THE RESHOWING of a host of the Carry On films over Christmas was a glorious reminder of one of the East End of London’s most underestimated thespian talents, writes John Rennie. Underestimated? Surely this was a guy who was never out of work in a career that stretched over 40 years, from his early days in repertory theatre until his untimely death in 1993, at the age of just 61.
But ask anyone of my generation or older (I was a child of the sixties and the Carry Ons were my introduction to comedy, alongside Morecambe and Wise, Frankie Howerd and the rest) and the Stepney actor (son of Jewish immigrants) was a one- or at best two-trick pony. He was the stereotyped giant lunk: Ken Biddle in Carry On Doctor or Bernie Hulke in Carry On At Your Convenience. He was also regularly called upon by Talbot Rothwell, screenwriter to the later of the Carry Ons to play over-the-top ethnic stereotypes: there wasn’t a lot of political correctness in in Carry on Up the Khyber’s Bungdit In or Carry On Cowboy’s Little Heap, but there were plenty of laughs. You didn’t get marks for underplaying your role in the Carry Ons of course, but Bresslaw’s repertoire of leering and eye-rolling could have reached the back row of the stalls at the Glasgow Empire, let alone lighting up the more intimate rectangle of the cinema and increasingly the TV screen. And yet Bresslaw, just like Kenneth Williams and Charles Hawtrey, was able to ham and mug it up without losing the scripts’ already tenuous grip on reality. The truth was that Bernard, like many of the cohort, had a solid grounding in the theatre – the ‘legitimate’ theatre even.
But none of us knew that. Yes we’d seen Bresslaw outside of the Carry Ons, but in roles not far off them: he was the startlingly dim Popeye Popplewell in I Only Arsked! or Snowdrop in Too Many Crooks. They were always cockneys, they were usually crooks, and they were generally soft both of heart and head. Alongside though, Bernard had a major reputation in serious theatre, Shakespeare being a passion. He performed with the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Young Vic and at the National Theatre. He played Malvolio in Twelfth Night (now that would be a play worth revisiting in the cold days of early January) and Grumio in Taming of the Shrew. He studied his art and he had an ear for poetry, even penning his own verse.
Bresslaw took his trade seriously, but he was never as disparaging about ‘mere comedy’ as were some of his fellow performers. Williams famously reviled the Carry Ons, believing they had stymied his chances of being taken seriously as a legit actor. Bresslaw enjoyed them and gratefully banked the cheques – in an insecure profession, a franchise that calls you back decade after decade isn’t to be knocked. And alongside he quietly got on with the ‘serious’ acting. On 11 June 1993 Bernard collapsed in his dressing room as he prepared to take the stage at the Open Air Theatre in London’s Regents Park, where he was to play Grumio in a New Shakespeare Company production of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. It’s a patronising cliche to say it was how he would have wanted to go. At just 59, Bresslaw would certainly like to have lived out many more years with wife Betty and sons James, Mark and Jonathan. But it’s a good way to remember an actor who, while loved for his portrayal of Sir Roger Daley (think about it) was a master of his craft.
Lovely clip of Bresslaw, Sid James and Terry Scott on the set of Carry On Up The Jungle.