Thursday, June 18, 2015

Oh Hello!: Interview with Jamie Rees

This feature was first published on June 18th, 2015 by Arts Scene in Wales

The Carry On series of films has given audiences so much joy and laughter ever since the first one in 1958, and the repertory company of stars who made up the regular cast have a special place in our hearts.

There was cackling Sid James, busty Babs Windsor and snooty Kenneth Williams… but it is the camp, bespectacled Charles Hawtrey who is the subject of this one-man show starring Jamie Rees, which has a handful of dates in Wales this summer as well as a stakeout at the Edinburgh Fringe.

The play is written by Dave Ainsworth, who first performed his own script more than a decade ago. But Jamie says that he always knew he could do a better job!

"I saw Dave's own show at Sherman Cymru in 2002 and although it was very funny and Dave was great in it, he doesn't physically match Charles Hawtrey – Dave's a well-built guy, whereas Hawtrey was very slight. Dave gave such a good performance, but I just thought: 'I could do that!'."

Jamie certainly resembles Hawtrey physically, and some years later when Jamie was drinking with Dave in a pub, he told the writer that he thought he could do it better than him. Dave challenged him to do just that, and so Oh Hello went back on the road.

"My impression of Charles Hawtrey just felt quite natural. Sometimes you just see something and know you can do it," says Jamie. "I read Dave's script and straight away the performance started to come together."

Did Jamie watch lots of Hawtrey's work to get the voice and mannerisms?

"I watched all the Carry Ons when I was young, but I haven't actually seen very many as an adult. I got a lot of background from Roger Lewis's biography, The Man Who Was Private Widdle, and watched a lot of clips on YouTube. One thing I intend to do before we take Oh Hello to Edinburgh in August is watch every single Carry On, and I want to write about it on a blog. I think that'll be interesting, and a challenge!"

What people don't tend to remember about Charles Hawtrey is that as well as being very camp and funny, he was also a very good actor, and had enjoyed decades of success in British films since the 1930s before joining the Carry On team. In fact, he was something of a star among the relative unknowns of Carry On Sergeant in 1958.

"And the fact he was never properly recognised for that in the Carry Ons was a constant source of bitterness for him. He'd worked with the likes of Hitchcock and Groucho Marx, but in the Carry Ons he was always fighting for third billing," says Jamie.

Jamie Rees rehearsing as Charles
Hawtrey for Oh Hello
What was the trickiest aspect of Hawtrey to capture in Jamie's performance?

"The voice. You tend to automatically think he had this posh accent, but he actually had a strong Cockney accent underneath the RP. I worked with a vocal coach on it and managed to layer the voice, first with Cockney, and then the RP on top. I finally cracked it, and I’m so glad I got it right!"

Hawtrey's personal life is infamously tragic, suffering debilitating alcoholism and living as a gay man in an era when homosexuality was criminal.

"I do try to play Charles more sympathetically than others might, simply because I really do feel sorry for him," says Jamie. "As a gay man myself I cannot begin to imagine what life was like living in a world where just being yourself was a criminal act. The show touches upon all that, as well as his trouble with booze. He could be very poisonous to other people when he was drunk, and in particular towards the end of his life when he was in semi-retirement in Deal in Kent. But because I feel sorry for him – for the lack of recognition for his talent too – I do try to play him sympathetically."

In the 1980s Hawtrey had been sacked from the Carry Ons and was not getting very much work at all due to his voracious drinking. He once appeared on a chat show with Roy Hudd to talk about his career, but Hawtrey is dishevelled, incoherent and clearly sozzled. You can watch it on YouTube.

"It's so sad. We touch upon all that in the play. He had a fire at his home in Deal in 1984, and there was a cameo in an episode of Super Gran not long before he died, but really it was a tragic end," says Jamie.

"One thing that strikes me about Hawtrey's story is that these days, when a celebrity goes off the rails and hits the booze or starts taking various substances, they go into rehab and when they come out they're almost celebrated for what they've done. Charles Hawtrey didn't take hard drugs quite like they do today, but he did drink an awful lot and was very nasty to almost everybody because of this, and as a result he died alone, with no family or friends. Charles Hawtrey wasn't helped or celebrated. He was just living in the wrong era, I think."

Despite Hawtrey's tragic demise, Jamie says many of the biggest laughs in Oh Hello are reserved for the end.

"It's a bittersweet, poignant ending. Everybody always remembers Kenneth Williams more (and I do get to do him in the show too!), because he was so unique – the face, the voice, the look. But he played his public persona better, appeared on chat shows to be gregarious and happy, despite his desperately sad private life. He just turned it on. But Charles wasn't like that. When you watch him on that Roy Hudd show, he's a wreck. There's nothing endearing about him. But he was like that because of the bitterness that he'd let eat him up."

Charles Hawtrey will forever be remembered as the camp, bespectacled one in the Carry Ons, but there was so much more to him than that – as you'll be told in no uncertain terms by the man himself when you go along to this hilarious, moving show, which Jamie hopes to take on tour more widely later in the year.

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