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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.
He was a boxer, peddler and wedding crasher; married three times and with at least ten offspring; a failed singer from Odessa who became one of the great actors of the American stage. By the time he died in 1926 in New York, Jacob Adler had lived lives enough for a dozen men.
Yet it was his arrival in Whitechapel in 1883 that was to prove most significant. For Adler would transport Yiddish theatre from an Eastern European curiosity to Broadway success. As he would write in his memoirs years later: “If Yiddish theatre was destined to go through its infancy in Russia, and in America grew to manhood and success, then London was its school.”
Jacob was born in Odessa in 1855, the son of an unsuccessful grain merchant, and his early life was spent ducking, diving and picking his way through a chaotic home life and a sporadic education (“a little arithmetic, some Russian grammar, and a few French phrases”, according to Adler). Aged 12, he started making his own entertainment, going along to public brandings, floggings and executions of criminals. There were plenty of them: Odessa was a dangerous and violent place, and simply being Jewish was risky enough. One of the city’s many pogroms took place in 1859, another in 1871: thousands of Russian and Eastern European Jews were already heading for the safety of Whitechapel, either to settle or en route to New York.
The young Jacob still had a turbulent Russian adolescence to endure before he would make that trip. There was money in the extended Adler clan, yet at 14 he was working in a textile factory, soon rising to a good white collar job at 10 roubles a month (good pay even for an adult). But Jacob was drawn to the wilder side of life, hanging out in the rough Odessa district of Moldovanka, and becoming a boxer (his tagline was Yankele Kulachnik or ‘Jake the Fist’). He was a fine dancer too, becoming renowned as Odessa’s best can-can dancer, and crashing weddings with his gang. He left the factory, earning a living peddling goods doors to doors. It was a life of “back door assignations with servant girls and chambermaids” sailing very close to the law. He had now dropped the boxing but became obsessed with theatre – and here occur the meetings which would change his story, and that of theatre, forever.
Yiddish theatre was enormously popular, if derided by the more traditional members of the Jewish community, and Jacob was inspired by the improvisational performances of one of its founders, Israel Grodner, one of the stars of the Odessa theatre. Adler determined that he too would be an actor (an ability to sing had shattered his dreams of opera) but he had to fit acting within the increasing chaos of his life. After a late night at the theatre and in the taverns, he rose each morning to work in turn as a document-copyist for a lawyer, a medical orderly in the Russian army, a market inspector … and a paperboy (6am starts didn’t sit well with staying out till dawn). But by the early eighties he was making a solid reputation in Yiddish theatre, in plays such as The Witch of Botosani and Uriel Acosta.
His nascent stage career ended overnight with the assassination of Czar Alexandar II. A period of mourning meant a ban on theatre performances and Russia’s simmering anti-semitism overboiled. A total ban was declared on Yiddish theatre in Russia. Adler’s troupe, which now included his wife Sonya (as well as Israel and Annetta Grodner) were stranded in the port of Riga; they decided it was time to get out, and boarded a ship to London.
Ironically, though Whitechapel was one of the Jewish capitals of Europe by now, Jacob arrived with few useful contacts. The Chief Rabbi, Dr Nathan Adler, was a relative and Jacob’s father had written a letter of introduction, but the rabbi had no interest in helping Yiddish theatre. To Dr Adler, it was English the new arrivals needed to progress in their new home. A theatre specialising in “slang and jargon” might only harden anti-semitism.
But for Yiddish theatre in the East End, the arrival of Adler and Co heralded a major change, bringing the form to bigger stages and bringing more professional performers – though still no more than starvation wages. The Adlers and Grodners took over the Prescot Street Club, playing to audiences of 150 or so. By November 1885, Adler had his own club, the Princes Street Club (now Princelet Street), purpose built and seating 300. Shows included Fiedler’s adaptation of Schiller’s The Robbers and The Odessa Beggar. And stars of Yiddish theatre, including Sigmund Mogulesko, David Kessler, Abba and Clara Shoengold, would perform at the club when they passed through London.
But just as Jacob’s fortunes seemed made, tragedy struck. In 1886 his daughter Rivka died of croup, and wife Sonya died after giving birth to baby boy Abe. Adler’s private life was in turmoil, as he was pursuing affairs with Jennya Kaiser (who turned down his offer of marriage though she was carrying Jacob’s baby); and with DInah Stettin (whose father pressed the newly widowed Adler into matrimony). Then in winter 1887, an audience at the Princes Club panicked, believing a simulated on-stage fire was real. In the stampede, 17 died. Adler was absolved of blame, the club reopened, but the crowds failed to return.
