenomenon and became the title for a 1958 feature film based on the series. A number of cast changes from 1958 onwards affected the show's popularity and ultimately led to its demise. The first to leave were Hawtrey, Bresslaw and Hartnell; Hartnell's replacement was Bill Fraser, as Sgt-Major Claude Snudge, who, after The Army Game ended, starred with Alfie Bass in the spin-off series 'Bootsie and Snudge'.

Hawtrey also made a brief appearance in 1956 in Tess and Tim (BBC TV) under the Saturday Comedy Hour banner. This short-run series starred the musical comedians Tessie O'Shea and Jimmy Wheeler.

The same year, the comedian Digby Wolfe appeared in ATV's Wolfe At The Door, a 12-week sketch show, not screened in London but which ran in the Midlands from 18 June to 10 September 1956. In this, Wolfe explored the comic situations that could be found by passing through doorways—into a theatrical dressing-room, for example. The programmes were written by Tony Hawes and Richard Waring, and Charles Hawtrey appeared alongside future Carry On co-star Hattie Jacques. The following year, in 1957, Hawtrey appeared in a one-off episode of Laughter In Store (BBC) working with the comic actors Charlie Drake and Irene Handl.

In Our House (1960) Charles Hawtrey played the character of council official Simon Willow. The series was created by Norman Hudis, who had written the first five Carry On movies, and in the opening episode ('Moving Into Our House') two couples and five individuals meet at an estate agent's and realise that if they pool their resources they can buy a house big enough to accommodate them all. Hattie Jacques as librarian Georgina Ruddy, who was forced to keep quiet at work and so made up for it by being extremely noisy at home, was arguably the star of the series. Joan Sims starred as the unemployable Daisy Burke.

The series initially ran for 13 episodes from September to December 1960, returning the following year with Bernard Bresslaw and Hylda Baker as Henrietta added to the cast. Of the 39 episodes in total, only three survive today.

Best of Friends (ITV - 1963) had essentially the same writers and production team as Our House. Hawtrey again acted alongside Hylda Baker, but this time playing the role simply of Charles, a clerk in an insurance office situated next door to a café run by Baker. She accompanied him on insurance assignments and protected him when he was feeling put upon by his Uncle Sidney, who wished to—but could not—dismiss his nephew from the firm. Thirteen episodes in total (B&W) were made.

In 1970, he played in the series Stop Exchange with Sid James that was broadcast in South Africa. In the 1970s, he made an appearance in Grasshopper Island for ITV, a wholesome children's programme alongside Patricia Hayes, Julian Orchard, Tim Brooke-Taylor and Frank Muir. Filmed in the 1970s in Wales and Corsica, this adventure series had three small brothers nicknamed Toughy, Smarty and Mouse who run away to find an uninhabited island.

Charles also appeared in the 1976 Halloween special episode of the children's TV quiz programme, Runaround broadcast by Southern (on ITV). The series was hosted by the comedian Mike Reid, and Hawtrey featured in series 12 (programme 7), the 'Horror Special'.

Hawtrey's last appearance on TV was as Clarence, Duke of Claridge in a special edition of the children's programme, Supergranmade by Tyne Tees Television for ITV. The series had adapted the popular books by Forrest Wilson and related the adventures of a happy and gentle old lady, known as Granny Smith, played by Gudrun Ure. The comedian Billy Connolly also appeared in the episode.

TV filmography

  • Tess and Time (1956)
  • Wolfe at the Door (1956)
  • Laughter in Store (1957)
  • The Army Game (1957–58)
  • Laughter in Store (1957)
  • Our House (1960)
  • Best of Friends (1963)
  • Ghosts of Christmas or Carry On Christmas (1969)
  • Carry On Long John (1970)
  • Stop Exchange (1970)
  • Grasshopper Island (1970s)
  • The Princess and the Pea (1979)
  • The Plank (1979)
  • Runaround (1981)
  • Supergran: "Supergran and the State Visit" (1987)

Biographies and cultural references

Roger Lewis wrote a biography, Charles Hawtrey 1914-1988: The Man Who Was Private Widdle in 2002. Writer and broadcaster Wes Butters has written an as yet unpublished biography of Hawtrey, entitled Whatsisname. He will present and produce a BBC Radio 4 documentary on Hawtrey to be broadcast between April and September 2010.[10]

Hawtrey received a name-check by John Lennon in The Beatles' film (and accompanying LP) Let It Be (1970), in which Lennon ad-libs the non-sequitur "'I Dig a Pygmy', by Charles Hawtrey and the Deaf Aids! Phase One, in which Doris gets her oats!"

Hawtrey was portrayed by Hugh Walters in the television film Cor, Blimey! (2000), and by David Charles in the 2006 BBC Four television play Kenneth Williams: Fantabulosa!. The stage play Cleo, Camping, Emmanuelle and Dick (1998), on which the former film was based, did not actually include Hawtrey as a character. In the pilot episode of the (now abandoned) Carryoons animated series (2001), the voice of Charles Hawtrey was provided by actor Clive Greenwood. More recently, Greenwood also portrayed Hawtrey in the stage play Goodbye: The Afterlife of Cook & Moore (2009)

In November 2009, Amanda Lawrence wrote and starred in a show about the life of Hawtrey specially commissioned by the Homotopia festival in Liverpool called 'Jiggery Pokery'. The show opened in London 2nd December 2009 at the Battersea Arts Centre.[11]

Notes

  1. ^ a b c d Roger Lewis, The Man Who Was Private Widdle, London, 2002
  2. ^ Stephen Dixon (April 6, 2002). "Charles Hawtrey". The Irish Times. "Hawtrey was a feisty and courageous little actor who was always defiantly his own man and couldn't care less what people thought of him. As a flamboyantly gay man, he attracted the kind of attention that was fraught with danger in the 1950s. But unlike many homosexual public figures, he never pretended to be anything other than his true self. "No, bring me a nice gentleman," he insisted when photographers wanted him to pose with starlets." 
  3. ^ a b c The Kenneth Williams Diaries, London, 1994
  4. ^ Barbara Windsor, All of Me: My Extraordinary Life, 2000
  5. ^ a b c Robert Ross, The Carry on Story, 2005
  6. ^ IMDB - Director credits
  7. ^ http://web.ukonline.co.uk/suttonelms/wkd.html
  8. ^ In fact when Hawtrey died in October 1988 Morrissey penned his obituary for the NME. Excerpt: "The very last comic genius. Charles Hawtrey's death ties in with the advance chill of 1992, the slaughter of the British passport, and the last death wheeze of the real England... [He was] 60 per cent of Carry On appeal. By never giving press interviews, and by all accounts being unfriendly and friendless, Hawtrey's mystique surpasses Garbo. I personally loved him."
  9. ^ Bradshaw, P. "The possibility of happiness. The Carry On films represented the best of England. Or was it the worst? Peter Bradshaw on the life of the saddest act in the history of British cinema", New Statesman, 1 October 2001
  10. ^ Charles Hawtrey biog & doc
  11. ^ http://www.bac.org.uk/whats-on/jiggery-pokery/

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