Charles Hawtrey (1914-1988) b. Hounslow, Middlesex, England.
“Oh Hello!” Charles Hawtrey was born George Frederick Joffre Hartree on 30th November 1914 in Hounslow, Middlesex, England.
His family was a well-known theatrical one and he started acting at an early age. As a small boy he attended the famous Italia Conti acting school for three years, and his first taste of success came in the shape of a musical career as a boy-soprano. In 1925, he adopted the stage name Charles Hawtrey. This was three years after the death of Sir Charles Hawtrey and although the two were unrelated, he never discouraged suggestions that the Edwardian actor was his father.
He also met with some success as a child actor, playing small roles such as a street Arab in The Windmill Man in Boscombe, Dorset. But it was his appearance in Bluebell in Fairyland, on Boxing Day 1927, at London’s Scala Theatre that really got his acting career going.
In 1929, he began working in radio, securing performances alongside some of the biggest names of the day, including roles in the Will Hay series, the Norman and Henry Bones children’s hour comedy and Just William.
Critics began to take a serious note of him when he appeared, in 1931 as Slightly in Peter Pan at the London Palladium. His performance was very well received and W A Darlington, the Daily Telegraph’s drama critic, went as far as describing him as having “a comedy sense not unworthy of his famous name.”
Throughout the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s, he took on a wide range of theatrical roles and probably the most impressive was his performance as Gremio in The Taming of the Shrew at the Old Vic in 1939, playing opposite Roger Livesey’s Petruchio. He also got good reviews for his roles in Scoop, Old Chelsea, Merry England, and Husbands Don’t Count and its a little known fact that during this time he also occasionally tried his hand at directing, but it was through his work in film that he became best known and enjoyed the most.
His impressive and lengthy list of film credits include Good Morning Boys (1937), The Ghost of St Michael’s (1941), A Canterbury Tale (1944), The Galloping Major (1950), Brandy for the Parson (1952) and You’re Only Young Twice (1953).
Then, in 1957 he appeared in the TV series The Army Game with Bernard Bresslaw and William Hartnell , a role that directly led to him be cast, in 1958, in Carry On Sergeant. It was a role that certainly changed his life.
As the Carry On phenomenon gained momentum and became more and more popular, so his profile soared. In the next two decades he appeared in a total of 23 Carry On films, which eventually led him to believe that the importance of his characters and the fact that he had more experience in the business than most of his co-stars, entitled him to receive a higher billing in the series than he was getting. Unfortunately for him though, the producers didn’t agree with him and so, after filming Carry on Abroad in 1972, he left the series.
He was, from all accounts, almost as eccentric in real life as the characters he played in the Carry On series and probably his strangest habit was to speak in an unintelligible language of his own making, which was apparently only understood by a few of his very closest friends.
Whilst Hawtrey’s natural character made him naturally suited to the camp, comedy roles in which he was cast for the Carry Ons, it also led to the questioning of his sexuality. Admittedly, he never hid his homosexuality, but he always insisted that he had remained deliberately single throughout his life.
In his later years he retreated more and more into his shell and rarely left his old smuggler’s cottage home in Deal, preferring to play his piano and indulge his love of his antiques collection. He hit the local headlines, when in 1984 he was rescued from a fire there.
Hawtrey’s last appearance on TV was as Clarence, Duke of Claridge in a special edition of the children’s programme, Supergran. The comedian Billy Connolly also appeared in the episode.
In September 1988, he was taken to hospital after breaking his leg in a fall and it was discovered he was suffering from peripheral vascular disease, a condition of the arteries brought on by a lifetime of heavy smoking. He had also suffered from arthritis for most of his life and as he grew older his it became increasingly more severe. His condition deteriorated very quickly and it became so severe that doctors suggested his legs would have to be amputated to save his life.
He refused the operation and died less than a month later on 27 October 1988 in Deal. His ashes were scattered in Mortlake Crematorium, close to Chiswick in London.
Compiled by Clive Saunders.