A broken Adler cut his losses and, with a loan from the Chief Rabbi, headed for New York with new bride Dinah. There, as he later wrote, Yiddish theatre graduated from school to huge popular acclaim. By the early 90s, Jacob and Dinah were divorced and new wife Sara starred alongside Jacob on stage. He set up a new troupe, touring Philadelphia, Chicago and beyond with plays such as Samson the Great and Gordin’s The Yiddish King Lear. It was the latter play that really changed things. Until then, it was a given that Jewish Broadway had to focus on sensational melodrama to pull in the crowds. Adler proved that ‘serious’ theatre could also get bums on seats.
In his declining years he wrote his memoirs (in Yiddish of course) and they were published in the newspaper, Die Varheit (The Truth). By then, Yiddish was already in decline among Londoners and New Yorkers – a natural, if sad, consequence of assimilation. Yiddish theatre would disappear altogether by the later thirties, but Adler was in no doubt how important it had been, writing: “Only dipped in blood and lit with tears of a living witness can the world understand how, with our blood, with our nerves, with the tears of our sleepless nights, we built the theatre that stands today as a testament to our people.” Jacob died on 1 April 1926 in New York. He was 81.
References: Adler, Jacob P., A Life on the Stage: A Memoir, translated and with commentary by Lulla Rosenfeld, Knopf, New York, 1999, ISBN 0-679-41351-0
Map of Jacob Adler’s life: http://goo.gl/maps/6rBul
WHEN king-size actor Bernard Bresslaw collapsed and died in June 1993 generations of Carry On fans mourned the loss of a giant comic talent.
But his last role spoke volumes about the paradox of a well-read East End lad who could turn his hand to any role – yet was always cast as an amiable idiot.
Bresslaw was born in Stepney in 1934, the son of an impecunious tailor’s cutter, himself a descendant of Jewish Polish immigrants.
The young Bernie was a giant from birth, weighing in at 10lb 4oz and wearing size nine shoes before he hit his teens. The shoe size was a big disappointment to his mum – she wanted him to be a tap dancer. But Bresslaw had dreams of his own.
He could have followed his dad into the rag trade but instead was inspired by his English teacher, at Mile End’s Coopers School, to follow his dreams of acting.
He applied to the top actors’ school, RADA, was accepted, and swiftly showed his potential in the Academy’s performance of Christopher Fry’s Venus Observed, not only winning the Academy’s Emile Littler Award as Most Promising Actor but personal plaudits from the playwright himself.
Bernard graduated and went into a notoriously tough form of rep – playing RAF and Army camps, Borstals and mental hospitals.
It was a tough baptism into the business but one that stood him in good stead. He later said that the demands of keeping happy the demanding all-male houses – who would soon let you know if you weren’t up to scratch – was superb discipline and training for his later career.
“Like facing hostile fast bowling,” he laughed.
Bresslaw always prized his classical actor’s schooling but it was a different sort of training that set him up for his big break.
The Army Game ran from 1957 to 1962 becoming the BBC’s top sitcom. Bresslaw drew on his National Service years as a driver/clerk in the Royal Army Service Corps to create the role of gormless giant Private Popeye Popplewell.
Financial security, a spin-off film I Only Arsked and even a string of hits with pop singles followed – all with Bernie in character.
Bresslaw was a household name and his fame grew when, in 1965, he took on the first of 14 Carry On roles. Indian brave Little Heap in Carry On Cowboy, warrior Bungdit In in Carry On Up The Khyber, sinister butler Sockett in Carry On Screaming, Bresslaw played them all while pursuing his classical career in the theatre.
Roles in Two Gentlemen of Verona, Much Ado About Nothing and A Midsummer Night’s Dream gave him artistic satisfaction in his work with the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Young Vic and the Chichester Festival Theatre.
But the heavy workload drove him to exhaustion and a collapse at a 1992 showbiz dinner.
In the Eighties, virtual blindness threatened his career and his love of reading Racine, Milton and history. But a pioneering operation at Moorfields’ Hospital saved his sight and he was back on stage.
