Charles Hawtrey (actor born 1914)
Publicity photo of Hawtrey in the 1960s
|Born||George Frederick Joffre 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. Michael's), 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 written by Walter Slaughter in 1901, with a book by Seymour Hicks (providing part of the inspiration for J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan).
In Peter Pan at the London Palladium in 1931 Hawtrey 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. In 1936 Hawtrey 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. A review in The Daily Telegraph commended Hawtrey for having "a comedy sense not unworthy of his famous name".
Hawtrey played 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 1937. 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 178 performances there 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 a 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 more than 70 films, including from this period Alfred Hitchcock's Sabotage (1936).
Hawtrey had another success on stage when he was cast in the role of Gremio in Tyrone Guthrie's production of The Taming of the Shrew in 1939 at the Old Vic. (Roger Livesey starred as Petruchio and his wife, Ursula Jeans, as Katherine.)
Hawtrey was an accomplished musician. He recorded as a boy soprano and was billed as "The Angel-Voiced Choirboy" even at the age of fifteen. In 1930 he recorded several duets with the girl soprano Evelyn Griffiths (aged 11) for the Regal label. He was a semi-professional pianist for the Armed Forces during the Second World War.
Hawtrey continued in music revue, starring in Eric Maschwitz's, New Faces (1940) at the Comedy Theatre in London, and was praised for his "chic and finished study of an alluring woman spy". New Faces included the premiere of the song "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square", which quickly became a wartime favourite.
During and after the Second World War Hawtrey 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 19 plays, including Dumb Dora Discovers Tobacco at the Q Theatre in Richmond and, in 1945, Oflag 3, a war drama co-written with Douglas Bader.
By the 1940s Hawtrey was appearing on radio during Children's Hour in the series Norman and Henry Bones, the Boy Detectives alongside the actress Patricia Hayes (first broadcast in 1943). Later he provided the voice of snooty Hubert Lane, the nemesis of William in the series Just William. 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 bigger roles, but Hay refused to.
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 Flora Robson in Dumb Dora Discovers Tobacco (1946). Both films are believed lost.
In 1956 Hawtrey appeared alongside his future "Carry On" co-star Hattie Jacques 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 series 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) under the Saturday Comedy Hour banner. This short-run series starred the music hall comedians Tessie O'Shea and Jimmy Wheeler. In 1957 Hawtrey appeared in a one-off episode of Laughter in Store (BBC) working with Charlie Drake and Irene Handl.
Hawtrey's television career gained a major boost with The Army Game, in which 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. I Only Arsked! (1958) was a feature film spin-off. Hawtrey left the series in 1958.
In Our House (1960–62) Hawtrey played a council official, Simon Willow. The series was created by Norman Hudis, the screenwriter for the first six Carry On films. Hattie Jacques and Joan Sims also starred. The series initially ran for 13 episodes from September to December 1960, returning the following year with Bernard Bresslaw and Hylda Baker 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 of Charles, a clerk in an insurance office 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. The series ran to thirteen episodes, all now lost, and was the last television series in which Hawtrey had a regular role.
By this time Hawtrey had become a regular participant in the Carry On films series. He was in the first, Carry On Sergeant (1958), and more than 20 others. His 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 the footballer George Best. While filming Carry On Spying (1964), in which they both played secret agents, Windsor thought that Hawtrey 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 binge. He smoked Woodbines and played cards between takes with Sid James and other members of the cast.
Gerald Thomas, the director of the Carry On films explained in 1966 that "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 of his time to the consumption of alcohol. He cut an eccentric figure in the small town and became well-known for promenading along the seafront in extravagant attire, waving cheerfully to the fishermen, and for frequenting establishments patronised by students of the Royal Marines School of Music.
In 1970 he appeared with Sid James in the series Stop Exchange, which was broadcast in South Africa. He made an appearance in Grasshopper Island (ITV 1971), a children's programme, alongside Patricia Hayes, Julian Orchard, Tim Brooke-Taylor and Frank Muir. Filmed in Wales and Corsica, this adventure series featured three small brothers nicknamed Toughy, Smarty and Mouse who run away to find an uninhabited island.
