CHARLES HAWTREY: Sixteen Year Bender
by Julian Upton
The highs and lows of Charles Hawtrey's life and career are, on the surface, comparable to that of his Carry On colleague, Kenneth Williams. Both performers were, more so than Sid James, the true, long-serving comic staples of the entire Carry On series, from its gentle beginnings in the fifties to the smutty vulgarity of the seventies. (Hawtrey appeared in a whopping twenty-three Carry Ons; Williams stayed around to make twenty-seven.) And offscreen, significantly, Hawtrey and Williams were unfulfilled, lonely men. They were both homosexual - albeit to very different degrees of practice - when it was much less acceptable to be so; both were rather fond of the sauce; both were given to wildly inappropriate behaviour in situations that demanded some social restraint; and, tragically, both were apparently imbued with a terminally self-destructive streak. And, in 1988, they died within six months of each other.
But it is where Hawtrey differs from Williams that is most revealing. Although they were accomplished comic performers with time-served apprenticeships in similar kinds of stage, screen and radio revues, and were both irrepressibly camp in almost everything that they did, Hawtrey's style could hardly have been more different from that of Williams. Where Williams was repressed, sarcastic and often piously self-contained, at least until his inevitably hysterical breaking point, Hawtrey was warm, earthy and sexually mischievous. Where Williams would spend an entire Carry On squirming and bristling like a trapped cat to escape the intoxicated love-grip of a frustrated Hattie Jacques, Hawtrey would more often than not gladly strip down to his boxer shorts and get pissed on brandy with her, giggling away coyly as he did so. Williams marches snootily about the screen, buttoned up to the throat in a conservative suit; Hawtrey minces around in an orange shirt and pink chiffon scarf. Williams looks down his nose at us. Hawtrey, instead, flirts with us, looking directly at the camera with a little wink and a naughty smile.
But there were also marked differences in the offscreen personalities of Hawtrey and Williams, and these were the traits that truly affected their careers. For all his ennui, self-loathing and contempt for the material he was working with, Williams remained ensconced in the Carry On series until its demise in 1978, and he spent the rest of his career busy with the kind of voiceovers, radio appearances and one-man shows that he was already a veteran of. Something of a loose cannon, he was nonetheless always professional. Most significantly, he had always strenuously repressed his own transparent homosexuality, almost to the point of self-denial.
|Charles Hawtrey points to Sid James in Carry On Henry
By contrast, Hawtrey was more dangerous and undisciplined in his later years. He became unreliable, was invariably drunk, and made no secret of his voracious homosexual urges - eyewitnesses observed him pitifully trying to seduce sailors in his local pubs, and Barbara Windsor recounted how he chased after George Best at a publicity event in Manchester. Perhaps not surprisingly, when Hawtrey finally fell out with the Carry On team in 1972, his career was harder to sustain.
There is a story that Hawtrey quit the Carry On series because the producer and director wouldn't let him have a star on his dressing room door. This incident did apparently occur, during the making of Carry On Abroad (1972), and the fact he was refused this minor indulgence is totally in keeping with the stern, almost humourless control that producer Peter Rogers and director Gerald Thomas exerted over their actors. But Hawtrey had already been burning his bridges with Rogers and Thomas for a number of years - by frequently turning up too drunk for work and squabbling over his billing. To their credit, Rogers and Thomas did seem to tolerate Hawtrey's bad behaviour for a while - they even cast him as a drunk in Carry On Abroad precisely because he was out of his head throughout the shoot. They also appreciated that Hawtrey was a key ingredient in the Carry On mix, and that they owed him more than they were perhaps prepared to admit.
The termination of Hawtrey's Carry On career actually occurred later in 1972, when he was to be involved in one of the team's regular Carry On Christmas television specials. With Sid James and Kenneth Williams not scheduled to appear, Hawtrey demanded top billing. But Gerald Thomas insisted that that honour was going to Hattie Jacques - not as long-serving a member of film series, but by then a television personality of higher standing. As Hawtrey had been written into the script of the special and had even been involved in some advance publicity for it, Thomas was keen to retain his services, but persisted in offering the actor second billing. Hawtrey, in turn, persisted in refusing. With just two days to go to the start of taping, Thomas telephoned Hawtrey (who was lunching, as usual, in a department store restaurant) and tried to secure his services one final time. Hawtrey still said no.
