Born into a true entertainment dynasty in 1927 Jack Roberton progressed from being a stage hand to straight man for music hall greats like Arthur Askey to creating comic icon Alf Ippitimus, to becoming the last of the great Carry On players.
It is impossible to describe the incredible life and career of Jack Douglas (as he is better known) in one sentence, what about all of his other accomplishments, not least an authority on jazz, a well published cook, professional golfer, a photographer of no mean repute and an artist and designer?
Who better to discuss this amazing man with but Jack himself and thanks to Robert Ross and Morris Bright, the opportunity presented itself at the ‘Carry On Stuffing’ day at Pinewood. I had briefly met Jack several times before but now I had been given twenty minutes, armed with tape recorder, camera and a few pre-prepared questions to get one of the Carry On greats to talk exclusively to Carry On-Line.
The first thing that strikes you about Jack is that he is every inch the gentleman, his manners as immaculate as his dress sense, with a smile and time for everyone. Next to that here is a man who is not only a key part of the Carry On legend but you cannot fail to notice that he loves all things Carry On just as much as anybody who visits this web site.
Without a hint of a yes/no answer Jack took up the story of how he joined the team back in 1972 and his first payment was a crate of champagne......
‘It was very funny my agent, the Late Michael Sullivan, rang me and he said ‘Do you want the good news or the bad news’ and I said ‘for goodness sake give me some good news’ as it had been a very strange year so he said ‘You’re in the next Carry On picture!’ I said ‘Oh wonderful!....What’s the bad news?’ to which he replied ‘You’re not getting paid!’ Michael explained that they had already cast the picture, it was ready to go on the floor but he had talked to Peter Rogers and persuaded him to putting you into a cameo scene in Carry On Matron, ad lib, and if it works you’re in the next picture. Well we did it and by the grace of God it worked, I stayed and did another seven Carry On pictures after that’.
‘I was the new boy on the Carry Ons, I was petrified of joining the team, they were such a professional team, bear in mind they had already done 22 pictures before I got there. I thought it quite understandable that they could easily resent me coming in as they were such an set team. Anyway my first day on Abroad I walked in very nervous indeed and the first thing that happened was Sid James walked over to me and said ‘Jack Douglas isn’t it? Welcome to the team’, shook my hand and offered me a cup of coffee. Kenneth Williams then came over and ‘Don’t just give him a coffee, he probably wants a sandwich!’ They all looked after me. Peter Butterworth then came over and messing about he said ‘Would you like me to polish the table for you?’ and from that moment on I was a member of the Carry On team.’
‘I even headed up the team at Scarborough in the stage farce in Carry On Laughing. The Victoria Palace show was (Carry On London) which was if you like a Crazy Gang or Flanagan and Allen show. What we did at Scarborough was a farce. A farce needs to be in a small theatre and Scarborough was too big. It went well and we did tremendous business but I preferred the Victoria Palace show.’
I mentioned to Jack that after joining the team he was directly involved in every official Carry On production after that, bar one (That's Carry On). Smiling at the idea of being a Carry On anchor man explained:
‘It was never planned! That's the way it happened. I was in the right place at the right time. Sid (James) had decided to accept an offer to tour Australia with a very successful show called The Mating Game and the scripts for the TV series (Carry On Laughing) had already been written with ‘Sid roles’. When Sid was no longer available, they were offered to me. I have been told that Sid recommended me to take his place which is typical of his warmth and generosity, and so I ended up appearing in all of the TV comedies.’
‘We were never on multi-picture contracts, just one at a time so it just happened. Gerald Thomas, who in my opinion was the greatest comedy director we have ever seen, had this incredible gift of letting everybody enjoy themselves, muck about and laugh until the last minute when he would clap his hands and we would start to work! If I had an idea for an ad lib, and I’ve always been an ad lib comic, Gerald would say ‘well go on and do it’. The classic example is when we were doing Carry On Dick and we on location at the Church and I went up into the tower and it was only five foot high - it was too low to shoot the scene and we couldn’t do it! Gerald said ‘Don’t worry we’ll build another tower in the studio and do it there’. Three weeks later when we were in the studio I saw Gerald walking up and down, mopping his brow, and I asked what was the matter and he replied that the tower built in the studio was also five feet high and I’m six feet four! I had an idea an Gerald gave me a free hand. I climbed up into the bell tower and knocked my head off a beam, turned to left knocked my head again, then to the right another knock, turned round, another knock and so on. I then turned direct to camera with a very glazed look to finish it and asked Gerald if it would work. He said yes and I asked if he was ready to shoot it ‘I already have!’ was his reply! His economy with film and encouragement with the cast was unique and I have always thought that his working methods had a lot to do with the success of the Carry Ons.’
‘As well as being in some of the pictures I’m also a great fan of them and I had an idea to make a new Carry On some time after Emmannuelle. I discussed the idea with Peter (Rogers) who said if I could find a backer and the right script he would go ahead with it. Well I found a backer and came up with an outline for Carry On Parliament but Peter didn’t feel it was a good basis for a Carry On so it didn’t go any further. I think there could be more Carry Ons in the future if they have the right script and the right cast - Columbus should serve as a warning to what happens when you stray too far from a successful formula!
With my all-to-brief time with Jack coming to a rapid end I wrapped up by asking him how he felt about being so closely associated with the series more than twenty years after Emmannuelle. As ever with Jack his reply did not disappoint:
‘I have many many happy memories of the Carry Ons and at the moment I am writing my life story, which will take about six months to complete. I’m going through all the photographs I took when I was on the Carry Ons and some of them will be published in the book, so hopefully it will contain some amusing stories and some amusing pictures. I can’t describe to you the wonderful feeling when someone says to you "You’re Jack Douglas. You were in the Carry Ons - you don’t half make me laugh".’
Grateful thanks to Robert Ross and Morris Bright for making this interview possible.
Interview copyright (c) George Seaton 2000.