Archive for Charles Hawtrey

One Fell Scoop

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on October 14, 2015 by dcairns


ROOM TO LET (1950) is a rather staid early Hammer film — despite the involvement of John Gilling on screenplay (adapting a Margery Allingham TV radio play), Jimmy Sangster as AD, and grue by makeup splasher Phil Leakey (aptly so named), and a plot loosely derived from THE LODGER, it’s tepid stuff. It’s framed by an after dinner pass-the-port conversation in which the details of an ancient murder are hashed out, and then we get the flashback which sets up Valentine Dyall as Dr. Fell, who moves in as roomer to a widow and daughter and begins to terrorize them. It begins to emerge that he’s really Jack the Ripper, escaped from a torched madhouse, and planning to recommence his reign of terror on the anniversary of his last kill.

All of which would be great fun if it were delivered with appropriate gusto. Dyall is sepulchral enough, God knows, though he apparently never read the script, only his own lines — when the heroic reporter describes Fell’s strange mannerism of drawing in a breath like a hiss after each sentence, we’re like, Huh? He doesn’t do that. Director Godfrey Grayson ought presumably to have alerted his star to a little thing like that, but apparently preferred the quiet life.

I like this dissolve from Dyall to fireworks though, courtesy of stalwart Hammer editor James Needs ~


I do not like thee, Dr. Fell

The reason why I cannot tell

But this I know and know full well

I do not like thee, Dr. Fell.

The poem, attributed to Tom Brown, is quoted, and clearly ties in with the work of John Dixon Dickson Carr, master of the locked room mystery, whose most celebrated sleuth was Dr. Gideon Fell, his personality modeled on G.K. Chesterton, another enthusiast of vacuum-sealed puzzles…

The boy reporter at the centre of this is played by Jimmy Hanley, former child star, radio regular and mostly known for comedy. I didn’t realize until recently that he was also father of Jenny Hanley, who memorably got her bum out for Hammer in SCARS OF DRACULA. Richard Lester told me he cast her in a series of his “caroselli” commercials in the seventies, and described her as “you know, Jimmy Hanley’s daughter.” Of course, I knew far better idea who she was than I did her celebrated father.


Also present in the cast is a major figure from another branch of British screen history — Carry On star Charles Hawtrey, camp stick-figure schoolboy, here (mis)cast as the surprisingly butch-sounding “Mike Atkinson.” I always like seeing Hawtrey mistakenly cast in serious films. This one showed up not only the limits of his range, which is narrow but extremely DEEP — camp stick-figure schoolboy is written all the way through him like the lettering in Blackpool rock — but also his lack of anything you might normally consider acting ability. He just stands there and waits for his next line, or an occasional comic reaction. You can tell he’s not listening to anyone else, and why should he? He’s so much better than all this, or different anyway.


The locked room mystery part of this one is maybe its best feature — it requires a slight cheat, but it’s one that’s fully justified in narrative terms. Difficult to explain without spoilers. Ssss.

Wailing Asteroid, Crouching Hawtrey

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 25, 2012 by dcairns

Ah, Montgomery Tully, reliably awful as ever — THE TERRORNAUTS (1967) has the appeal of being scripted by respected sci-fi  scribe John Brunner (Stand on Zanzibar) from a novel (The Wailing Asteroid) by the equally celebrated Murray Leinster (who, according to the ever-reliable Wikipedia, invented front projection). Unfortunately, the script is pretty awful, but not so bad that director Tully can’t enhance its dreadfulness with a variety of pleasing touches.

We’re at a giant radar dish place (that’s the technical term for them, I assure you) where rubbish actor Simon Oates has an underfunded research project, Star Talk (sounds like a chat show, I know) under threat from hissy, officious official Max Adrian. Things get even swishier when Charles Hawtrey turns up to audit the project, but then the whole building is sucked into the asteroid belt, taking with it tea lady Patricia Hayes, fellow scientist Stanley Meadows (outstanding in PERFORMANCE, just about hanging onto his dignity here) and charm school secretary Zena Marshall.

OK, so we have to admire any seriously-intended science fiction film with the stones to cast Hawtrey, a sort of superannuated camp schoolboy, referred to in CARRY ON CLEOPATRA by no less a person than Kenneth Williams as “you silly old faggot.” True, he is called upon to deliver some sort of comedy relief, and in the absence of any scripted humour he’s required to do it with his presence alone.

I was mysteriously and unpleasantly reminded of Intergalactic Kitchen, a kids’ TV show I once worked on, and I kind of wonder if series creator Frank Rodgers was possibly inspired to greatness by this movie. There’s a scene of the assembled cast wondering what kind of weird alien being is going to come through the door which is very reminiscent of a bit in our first episode… what comes through the door this time is a crap robot bristling with aerials. Patricia Hayes, who has been luridly imagining tentacles and giant spiders,  immediately wonders what the robot would be like to shag. I’m not making this up.

“I wouldn’t fancy spending the night with one of them things, look at all them spiky bits.”

The production designer has really pulled all the stops out. Out of his ass. The alien craft interior is sucky, but the quarry with spray-painted “cave art” really puts the tin lid on it.

Glass painting, or just a really dirty lens?

Les Bowie’s tabletop special effects are probably a lot cheaper than they look, because he was a dedicated craftsman… I guess that means in this case he must have paid them.