He might not have realised it straight away, but Hawtrey cut his last tie with this display of stubbornness. One thing that Rogers and Thomas never did was indulge their stars (or properly appreciate them, in many people's eyes) and they weren't about to be pushed around by Hawtrey with a tight TV schedule pressing. As Rogers himself commented: "There was no question Charles Hawtrey was going to hold me to ransom - no way we'd trust Charles Hawtrey after letting us down like that."
Hawtrey fell immediately, and somewhat deliberately, into the show business wilderness. The Carry On team had undoubtedly needed him, but Hawtrey had also needed Carry On, even more than Williams did (and much more so than an established TV star like Sid James) - for exposure, for money and, saddest of all, for company. Nevertheless, he was excluded from the further films in the series - Carry On Girls (1973); Dick (1974); Behind (1975); England (1976) and Emmanuelle (1978), even though all of them would have benefited immeasurably from his presence.
Despite having forty years experience in film and television comedy, Hawtrey retreated instead to panto and provincial summer seasons in which he toured the country in walk-on parts that capitalised on his familiar Carry On persona. But this work was infrequent, and Hawtrey was usually drunk when he did it. In reality, the ageing actor had opted to live modestly in retirement, which unfortunately freed up more time for his principal interests - drinking himself stupid and trying to get off with men barely out of their teens.
Hawtrey as Dan Dan the Lavatory Man in Carry On Screaming
In the early seventies, Hawtrey went to live in the small town of Deal on the Kent coast, not least because it was populated by a bevy of handsome sailor boys. Whether he thought that this relocation would result in an endless stream of sexual conquests is unclear. At this time such openly gay behaviour would not have been particularly welcome in cosmopolitan cities, let alone small towns. What is well-known is that Hawtrey proceeded to make a first-class nuisance of himself around the town, particularly in its watering holes, where he frequently imbibed well beyond the capacity of his tiny frame, and was given to increasing displays of rudeness and lecherousness.
When not out raising hell in the pubs in Deal, Hawtrey spent his evenings ranting at his cat, which - according Roger Lewis' essay-biography of the star - was also something of an alcoholic, given that it was fed on a diet of "port-soaked sugar lumps and sherry-spiked butter." Lewis goes on to describe Hawtrey's own nightly diet as "two and a half bottles of port, a quantity of whiskey and a pot of tea." Hawtrey drunkenly shared both his high and low moods with his feline companion, either wistfully recounting anecdotes and stories to it, or screaming blue murder at it for ignoring him.
Hawtrey had always drank to excess, but now he had nothing to sober up for. His days were wasting away in a blur of alcohol, regret and overt bitterness towards his former employers and colleagues. In 1979 he did manage a fleeting appearance as one of the many cameos in Eric Sykes' silent TV comedy, The Plank, but then he promptly disappeared from view again. When he next made a splash with the public, five years later, it was in far less agreeable circumstances.
In August 1984, Hawtrey's house caught fire when he left a cigarette burning on the sofa. The incident was fairly newsworthy, but it was made much more so by the fact that Charlie was naked when he was rescued from his bedroom, wherein, it transpired, a very young man (some reports say all of sixteen years old), with just his trousers on, was still trapped. The incident is comically recounted by Kenneth Williams in a subsequently published letter. "When safely down the ladder, a fireman assured Hawtrey, 'You're all right now.' Hawtrey replied, 'No, I'm not. My fags are upstairs by the bed, and my boyfriend's in it.'" In reality, the episode was an embarrassing one for Hawtrey, who was, moments after being rescued, snapped by a news photographer. He looked haggard, distressed and, most shockingly, pitifully naked without his clothes or his trademark black toupee. It was also an event that led to a degree of persecution in the subsequent months.
