“They haunt the body of British culture like a rotting thong,” groans one critic. Yet Kenneth Williams’ ‘Carry on Cleo’ gem – “Infamy! Infamy! They’ve all got it in for me!” – was recently voted the funniest one-liner in film, above anything by Python, Groucho Marx or Woody Allen.
While Quentin Tarantino declared at the Cannes Film Festival: “the Carry On films weren’t art, but they were funny.” And our Quentin knows a thing or two about funny.
What is undeniable is that many of the ‘Carry On’ cast led sad, almost tragic lives. This is how they ended.
Kenneth Williams, 15 April 1988, aged 62. The famously troubled Carry On star hated his father – indeed some believe Williams actually murdered him in 1962 – but had a close relationship with his mother. His diaries reveal he detested most of the ‘Carry On’ cast – apart from Hattie Jacques and Barbara Windsor – and believed his immense talent was underused, and underpaid. At the time his death was reported as an overdose. Others believe Williams committed suicide. Overdose?
Sid James, 26 April 1976, aged 62. Gambler, womanizer, and funny man, James suffered a massive heart attack in 1967. After recovering he appeared in many more ‘Carry On’ films, as well as ITV sitcom ‘Bless This House‘. But in 1976 he became ill ten minutes in to the opening night of a play called ‘The Mating Season’ at the Sunderland Empire. When theatre manager Melvin James asked the audience if there was a doctor in the house he got the biggest laugh of the night. A rumour persists that James’ ghost haunts the theatre dressing room. Heart attack.
Charles Hawtrey, 27 October 1988, aged 73. A leading boy soprano at the age of eight, Hawtrey worked with Flynn, Laughton, Vivian Lee and Hitchcock before becoming that funny guy with the glasses. Increasingly bitter at his lack of opportunities, and dependent on pink champagne, he made national headlines later in life when a rent boy set fire to his cottage after Hawtrey tried to pay him by cheque. Constant smoking led to hardening of the arteries in his legs. When Doctors advised he would die if he didn’t have them amputated, he refused, saying he would rather die than have his legs off. Two weeks later he did. Peripheral vascular disease.
Kenneth Connor, 28 November 1993, aged 77. Of all the major ‘Carry On’ stars we know least about Connor. Early roles include a taxi driver in The Ladykillers. Also provided the voice of the chimpanzee in the PG Tips tea adverts. Later in life starred in Perry & Croft sitcom, ‘Allo Allo’. Two days before his death appeared on Noel Edmonds’ Telly Addicts. Cancer.
Peter Butterworth, 16 January 1979, aged 59. During the Second World War Butterworth served in the Royal Navy. Captured in 1940 he met future ‘Carry On’ screenwriter Talbot Rothwell in the Stalag Luft III POW camp – made famous in The Wooden Horse and The Great Escape. Married to actor and impressionist Janet Brown. Died in Coventry while appearing in panto. Heart attack.
Hattie Jacques, 6 October 1980, aged 58. Much loved star with a fascinating love life. Married to John Le Mesurier until she left him to for a much younger man, who went out for the papers one day and was never seen again. A born entertainer on and off stage Hattie’s elaborate Christmas parties became legendary, enjoyed even by old an sour-puss like Kenneth Williams. Toward the end of her life Jacques, a heavy smoker who suffered high blood pressure, could no longer get medical insurance to appear in ‘Carry On’ films. Heart attack.
Joan Sims, 28 June 2001, aged 71. Known for playing formidable battle-axes such as Emily Bung in ‘Carry On Screaming’ and Lady Ruff-Diamond in ‘Carry on Up the Khyber’, Sims comes across as lonely and vulnerable off screen as this interview in the ‘Independent’ reveals, published shortly before her death. Liver failure.
Bernard Bresslaw, 11 June 1993, aged 59. Voted ‘Most Promising Actor’ at Rada, Bresslaw married a very successful stage career with work in TV and film. Big break came in the 1950s as Private ‘Popeye’ Popplewell in ‘The Army Game’. Soon after reached number six with his single ‘Mad Passionate Love’ (look it up on YouTube). Described the process of making a ‘Carry On’ film as: “it’s like one might not finish a story on one picture and you come back and take up from where you left off.” Died in his dressing room at the Regents Park Open Air Theatre before a performance of ‘The Taming of the Shrew’. Heart attack.
Jack Douglas, 18 December 2008, aged 81. Though she lived in London at the time Jack’s mum was so desperate he be born a Geordie that she caught a train from London to Newcastle where he duly entered the world. Only had one line in his first ‘Carry On’ (Matron), but ended up starring in the last seven films. Pneumonia.
Patsy Rowlands, 22 January 2005, aged 71. Came to prominence in the franchise just as it started dropping double entendres for single. Also stared in Polanski’s ‘Tess’, as Sid James’ neighbour in ‘Bless This House’, and in the sci fi comedy ‘Kinvig’. Cancer.
Peter Rogers – producer – 14 April 2009, aged 95. While famously tight-fisted with actors – stars like Kenneth Williams received £5000 a film, the female actors half that – Rogers made good money from the series, and treated himself to a new Rolls Royce every year. Confessed at a film festival in 1994 that he had never sat through a ‘Carry On’ film with an audience: “Even the Marquis de Sade couldn’t have devised a worse torture.” Unknown.
Gerald Thomas – director – 9 November 1993, aged 73. Early credits include associate editor on ‘The Third Man’, but Thomas found his niche in comedy. Renown for running a tight set – a typical ‘Carry On’ shoot lasted no more than six weeks – and for his shrewd eye for locations. A Welsh gate stands in for the Khyber Pass, and South Coast sand dunes pass for the deserts of ‘Follow That Camel’. “It’s not like work,” Thomas revealed. “More like a holiday. It’s like going back to school and being a headmaster.” Unknown.
Talbot Rothwell – screenwriter – 28 February 1981, aged 65. Shot down over Norway during World War Two, Rothwell began writing to relieve boredom while a POW. His sketches were used to cover the noise of other prisoners digging tunnels. Took over from original ‘Carry On’ writer Norman Hudis, and introduced historical settings and a bawdier tone. An at times inspired writer, vastly underrated. Unknown.
Honorable mentions to: Dennis Baker (d.1992), Harry H Corbett (d.1982), Frankie Howard (d.1992), Terry Scott (d.1994), Roy Castle (d.1994). Among the Carry On stars still with us are: Jim Dale, the delicious Fennela Fielding, Shirley Eaton, and Valerie Leon, Bernard Cribbins, Liz Fraser, Peter Gilmore, Julian Holloway and Norman Hudis, writer of the first six films.
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