Charles Hawtrey: The Funny Fella with the Glasses

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BBC Radio 4, 27 April 2010
Presented by journalist Wes Butters - whose previous excavations into radio history unearthed a long-lost script written for Kenneth Williams and Kenneth Horne - The Fella With the Glasses recounted the sad life of the Carry On star, who became typecast at an early age as the perpetual man-child. This was a great shame, as Hawtrey had the potential to become a versatile character-actor: we heard an extract from a 1940 radio production of Marlowe's Dr. Faustus with Robert Donat, where Hawtrey made a convincing villain. On stage he played Gremio in Tyrone Guthrie's production of The Taming of the Shrew at London's Old Vic (1939).
However he also became associated with Will Hay, both on screen and on radio in the weekly programme (1944-5), where Hawtrey played Smart). Later on in the decade he became a mainstay of Children's Hour and the Just William series, where he played the snooty Hubert Lane. In the 1950s he appeared in a succession of minor British comedies on screen, playing roughly the same type of character, while securing a leading role in the ITV sitcom The Army Game. He made his debut in the first Carry On film, Carry on Sergeant, in 1958 and starred in a further twenty-one films in the series until Carry on Abroad (1972), Eventually producer Peter Rogers dropped him from the series, after Hawtrey withdrew at short notice from a Carry On television programme Carry on Christmas, in which he was scheduled to appear, in a dispute over billing.
Thereafter Hawtrey's career declined rapidly. Unable to find much work, except in pantomime, he took to the bottle. Matters were made considerably worse for him by having to look after his elderly mother, who suffered dementia in her later years. Hawtrey retired to Deal on the south coast, where he led a hermit-like existence after his mother's death, refusing to open the door to anyone. Eventually he was banned from the local pub, as his behaviour in public grew worse and worse. Sometimes he appeared on television - as a guest in a series called Movie Star Memories - but he proved a drunken embarrassment as he could hardly reply to presenter Roy Hudd's questions.
Hawtrey last hit the headlines in 1984, when a rent boy set his house on fire. Newspaper photographs showed him naked except for a blanket without his toupee. Four years later he died as a result of peripheral vascular disease.
The programme contained interviews from those who knew Hawtrey towards the end of his life. He could hardly be described as a likeable person; it seemed as if he went out of his way to offend everyone, even autograph-hunters. Presenter Butters suggested that this was chiefly due to the actor's frustration, as typecasting had effectively ruined his career. Hawtrey's story reminded us of just how unhappy some of the Carry On cast actually were off-screen: Kenneth Williams took his own life, Joan Sims died in genteel poverty, complaining to the end about the miserly fees she was paid.