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  • Writer's pictureMark Howitt

The Man Who Was Private Widdle

Charles Hawtrey 1914-1988: The Man Who Was Private Widdle

by Roger Lewis

Faber & Faber, October 2002, 978-0-5712-1089-3

Whenever I search our collection of DVDs for a something to watch, the index finger of my right hand comes to a halt at the four volume set of Carry On films - The Ultimate Collection - and I wonder if the time has come to donate them to the local Oxfam book shop.

There are two reasons for not doing this. First, since January of this year the shop no longer accepts donations of DVDs, “apologies for any inconvenience”. This policy was instituted (by me) on account of us receiving cardboard boxes and IKEA bags filled with DVDs from well-meaning donors, but nobody wanting to buy All About Steve, The Emoji Movie, Call the Midwife or DVDs originally given away free with the Daily Mail. (We have a similar problem with an over-supply of Michael Ondaatje's dreary 1992 novel The English Patient but, as yet, there is no de facto ban on donations.) Second, although some years have passed since I have watched any of the 30 (*) Carry Ons, I am confident that a time will come when I will want to reacquaint myself with these most British of comedies (1971’s Carry on at Your Convenience remains one of my favourite movies).

The Carry On franchise was a machine, all films produced by Peter Rogers, directed by Gerald Thomas and from the early 1960s to the mid 1970s made - on the tightest of budgets - at the rate of two or three per year, an output to rival Egypt’s famed Studio Misr, although perhaps not in quality. I have no recollection of ever seeing a Carry On at the cinema, but they were a staple of Sunday afternoon TV and like millions of others I became familiar with the faces of a barely changing cast: Sid James, Kenneth Williams, Joan Sims, Barbara Windsor, Kenneth Connor, Terry Scott, Hattie Jacques. And of course, Charles Hawtrey.

It dawned on me the other day while contemplating donating The Ultimate Collection to Oxfam that I had recently bought a newly published biography of Charles Hawtrey but hadn’t yet got around to reading it. On further investigation it transpired that The Man Who Was Private Widdle by Roger Lewis was published 2002, so it has shown tenacity in following me through five house moves in the intervening 22 years. It's now no longer of the Unread.

Like Hawtrey himself, this is a slight volume but there is affection packed in every one of the 100 or so pages. Lewis is clearly a fan of the Carry Ons but sums them up rather well on the first page by describing them as “abysmal movies, let’s make no mistake about that, as lacking in substance as the air. But though they are embarrassing, their appeal is that they transcend embarrassment.”

While there are numerous sources about the making of the Carry On films, notably Kenneth Williams’ Diaries, piecing together Hawtrey’s early stage and cinema career must have taken a super-human effort on the part of Lewis. Incredibly Hawtrey appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s Sabotage although regular readers will be unsurprised to learn that I haven’t seen it.

An unlikely combination, but there he is nonetheless, in an atmosphere of espionage and danger. Verloc has a clandestine meeting at the echoey, shadowy aquarium in Regent’s Park Zoo. His foreign contact is telling him he must plant a bomb that’ll be timed to go off during the Lord Mayor’s Parade. Who should go by but Hawtrey as a youth, telling his girlfriend about the reproduction habits of the oyster: ‘After laying a million eggs, the female changes sex,’ he exclaims. ‘I don’t blame her!’ retorts his companion. It’s a delicious piece of black comedy, heightening the mood rather than giving relief from it; and in the face of (or in the midst of) the Hitchcockian chiaroscuro, Hawtrey is fabulously blithe - as he was to be forty years on in Convenience, where, the sex life of crustaceans still on his mind, he announces, ‘Let’s all go on the pier and have a winkle.’

The style of writing - plus the amount of research involved - reminds me of Like a Fiery Elephant, Jonathan Coe’s engrossing biography of avant-garde writer B.S. Johnson. Coe gets a couple of mentions in footnotes in The Man Who Was Private Widdle. In the first Lewis suggests that Coe’s novel What A Carve Up! is about Carry On regular Kenneth Connor. Having read Carve Up! about six times I can confirm that Kenneth Connor features in it (as does Sid James and iconic Bond girl Shirley Eaton) but it’s not about Connor, it’s a satire on Thatcherism. It’s like saying Animal Farm is about pigs.

In the second footnote, Coe is quoted as saying of Charles Hawtrey “What a very, very strange little man he was.” He certainly was, and his final years as a recluse spent drinking his life away in Deal on the Kent Coast were a tragic end to what had already been a lonely life. But when he wasn’t knocking back cooking sherry, or even by all accounts when on the set at Pinewood he was, he knew how to entertain.

(*) I exclude the 31st, Columbus. As Roger Lewis puts it “[In the original series] there are no crappy post-modernistic ironic quotation marks around [the actors’] performances, as there are clustering around Alexei Sayle , Julian Clary and Rik Mayall in Columbus, the ill-fated attempt to relaunch the Carry Ons in 1992.” Post-modernistic ironic quotation marks have their place in a comedian’s toolbox and in Sayle, Clary and Mayall there are no better craftsmen, but a Carry On film was not the place to demonstrate their expertise.

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