Charles Hawtrey (actor born 1914)
Publicity photo of Hawtrey in the 1960s
|Born||George Frederick Joffe Hartree
30 November 1914
Hounslow, Middlesex, England
|Died||27 October 1988
Deal, Kent, England
George Frederick Joffre Hartree (30 November 1914 – 27 October 1988), known as Charles Hawtrey, was an English comedy actor and musician.
Beginning at a young age as a boy soprano, he made several records before moving on to the radio. 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.
Life and career
Born in Hounslow, Middlesex, England in 1914, to William John Hartree and his wife Alice Hartree née Crow 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.
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.
In the 1920s and 1930s
Charles Hawtrey made his first appearance on the stage in Boscombe, a suburb of Bournemouth, 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 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).
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. Five years later in 1936 he played in a revival of the play, this time taking the larger role of 'Slightly', alongside the husband and 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".
In 1937, Hawtrey was playing in Bats in the Belfry, a farce written by Diana Morgan and Robert MacDermott, which opened at the Ambassadors Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue on 11 March. The cast included Ivor Barnard, and Dame Lilian Braithwaite, as well as Vivien Leigh in the small part of Jessica Morton. The play ran for an impressive 178 performances, before moving to the Hippodrome, Golders Green, Barnet on 16 August 1937.
Hawtrey acted in films from an early age, first appearing while still a child, 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) and Where's That Fire? (1939). In all he appeared in over 70 films, including from this period Alfred Hitchcock's Sabotage (1936).
In 1939, Hawtrey had a success on stage, 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.
Charles Hawtrey was an accomplished musician (and had been a semi-professional pianist for the armed forces during World War II), 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.
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. Hawtrey also directed as many as 19 theatre plays, including Dumb Dora Discovers Tobacco at the Q Theatre in Richmond. In 1945, Hawtrey also directed Oflag 3, a Second World War play co-written with Douglas Bader.
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?" Hawtrey's film career continued, but The Ghost of St. Michael's (1941) and The Goose Steps Out (1942) were his last films with Will Hay. After the latter film he asked Hay to give him a bigger role, which Hay refused.
Hawtrey also took a hand at directing films himself, including What Do We Do Now? (1945) a musical-mystery written by the English author George Cooper, and starring George Moon. Around the same time, Hawtrey directed the British actress Dame Flora Robson in Dumb Dora Discovers Tobacco (1946). Both films are believed lost.
In 1956, alongside future Carry On co-star Hattie Jacques Hawtrey appeared in the comedian Digby Wolfe's ATV series Wolfe At The Door, a 12-week sketch show. Not screened in London, it ran in the Midlands from 18 June to 10 September. 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. That same year, Hawtrey made a brief appearance in Tess and Tim (BBC, 1956) under the Saturday Comedy Hour banner. This short-run series starred the music hall comedians Tessie O'Shea and Jimmy Wheeler.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.
Hawtrey's television career gained a major boost with The Army Game, where he played the part of Private 'Professor' Hatchett. Loosely based on the film Private's Progress (1956), the series followed the fortunes of a mixed bag of army national service 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 William Hartnell as bellowing Sgt Major Bullimore. I Only Arsked! (1958) was a feature film spin-off using Popplewell's catch phrase which had become a national phenomenon. 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.
In Our House (1960–62), Hawtrey played the character of council official Simon Willow. The series was created by Norman Hudis, the screenwriter for the first five Carry On films. 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 transmitted, 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. The series ran to thirteen episodes.
By this time, he had become a regular participant in the Carry On films series. Hawtrey was in the first entry, Carry on Sergeant (1958), and more than 20 of the subsequent films. Hawtrey's characters ranged from the wimpish through the effete to the effeminate.
In her autobiography, Barbara Windsor wrote about Hawtrey's alcoholism, and his outrageous flirting with footballer George Best. While filming Carry On Spying (1964), in which they both played secret agents, Windsor 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.
Director Gerald Thomas explained in 1966 about his use of Hawtrey in the films: "In the beginning, Charles's shock entrance was an accident, but realising the potential I set out deliberately to shock and now his first appearance is carefully planned... Apart from the comedy value of the unlikely role he plays, I'm careful to arrange the right timing for his actual appearance, so that the two factors combined surprise the audience into instant risibility."
Later life and career
Hawtrey moved to Deal in Kent in 1968, 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 Marines School of Music.
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 (1971) for ITV, a wholesome children's programme, alongside Patricia Hayes, Julian Orchard, Tim Brooke-Taylor and Frank Muir. Filmed in Wales and Corsica, this adventure series had three small brothers nicknamed Toughy, Smarty and Mouse who run away to find an uninhabited island.
His last film was Carry On Abroad (1972), after which he was dropped from the series. 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. Rogers explained: "He became rather difficult and impossible to deal with because he was drinking a lot. We used to feed him black coffee before he would go on. It really became that we were wasting time." Hawtrey's alcohol consumption had noticeably increased since Carry On Cowboy (1965), which was released in the year his mother died.