Hawtrey's last film was Carry On Abroad (1972), after which he was dropped from the series. Hoping to gain higher billing, Hawtrey withdrew from a television programme, Carry On Christmas, in which he was scheduled to appear, giving just a few days' notice. Peter Rogers, the producer of the Carry On films and shows, 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 the year his mother died.
Without steady film work Hawtrey slipped into the relative obscurity of pantomime and provincial summer seasons, playing heavily on his Carry On persona in such shows as 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 (April 1974). His last pantomime season was during Christmas 1979.
Hawtrey also played parts in a series of radio plays about a criminal gang written by Wally K. Daly for the BBC, alongside Peter Jones, Lockwood West and Bernard Bresslaw. These were Burglar's Bargains (1979), A Right Royal Rip-off (1982) and The Bigger They Are (1985).
Little is known about Hawtrey's early years or later private life. He guarded his relationships very carefully in an era (lasting until 1967 in the UK) when male homosexual behaviour was illegal and punishable by a prison sentence. His outrageous drunken promiscuity did not attract sympathy, 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 that the eccentric actor had hoarded, believing that "one day he would make a great deal of money from them".
Hawtrey spent most of his life living with his mother, who suffered senile dementia in later years. Another anecdote recounted by Williams describes how during the filming of Carry On Teacher Joan Sims cried out to Hawtrey that his mother's handbag had caught fire after her cigarette ash fell into it. Without batting an eyelid Hawtrey, poured a cup of tea into the bag to put out the flames, snapped the handbag shut and continued with his story. Williams also recounted his gathering up of the sandwiches left over from a buffet for the Carry On cast. Williams 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."
Hawtrey hit the headlines after his house caught fire on 5 August 1984. He had gone 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 toupee-less Hawtrey down a ladder to safety.
On 24 October 1988 Hawtrey collapsed in the doorway of the Royal Hotel in Deal. He shattered his femur and was rushed in an ambulance to the Buckland Hospital in Dover. 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 to save his life his legs would have to be amputated. He refused the operation, allegedly saying that he preferred to die with his boots on, and died three days later, aged 73, in a nursing home in Walmer, near Deal. It was claimed that on his deathbed he threw a vase at his nurse who asked for an autograph. His ashes were scattered in Mortlake Crematorium, close to Chiswick in London. No friends or family attended.
Hawtrey was portrayed by Hugh Walters in the television film Cor, Blimey! (2000). This was adapted by Terry Johnson from his stage play Cleo, Camping, Emmanuelle and Dick (1998); the original play did not feature Hawtrey as a character. In the BBC Four television play Kenneth Williams: Fantabulosa! (2006), Hawtrey was played by David Charles.
The actor has been the subject of two biographies: Charles Hawtrey 1914–1988: The Man Who Was Private Widdle (2002) by Roger Lewis and Whatshisname: The Life and Death of Charles Hawtrey (2010) by the broadcaster Wes Butters. BBC Radio 4 broadcast Butters's documentary, Charles Hawtrey: That Funny Fella with the Glasses, in April 2010.
- 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
- The series is entirely lost, see "Missing or Incomplete Episodes for Programme Wolfe at the Door", lostshows.com. Retrieved 19 May 2015
- "Missing or Incomplete Episodes for Programme Our House". LostShows.com. 2014. Retrieved 1 February 2014.
- Best of Friends, BFI Film & TV database
- "Missing or Incomplete Episodes for Programme Besrt of Friends", lostshows.com. Retrieved 19 May 2015
- 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 (6 April 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
- Roger Lewis:Charles Hawtrey 1914-1988: The Man who Was Private Widdle,2002
- "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
- BBC.co.uk Charles Hawtrey: That Funny Fella with the Glasses, BBC Radio 4, 27 April 2010
- 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.