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.