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Category: London East End comics

Bernard Bresslaw: much more than a Carry On actor

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.

Bernard Bresslaw

Bernard Bresslaw

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.

Carry On’s Bernard Bresslaw

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.

Henny Youngman in the East End of London

When Henny Youngman died on February 24, 1998, at the age of 91 in Manhattan, New York, the world of comedy lost the last of a generation.
Henny was known as the ‘King of the One Liners’ in a career spanning 70 years.
But although he was in a
tradition of the wisecracking Jewish comics who worked New York’s ‘Borscht Belt’ – along with Milton Berle, Jack Benny and Sid Caesar – and seemed as New York as the Empire State and Staten Island, Henny was born Henry Youngman, a Whitechapel lad.
Henny’s parents, like so many thousands of others, had come to the East End from Eastern Europe in the latter years of the 19th century.
Bound for the USA
But they soon found that Whitechapel was lacking in fortune for poor immigrants and, in September 1906, when young Henny was just six months old, they boarded a ship to emigrate to New York, and new opportunities.
Henny’s dad had artistic ambitions for his boy but not as a comedian – he wanted him to become a violin virtuoso. But as one of his fellow comedians quipped in the 1930s: “Henny’s the only guy who, when he opens his violin case, the audience hopes he’s got a machine gun in there.”
Henny worked nights as leader of a band called the Swanee Syncopaters, and it was then, during the late 1920s, that comedy first started to creep into his act. During the band’s performances, Young-man often fooled around with the crowd.

Lucky break
As luck would have it, the regular comedian didn’t show one night and the club owner asked Youngman to fill in. He was a success, leading to more work as a comedian – although Henny admitted that his wife often supported him in the first two decades of show business.
In fact, his wife, Sadie, who died in 1987 aged 82, was the butt of his most famous one-liner: “Take my wife… please!” The quip was actually an off-the-cuff remark before a
radio show, but stuck to Henny, and was the inspiration for the title of his 1973 biography, Take My Life, Please!
In fact, while he was attempting to make his living as a musician, his real professional career was taking place during the day – as a printer in a five-and-dime store.
“But I didn’t have any confidence in a business that was run by a guy like me,” he joked.
“However, if things went sour in comedy, I could always get a job printing… or I could be out of two jobs at once!”
It was the day job that led to the first break in his career. Among his jobs were writing and printing comedy cards, a series of one-line gags that were sold in his store.
Milton Berle – a few years younger than Youngman and already a top comedian – discovered Youngman when he was enticed into the store by a sign for the cards and took an immediate liking to the ‘naturally funny guy’.
A life-long friendship began, although the two often traded barbs: “He once said he was the king of one-liners,” Berle wrote in his 1974 autobiography, “but I told him that was because he couldn’t remember two.”
Youngman would respond: “Milton, is your family happy? Or do you go home at night?”
Youngman’s big break came in 1937 when he appeared on the popular Kate Smith radio show. He was a big hit, staying with the show for two years, leaving eventually to pursue a career in the movies. But except for mostly cameo roles, film stardom never materialized.
His one-line style lent itself better to the club than the screen, so Youngman headed back on the road, averaging nearly 200 dates a year for the next 40 years.
Laugh-In regular
His career was revived in the late 1960s as a regular on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, a TV show that was perfect for his style because it was nothing but one-line gags. “Oh, that Henny Youngman!” soon became a national catchphrase.
He died, rich and successful, in Mount Sinai Hospital, Manhattan, at the end of a journey that had taken him all around the world – via Whitechapel.