There is no way an old celebrity caught in flagrante delecto with a sixteen-year-old boy would emerge scott free today, and it is amazing that Hawtrey wasn't dragged through the coals more severely in 1984, when the age of consent for homosexuality was still set solidly at twenty-one. Still, other reports have put the age of the young accomplice as 'early twenties' so this might have eased the onslaught. Either way, the incident soon faded into the tabloid ether. But Hawtrey had cooked his goose as far as some of his fellow Deal residents were concerned. As Lewis comments, the actor soon "became a target for lager louts, who shouted abuse through his letter-box." Sometimes too frightened to go out, Hawtrey would also "despatch a taxi to do his shopping …"
The next four years saw further decline in Hawtrey's health and mindset. One by one, he began to get barred from all the pubs in Deal, such was the nuisance he was making of himself. He alienated all his remaining acquaintances, and was indignant to many who simply wanted to seek him out and pay their respects. (He'd never had any close friends to speak of. His closest bond, somewhat predictably, had been with his mother.) When anyone asked him about the Carry On films, he launched into a tirade of resentment. By the mid eighties, half-hour compilation shows of the old films were being screened week after week on British TV, but Hawtrey and his fellow Carry On actors saw not a penny in residuals, all of which went to Rogers and Thomas.
Somehow, during this time, Hawtrey did manage to focus his vision long enough to get through an episode of the children's TV comedy Supergran, as a guest star (the show was transmitted in early 1987). This was his last ever screen role, and it seemed to come out of the blue - he'd been absent from film and TV for eight years. But it did not symbolise any kind of return to form. Hawtrey was in frail health by now. A series of heart scares in the mid eighties had put paid to resuming any kind of real career.
In October 1988, Hawtrey collapsed, drunk again, in the doorway of another Deal drinking establishment. In doing so, he badly broke one of his legs, but, when he got to the hospital, the doctors had graver concerns. The seventy-three year old star had serious circulatory problems brought on by years of heavy smoking. Hawtrey was told that he had to lose both legs if he was to live. Characteristically stubborn, he flatly refused to go through with the necessary double amputation. (Four years earlier, after the house fire, he had also refused hospital treatment for his burns, regarding himself as 'self-healing'.) He said he'd prefer to die with his boots on.
Hawtrey was transferred to a nursing home in Deal, where he spent his last days. He died on October 27, 1988. Nine people attended his funeral.
Charles Hawtrey (1914-88)
1922: Tell Your Children (uncredited)
1923: This Freedom (uncredited)
1933: The Melody Maker
1936: Well Done, Henry
1936: Cheer Up (uncredited)
1937: Good Morning Boys
1939: Where's That Fire?
1941: The Ghost of St. Michael's
1942: The Goose Steps Out
1942: Much Too Shy (uncredited)
1942: Let the People Sing
1943: Bell-Bottom George
1944: A Canterbury Tale
1945: Ten-Year Plan (uncredited)
1945: Dumb Dora Discovers Tobacco (short; director only)
1945: What Do We Do Now? (short; director only)
1947: The End of the River
1947: Meet me at Dawn (uncredited)
1948: The Story of Shirley Yorke
1949: Passport to Pimlico
1949: Dark Secret
1950: Room to Let
1951: The Smart Aleck
1951: The Galloping Major
1952: You're Only Young Twice
1952: Hammer the Toff
1952: Brandy for the Parson (uncredited)
1954: To Dorothy a Son
1954: Five Days
1955: As Long as They're Happy
1955: Simon and Laura (uncredited)
1955: March Hare
1955: Man of the Moment
1955: Jumping for Joy (uncredited)
1956: Who Done It?
1958: I Only Arsked!
1958: Carry On Sergeant
1959: Please Turn Over
1959: Carry On Teacher
1959: Carry On Nurse
1960: Inn for Trouble
1960: Carry On Constable
1961: What a Whopper!
1961: Dentist on the Job
1961: Carry On Regardless
1963: Carry On Cabby
1963: Carry On Jack
1964: Carry On Spying
1965: Carry on Cleo
1966: Carry On Cowboy
1966: Carry On Screaming
1967: The Terronauts
1967: Carry On Follow That Camel
1967: Carry On Don't Lose Your Head
1968: Carry On Up the Khyber
1968: Carry On Doctor
1969: Zeta One
1969: Carry On Camping
1969: Carry On Again Doctor
1970: Carry On Up the Jungle
1970: Carry On Loving
1971: Carry On Henry
1971: Carry On At Your Convenience
1972: Carry On Matron
1972: Carry On Abroad