Thin, dark-haired, British comic character star with dry, plaintive tones. He moved
from what seemed a lifetime of skinny, snooty, trouble-making schoolboys in the late
1950's to become a regular member of the 'Carry On' films for 15 years. Pop-eyed
and bespectacled, thin lips, it seemed, permanently pursed in an expression of disapproval
or in anticipation of trouble, Hawtrey came originally from a theatrical family based
in Middlesex. At the age of six he was writing plays that he and friends would put
on for anyone who would pay a penny. The stage was in his own back garden. But greater
fame beckoned when he developed a fine soprano voice, joined an amateur operatic
society and even made a record or two. There were roles in silent films, a first
stage appearance at eleven and some training at drama school before he made his debut
London stage appearance at eighteen.
For a while Hawtrey tried producing but found it less satisfying and returned to
acting. He gradually began to get a footing in the 'false boom' of the British cinema
industry of the mid-1930's when versatile actors found themselves in great demand.
But it was a series of films that Hawtrey made with Will Hay that made his name,
defined his image and familiarised audiences with his face. Hay was Hawtrey's idol
- he once said 'I learned everything I know from him - and he even turned down a
role in Top of the Form (1952), a remake of Hay's 1937 film Good Morning, Boys, because
he thought (rightly) that it cheapened the original.
In between his five films with Hay, Hawtrey became a regular broadcaster, most notably
on children's programmes as the voice of Norman Bones, boy detective. His light,
earnest-sounding speaking voice enabled him to keep going in the role for several
years after his debut in 1943. And there were numerous film performances, almost
always in comic cameos, before his performance as an inept private soldier in Carry
On Sergeant made him a regular member of the highly successful series of film farces
Knobbly-kneed and goggle-eyed, Hawtrey's characters in these films were vaguely camp
and campily vague. He was always worth a smile and the running gag about him being
tortured in Carry On Henry is the best thing in the film. Hawtrey's last years were
far from happy. He became a heavy drinker and lost his place on the 'Carry On' team.
Bitterly, he would tell friends that he had been dumped for being too old, an ironic
fate for the perennial schoolboy. In his seventies, Hawtrey developed serious arterial
problems. Revived after his heart stopped beating in September 1988, he was told
that he would die unless both legs were removed.
He refused the operation and died a month later. He lived alone in a terraced house
in a Kent seaside town, seldom visited by old companions from the film world. A sad
ending for the multi-talented youngster once billed as 'Master Charles Hawtrey -
the Angel Voiced Choirboy'.