CULT HERO / Charles Hawtrey

 

Oh, hel-leau! Jimmy Widdle here. And Peter Golightly, Gabriel Dimple, Walter Sweetley, James Bedsop and Charlie Coote.

Not to mention Norman Bones, Boy Detective. And I'd like it to be known that while I do not object to jiggery, I do take exception to pokery.

Of all the Carry On grotesques, Charles Hawtrey remains intriguing. While the rest of the cast blundered around, roaring and leering, the purse-lipped, graceful Hawtrey was the most comically economical of that bawdy troupe, a master of abrupt, darting, birdlike mime. He was elfin and somehow insubstantial; there was a charming vagueness that suggested he had accidentally wandered on to the wrong film set and was improvising as best he could.

This fey other-worldliness had much to do with the prodigious alcoholic intake he maintained throu- ghout his life: five double gin and vermouths for breakfast and an average evening's tippling of two-and-a-half bottles of port plus whiskey and a pot of tea.

He was born Charles Hartree in Middlesex in 1914 and became a child actor, supporting Will Hay in several comedy films and making his name on BBC radio as Norman Bones. He was also a singer, billed as "Master Charles Hawtrey, the Angel-Voiced Choirboy". In many ways, he remained a little boy all his life.

Hawtrey was a feisty and courageous little actor who was always defiantly his own man and couldn't care less what people thought of him. As a flamboyantly gay man, he attracted the kind of attention that was fraught with danger in the 1950s. But unlike many homosexual public figures, he never pretended to be anything other than his true self. "No, bring me a nice gentleman," he insisted when photographers wanted him to pose with starlets.

He was sacked from the Carry Ons in 1972 after turning up drunk for work once too often. Re- treating to his seaside home at Deal in Kent, his last years were sad and sordid. He was barred from every pub in the town. One publican commented: "Millions of people think of him as a lovely person who makes them laugh. I try to remember him like that, but mostly I think of him lying on my bar floor with his legs in the air, absolutely plastered and incapable of speech."

A lifetime of heavy smoking led to grave circulation problems, and in 1988 he was presented with an ultimatum.

"He may have been a bit of an oddball, Charlie, but he was a brave one," his friend, Barbara Windsor, explained. "When his doctors told him they would have to amputate his legs he lit a fag and said: 'No - I want to die with my boots on.' And that's what he did."