And it was there that the comic giant died – not as Bungdit In or Popeye but in the sort of role for which he craved recognition – waiting to go on stage as Grumio in the Taming of the Shrew at the open air theatre in Regent’s Park.
He was known as the scene stealer par excellence, an actor whose performances were so ebulliently over the top that he could cast even a talent as towering as Peter Sellers into the shade. Lionel Jeffries, who has died aged 83, was as at home in the theatre, on the telly or on the big screen. An actor, writer and director he was a hit with kids (for triumphs such as The Railway Children and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) and with their parents (for British classics such as the Wrong Arm of the Law). In nearly 100 movies, he played comedy and drama with equal aplomb, starring on both sides of the Atlantic.
Yet Jeffries’ beliefs, character and sense of duty were forged a long way from the tinseltown of Hollywood (or Elstree and Pinewood come to that). In the East End of the 1930s, he absorbed the moral code of his Salvation Army parents, learning the importance of helping those less fortunate than himself, and developing a lifelong distate for the sex and violence that pervaded movies in his latter years.
Which Jeffries’ moment do you pick from the dozens of films in which he starred or supported? Is it playing Grandpa Potts, Dick Van Dyke’s irascible father in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang? Was it as the officious and useless Inspector ‘Nosey’ Parker, trying to outwit crooks Peter Sellers and Bernard Cribbins in The Wrong Arm of the Law? Or playing the deeply unpleasant Marquis of Queensberry, persecuting playwright Oscar in Wilde (1960)? In truth, the one movie that will live long after his death is one in which he didn’t even appear. Moving behind the camera to direct The Railway Children in 1970, he not only scored a massive hit, but one which would endure year after year. It’s probable that families will be settling down to watch the heartwarming hit, starring Jenny Agutter and Bernard Cribbens, long after most of us are gone. And that would have delighted family man Jeffries.
He was born on 10 June, 1926, and caught the end of World War 2, with military service in the Oxford and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry and the Royal West African Frontier Force in Burma. He made captain but lost his hair – blaming the fierce humidity of the tropics for his premature baldness. Returning to London in the late 1940s, he secured a place at RADA. “I was the only bald one there,” he remembered with rueful humour. “Of course I was upset. Tried a toupee once, too, but it looked like a dead moth on a boiled egg.” He went on to win the college’s prestigious Kendal Award but was told by agents and bookers that his looks would hold him back. However, his London stage debut – in Carrington VC at the Westminster Theatre in 1949 – was the beginning of more than 40 years’ non-stop work.
By the early fifties he had moved from stage to screen. In British and American films alike, he managed the tricky feat of playing both broad comedy (often as a hapless crook or copper) and drama (frequently as uptight and officious authority figures). The prematurely bald and distinctively moustachioed Lionel now turned his appearance to his advantage, and always played above his age (in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, he was in fact six months younger than his ‘son’ Dick Van Dyke). Whether in comedy or drama, he managed to suggest the barely suppressed hysteria of his characters while not going over the top – or only when the role demanded. “Most of the people I played were caught in desperation. In their hearts they knew that they were failures – but they would never admit it, even to themselves,” he mused later.
The non-stop Jeffries made excellent choices, but his daughter had an even surer eye. The eight-year-old Martha Jeffries had read The Railway Children and told her dad: “I think that would make a good film.” Jeffries bought the rights for Edith Nesbit’s book for £2000, worked up a script and fruitlessly trailed it round producers’ offices before his old friend Bryan Forbes took on the project. Jeffries had never directed but he persuaded the moneymen to give him the job. Family movies such as The Amazing Mr Blunden and Wombling Free followed (and an enduring association with Cribbins) but Jeffries didn’t have the directorial career he deserved.
By the 1980s, despite a lifetime in the movies, and with a trio of children’s hit movies behind him as director, he couldn’t get his projects to the screen. “No one wants family entertainment any more. They want explicit sex”, he reflected sadly. He returned to the theatre and began to pop up on TV (of which he could be scathing), appearing in Lovejoy, Shillingbury Tales, All for Love and Inspector Morse.
The young, East End Salvationist remained a committed Catholic in later years. Jeffries retired from acting in 2001 and for the last few years of his life lived in a nursing home in Poole, on the south coast. He died aged 83 on 19 February this year, leaving his widow Eileen, two daughters and a son. In a business noted for its shortlived and multiple marriages, Eileen and Lionel had been happily together for 59 years.