Just keep repeating to yourself, “The following year, we made 2001.”

Using front projection, which was invented by the author of the story which became this ludicrous film. Strange.

Retreat, Heck!

Posted in FILM, Radio, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 3, 2010 by dcairns

Hattie Jacques (pronounced “Jakes”), beloved comedienne, here cast as Captain Clark, a name which recurs in numerous of the novels of William S. Burroughs, always with sinister implications…

It occurs to me that CARRY ON NAKED LUNCH would have been a fine project… Kenneth Williams in CARRY ON DOCTOR is just a breath away from Dr. Benway already.

CARRY ON SERGEANT is the archetypal film with a lot to answer for. Based on a book by the relatively respectable R.F. Delderfield, it was certainly not intended to launch any kind of series, and certainly not a series as odd as the CARRY ON series.

How to define the CARRY ONs? They were all produced by Peter Rogers and directed by Gerald Thomas. They were all ensemble comedies specializing in vulgar, end-of-the-pier humour and lewd puns. They starred a varying assortment of comic actors, with none being considered essential to the formula, but a few becoming so familiar that one might experience some disappointment at their absence. More on them later.

The nominal stars of this one are William Hartnell, the first Dr. Who, who plays the retiring sarge who wants to win the prize for best troop before he goes, and Bob Monkhouse, the stand-up comic who had made a name for himself in television and would go on to star in a couple of dentist-based comedies before fixing his attention more firmly on the small screen. I like Hartnell a lot, consider him a true film star, and I quite like Bob, but the Bob I remember was the perma-tanned smiler famed for keeping vast ledgers full of cheesy gags, who held some kind of record for most jokes told in an hour or something. I barely recognize this callow youth.

Bob and Shirl. No danger of skin suffocation here.

Bob is a newly-wed whose been called up for national service when he’d planned on a honeymoon. Future Bond girl Shirley Eaton (this is a terribly British affair), minus her gold paint, plays Mrs Bob, who gets a job in the army mess so she can attain her deferred conjugal bliss with Bob. Shirley appears to be very keen to act, in this one, attacking every scene with wide-eyed zeal, which coincides with the plot to give the impression that she’s some kind of nympho.

Anyhow, none of these performers get any laughs — the material doesn’t really offer much support — and the whole experience is feeling a bit desultory when, ten minutes or so in, Charles Hawtrey appears. Series regular Kenneth Connor has already been introduced, as a hypochondriac neurotic, and his usual strenuous comedy stylings have been exerted, but to only moderate effect. But Hawtrey suddenly opens up a portal into some Technicolor dimension of otherness, perforating the grey British celluloid world of the film with blazing hues. Hawtrey is not quite human.

Combining the qualities of cheeky schoolboy, effete homosexual, living skeleton and dowling puppet representation of a nonagenarian, this whiff of the uncanny basically reconfigures the whole movie around his spindly base and sends it spinning off into the realms of low camp, to be followed by twenty-nine more movies.

Here’s Wikipedia on Hawtrey the man:

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.”

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.

On his deathbed, Hawtrey supposedly threw a vase at his nurse who asked for a final autograph – it was the last thing he did.

Scarcely has Hawtrey (in films since the ’20s — he flits through Hitchcock’s SABOTAGE with a single line) blown a thin hole in the screen, when an unmistakably voice pipes up from O.S. and we are introduced to Kenneth Williams, reclining on his bunk, book in hand, still in civvies and greeting the sergeant with a supercilious air of polite condescension… Williams, of course, gays the whole thing up even further, if that were possible.

Hartnell, left, and Williams, right.

Williams, who did more CARRY ONs than anyone else (hating it the whole time, according to his diaries), is on relatively restrained form here. For one thing, he’s playing a character, rather than a heightened version of himself, although he surely identified with Private Bailey’s valuing of individuality and education over team spirit and mindless drudgery. Williams doesn’t do the trick with his nostrils, which could conceivably swallow the world if he wanted them to, and he keeps his nasal voice in a lower register, shunning the catchphrase “Stop messing about!” which he used on the radio and would soon deploy in the movies. And he doesn’t do the class shift, where his voice suddenly descends the social register like a perfumed slinky from duke to guttersnipe. All that will come later. What’s fascinating is how hypnotic he is when he does little, or at any rate less.

Everybody is young, except Hartnell, and Eric Barker (who also did the ST TRINIANS series). Director Thomas (uncle of Jeremy Thomas, producer for Bertolucci and Cronenberg) actually rouses himself to attempt some camerawork, several times — a fast track along the counter where army kit is being dispensed looks to have been inspired by ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT. And “inspired” isn’t a word one would use to describe the visual approach of the CARRY ONs, usually.

The film itself is a team-building piece with minimal propaganda content but still somewhat conservative, as are all the CARRY ON scripts (the team battle hippies in CARRY ON CAMPING). But the performers are already starting to take the films into a different terrain, where obviously camp men compete over gigantic women, and anytime a lumpy male puts on women’s clothing (on the slenderest plot pretext), all the other blokes immediately find him irresistible. Shoddy filmmaking and cheap end-of-the-pier jokes performed with staggering gusto by a troupe of slowly disintegrating grotesque comedy wizards.

Can’t think why the Criterion Collection hasn’t gotten around to THIS classic —

Carry On Cleo [DVD] [1965]

Half as long and forty times funnier than the Mankiewicz version.


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