Tuesday 20 March 2018

Charlie and Judy and Ernest and Ivy

By way of light relief after the rigours of Molloy, I've been reading Roger Lewis's hugely enjoyable biography of Carry On regular Charles Hawtrey, a creature of unbounded gaiety and joie de vivre whose life somehow slid towards a sad and dismal end (in that strange coastal town, Deal). Lewis's footnotes alone are worth the cover price – e.g. this one on Kenneth Connor:

'What a pain in the arse he is. The only person I know who can abide Connor's going-to-pieces, swallowing-hard, nervous-wreck act is Jonathan Coe, who wrote an entire novel on the subject, What a Carve-Up! (1994). His The House of Sleep (1997) was filled with allusions to Billy Wilder's The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, the Baker Street set for which at Pinewood was used for exterior views of the Hawtrey character's boarding house in [Carry On at Your] Convenience. I await Coe's homage to The Shoes of the Fisherman, no doubt to be called Kiss My Ring!'

(In a later footnote, Lewis claims that Coe 'used to play the piano in a Lesbian pub called the Purple Passage in Welwyn Garden City'.)
  Hawtrey's stage career flourished in the age of the light revue, at which he excelled, particularly enjoying the ample opportunities for dressing up in female clothing – which he wore extraordinarily well – and even delivering the chanteuses' songs. A happy consequence of this was the show-stopping debut in wartime London of A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square, sung by Judy Campbell (Jane Birkin's mother) in the revue New Faces. Lewis quotes her memories of the occasion:

''Charlie was so good at my songs, I said, "Have them." He was much funnier than I'd have been, and he grabbed them. So he did the Vivandière's song, which was meant to be mine ("Vivandière, with a bottle of brandy on my derrière"); and that's how they got to give me Eric Maschwitz's "Nightingale" instead, which stopped the show in a most extraordinary way. You see – it was the early years of the war, when we thought we were losing. There was this incredible atmosphere of danger and uncertainty – and of excitement. The air raids were on. The show was constantly interrupted by bombs falling. The cast and the audience would sometimes be marooned in the theatre until two in the morning. We'd invite them up on the stage to dance with us. It's funny – up in the night sky, Hitler's bombers; down below, Charlie Hawtrey, with that beady face and huge specs, in a dress.'

  Among the names of the actors Hawtrey worked with at this time was one that rang a bell – Ernest Thesiger, with whom he performed in cod operettas and comedy sketches, often in drag. Was this the Ernest Thesiger who was for decades a stalwart friend of Ivy Compton-Burnett? It was indeed he, the man of whom Beverley Nichols declared that 'Nothing is more terrifying to me than the sight of Ernest Thesiger sitting under the lamplight doing his embroidery'. He was a keen and expert embroiderer who plied a very skilled needle – and there was indeed something oddly sinister about him, as became apparent when he played Dr Pretorius in his friend James Whale's The Bride of Frankenstein.
  Like Hawtrey, Ernest Thesiger (definitely not to be confused with his kinsman, the explorer Wilfred) was, in E.F. Benson's phrase, a 'not obtrusively masculine sort of person'. It was he who, on returning from the trenches of Flanders and being asked how it had been, made the immortal reply, 'My dear, the noise! And the people!' (Well, many say it was Thesiger, and it certainly sounds like him.)  Even in the trenches (whence he was sent home lightly wounded) he continued to ply his needle, as he would later do backstage and on set, and, in companionable silence, with Queen Mary herself. In 1941, he published a book titled Adventures in Embroidery (he also published an autobiography in which he oddly fails to mention his marriage or his wife – who was, in a common enough arrangement, the sister of a very special male friend).
  It's a shame Thesiger never secured Hawtrey an entrée to Ivy's exalted circle. They could have been joined by Charlie's fellow Carry On regular Joan Sims, who lived just round the corner, opposite T.S. Eliot. What a dinner party that might have been. Ivy might even have cracked open a second bottle of Cydrax.


  1. Top blogging! and Lewis' book also has the benefit of one of the most ridiculous titles ever. I have had it sitting on my shelves unread for at least 10 years, I must get round to reading it!

  2. An entertaining review Nige. One of life’s bitter disappointments was learning that Private Widdle had ended his days as an obnoxious plonky.

    Incidentally, one of the other luminaries from the Carry On series, the blonde one who flashed stuff, starred in a movie that, brilliant though it was, slid into obscurity. ‘Sparrows Can’t Sing’ eerily captured nineteen sixties life in the East End of London.

  3. Thanks all - and I must have a look at Sparrows, which (Wikipedia says) had to be subtitled for American release. Strike a light!