Charles Hawtrey's Obituary

Daily Telegraph, 28/10/88

Charles Hawtrey who has died aged 74, was an endearingly eccentric comedy actor whose bespectacled, spindle-shanked figure and dotty, weedy, often outrageously "camp" characterisations tended to be more familiar than his name.

The name had, in fact been cheekily borrowed from the celebrated Edwardian actor-manager Sir Charles Hawtrey, who died in 1923, a couple of years before the young Hawtrey (nee Hartree) began his career as a boy soprano.

He made his mark as Slightly in Peter Pan and then in revue before becoming a regular member of the ageing schoolboy troupe in the Will Hay films; but it was in another series of even broader comedies, the Carry Ons, that he achieved his apotheosis.

Resembling a mischievous stick insect, with a face curiously reminiscent of an elderly maiden aunt topped by an incongruous toupee, and with a distinctive high-pitched voice verging on the hysterical, Hawtrey cropped up in one absurdly unlikely role after another as the Carry On series established itself as a great British institution.

Carry On Sergeant led to Carry On Nurse, Carry On At Your Convenience to Carry On Camping – though Hawtrey needed little encouragement in that direction.

He had an insouciant way with a double entendre which was all his own; somehow he retained an innocently spinsterish persona amid all the tired innuendoes and remorseless allusions to bodily functions. Indeed Hawtrey frequently managed to steal scenes from fellow stalwarts of the series such as Sid James, Kenneth Williams and Kenneth Connor and became one of the most hilarious "turns" in cinema.

Many will cherish the memory of Hawtrey as the skittish Seer in Carry On Cleo popping his head out of an Egyptian urn with the lid worn like a beret at a jaunty angle, and prefacing his latest vision with a breezy "stop me if you've heard this before". Or as the fastidious Red Indian Chief, Big Heap in Carry On Cowboy; or as the kilted Private Widdle in Carry On Up the Khyber complaining that "the wind fairly whistles up the pass".

George Frederick Joffre Hartree came from a theatrical family, though his father was a motor mechanic. Born in Hounslow, Middlesex, in 1914, he studied for the stage at the Italia Conti School and made his first appearance at Boscombe in a 1925 as a street arab in the Windmill Man.

His London debut as a boy actor was at the Scala Theatre on Boxing Day 1927 as the White Cat and Bootblack in the Bluebell in Fairyland and the next year he appeared in Where the Rainbow Ends at the Holborn Empire.

In 1929 he began his long wireless career which was to include roles in the Will Hay series, the Norman and Henry Bones children's hour comedy and Just William - in which he played the snooty Hubert Lane.

In 1931 Hawtrey was seen at the Palladium as the First Twin in Peter Pan and five years later he played Slightly in another production of Barrie's Classic fantasy at the same theatre. He was commended by W A Darlington, drama critic of the Daily Telegraph for showing "a comedy sense not unworthy of his famous name".

Hawtrey’s many other stage appearances included the Shakespearean roles of Gremio in The Taming of the Shrew at the Old Vic (1939) and the following year he earned rave notices for the Eric Maschwitz revue New Faces, particularly for his "chic and finished study of an alluring woman spy".

During and after the 1939-45 War he appeared in the West End in such shows as Scoop, Old Chelsea, Merry England, Frou-Frou and Husbands Don’t Count, as well as directing several plays at the Q theatre. But it was in the cinema that he was best known.

He resumed his partnership with Will Hay in Good Morning Boys (1937), Where’s That Fire (1939), The Ghost of St Michael's (1941) and The Goose Steps Out (1942). Other film credits included A Canterbury Tale (1948), The Galloping Major (1950), Brandy for the Parson (1952) and You’re Only Young Twice (1953).

In 1957 he appeared in the popular TV comedy series The Army Game as one of the scruffy lead-swinging squaddies stationed at the forgotten transit camp of Nether Hopping. Hawtrey’s character found it restful to indulge in the unmilitary pastime of knitting.

The following year he was cast in what seemed a fairly indifferent film comedy, Carry On Sergeant, but it turned out be the precursor of a phenomenally successful series of Carry On films. Bawdy, unsubtle and stuffed with atrocious puns, these basic farces were churned out at a production-line speed - roughly two a year for almost two decades - and kept to a notoriously low budget.

Laurence Olivier, arriving at the film studios in a limousine, was surprised to see the macintoshed Hawtrey, one of the best loved stars of the British cinema, proceeding to work on foot in an old mackintosh, carrying a plastic bag.

Hawtrey’s preferred mode of parlance was a weird nonsense language a sort of telegraphese, which few apart from his Carry On co-star Joan Sims were able to fathom.

He lived in an old smuggler’s cottage near the seafront at Deal, from which he was rescued during a fire in 1984, emerging as a pathetically disheveled figure, sans toupee, but characteristically refusing hospital treatment.

His recreations included playing the piano and collecting antiques. He was unmarried.