Without these films, Hawtrey slipped into the relative obscurity of pantomime and provincial summer seasons, where he played heavily on his Carry On persona. 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 Seven Dwarfs again at the Theatre Royal, Nottingham, alongside Bryan Johnson, Syd Jackson and Dick Collins (April 1974). His last pantomime season was during Christmas 1979. Hawtrey played parts in a series of radio plays about a criminal gang, with Peter Jones, Lockwood West and Bernard Bresslaw, for the BBC written by Wally K. Daly: These were Burglar's Bargains (1979), A Right Royal Rip-off (1982) and The Bigger They Are (1985).
Hawtrey's last appearance on TV was in 1986 as Clarence, Duke of Claridge, in a special edition of the children's programme Supergran, made 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.
Little is known about Hawtrey's early years or later private life. He guarded his relationships very carefully, perhaps no surprise in an age when male homosexual behaviour in Britain was illegal and punishable by a prison sentence. His outrageous drunken promiscuity however, did not portray him in a positive light to an unsympathetic world; nor did his general demeanour and increasing eccentricity earn him many (if any) close friends.
Kenneth Williams recorded a visit to Deal in Kent 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".
A lot of strain was put on him by his mother, who suffered senile dementia in later years. Another anecdote recounted by Williams 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 handbag shut and continued with his story. Williams also recounted his gathering up of the leftover sandwiches from a buffet for the Carry On cast. Williams though was envious of Hawtrey's easier acceptance of his sexuality: "He can sit in a bar and pick up sailors and have a wonderful time. I couldn't do it."
He gained headlines after his house caught fire on 5 August 1984 after he went to bed with a much younger man and had left a cigarette burning on his sofa. Newspaper photographs 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 later in the month, aged 73, in a Walmer, Kent nursing home, near Deal. On his deathbed, Hawtrey supposedly threw a vase at his nurse who asked for an autograph – it was the last thing he did. His ashes were scattered in Mortlake Crematorium, close to Chiswick in London; no friends or family attended.
Biographies and cultural references
- The biography, Charles Hawtrey 1914–1988: The Man Who Was Private Widdle, by Roger Lewis, was published in 2002.
- Another biography, Whatshisname: The Life and Death of Charles Hawtrey, by the broadcaster Wes Butters, was published in 2010. Butters also produced and presented a BBC Radio 4 documentary on Hawtrey, which was broadcast on 27 April 2010.
- Hawtrey was portrayed by Hugh Walters in the television film Cor, Blimey! (2000). (The film was based on a stage play, Cleo, Camping, Emmanuelle and Dick (1998), which actually did not include Hawtrey as a character.)
- Hawtrey was played by David Charles in the 2006 BBC Four television play Kenneth Williams: Fantabulosa!
- In November 2009, Amanda Lawrence wrote and starred in a show, called Jiggery Pokery, about the life of Hawtrey. The show, specially commissioned by the Homotopia festival in Liverpool, opened in London on 2 December 2009 at the Battersea Arts Centre.
- Roger Lewis, The Man Who Was Private Widdle, London, 2002
- Robert Ross, The Carry on Story, 2005
- "What Do We Do Now?/ Charles Hawtrey [motion picture"], Library of Congress citing David Meeker Jazz on the Screen
- Dumb Dora Discovers Tobacco, BFI Film Forever
- Peter Bradshaw "The possibility of happiness. The Carry On films represented the best of England. Or was it the worst?", New Statesman, 1 October 2001
- Obituary: Digby Wolfe, telegraph.co.uk, 24 June 2012
- "Missing or incomplete episodes for programme Our House". LostShows.com. 2014. Retrieved 1 February 2014.
- Best of Friends, BFI Film & TV database
- Barbara Windsor, All of Me: My Extraordinary Life, 2000
- Richard Webber Fifty Years Of Carry On, London: Arrow Books, 2009, p.34
- Webber Fifty Years of Carry On, p.129
- 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."
- The Kenneth Williams Diaries, London, 1994
- Paul Donnelley Fade to Black: A Book of Movie Obituaries, London: Omnibus Press, 2003, p.322
- Julian Upton Fallen Stars: Tragic Lives and Lost Careers, Manchester: Headpress, 2004, p.71
- "Charles Hawtrey, 73, Of 'Carry On' Movies", New York Times, 29 October 1988
- Tom Dewe Matthews "Life as a bit of a carry on", Evening Standard, 4 December 2001
- Tanya Gold "Infamy? They've got it", The Guardian, 17 April 2008
- Charles Hawtrey biography and documentary
- Charles Hawtrey at the Internet Movie Database
- Charles Hawtrey at the British Film Institute's Screenonline
- The Army Game and Our House at Television Heaven.
- Charles Hawtrey at The Boy Choir and Soloist Directory.
- Charles Hawtrey at Aveleyman.