Though Hawtrey’s face and voice are familiar to anyone who has even flicked past a Carry On, few are familiar with his personal history or private life (ergo the title, Whatshisname) or the length and depth of his career. In truth the actor’s seedy and quite miserable private life are a great contrast to his charming onscreen persona and modestly impressive achievements in an acting career which started young, though never reached the heights he so desperately craved.
These contrasts and surprises are used to great effect throughout the book – a sympathetic weaving of fact, piercing analysis and contemporary opinion is at once affecting and often quite emotional without being mawkish or a tabloid-reminiscent plumbing of a broken life. It is difficult not to feel for the tiny thespian as his self-destructive, unsatisfied ambitions lead to alcoholism, introversion and misdirected spite while his career peters out under his ‘physical-comedy’ typecasting.
Wes Butters’ extensive biography of this lesser-known but instantly familiar cast member, born in 1914 as George Fredrick Joffre Hartree, begins with the final years and death of Hawtrey, by which time he had fallen to become a much-maligned, hate-filled drunkard in the seaside town of Deal in Kent.
Though an atypical beginning for a life history, Whatshisname is clear and logically paced throughout, with major issues clarified within the first two chapters then explored with depth and accuracy throughout the text. This layout well suits the tone of Hawtrey’s life – beginning with the embittered recluse lends the text a more retrospective gaze than many memoirs, allowing readers a view into the origins of the actor’s self-destructive attitudes and habits which sits well with Butters’ analytical style.
It’s hard not to find tragedy in this layout, as the hero’s numerous mistakes and flaws lead him to a miserable finale from a beginning as a talented and humorous child actor with the seeds of destruction for both himself and his profession clear to see.
The effort of the author is unquestionable and his experience writing of other Carry On stars in radio documentaries and biographies speaks for itself. His many insights and analyses, often on difficult material (such as connections between his birth supposedly “bringing the family together”, the possibility of an illegitimate father and the oedipal relationship to his mother) are supported by extensive footnotes and a wealth of supporting material.
Though hardly heavy reading with a clear, easy style of prose, the book is interspersed with a multitude of other information – quotes from fellow actors and ‘Carry Onners’, photographs, film stills, newspaper clippings and personal letters break up the text to form what is a remarkably complete reading of Hawtrey’s life.
Despite the difficulty in procuring this material, Butters has outdone himself, presenting previously unseen photography, interviews from friends and surviving family as well as personal material from a life Hawtrey clearly wanted forgotten. Given his delusions and lies, a lack of surviving material and the age of much of the information (many of the actor’s early films, having been kept on silver nitrate film, are long lost as are his personal records) it forms a cohesive and probably definitive collation of facts and memories.
Whatshisname also addresses Hawtrey’s career with a respectable degree of scrutiny rather than falling into the trap of focusing on the sensationalist depths of his debauchery. A complete filmography is included, as well as an incomplete list of theatrical appearances found in a 1954 résumé to the BBC and TV & radio appearances. His moderately successful behind-the-scenes work directing and producing in theatre and film is also studied within the text, revealing a more rounded career than might have been expected for a “funny fella in glasses”.
This information renders the text not only a study of Hawtrey but in the early chapters an interesting exploration of early British cinema and 1920s local theatre. Even dedicated Carry On fans are likely to be surprised by Hawtrey’s fascinating connections with stage and screen legends that I won’t spoil here.
Ultimately, ‘Whatshisname: The Life and Death of Charles Hawtrey’ is unlikely to defuse arguments between those believing Hawtrey to be a comedic genius and national treasure and people seeing a typecast, careening mess lacking in talent. In truth, it is unfair to ask this of it – as a balanced and interesting review, Butters’ book holds plenty of material to support each argument.
Carry On diehards will no doubt relish such an in-depth and well researched analysis of the life, career and surroundings of an oft-overlooked cast member –as part of a generation unfamiliar with the Carry On phenomenon, I enjoyed a well-written biography in which the passion and sympathy of the author can be felt in every word without interfering in its accuracy or objectivity.
Whatshisname: The Life and Death of Charles Hawtrey by Wes Butters is published by Tomahawk Press.