When you think of Bernard Bresslaw, who would have turned eighty today, you most likely conjure up an image of the clumsy oaf; graceless, heavy-limbed, slow-on-the-uptake and with a demeanour that evokes a kick to the head by a donkey at an impressionable age.
His enormous size – Bresslaw was 6’7” tall and was taking size nine shoes by the time he hit his teens – and heavy build led to his becoming best known for playing the big dope, from Private Popeye Popplewell in his first big television break The Army Game in the late fifties to his Carry On roles like Upsidaisi in Jungle and the evocatively named Bernie Hulke in Carry On At Your Convenience.
Yet there was much, much more to Bernard Bresslaw. If you look a little deeper, even in the Carry Ons themselves, you find an extraordinarily gifted actor and an intelligent, deep-thinking, sensitive man whose legacy deserves to be far more nuanced than it is.
Born into a family of Polish Jews on February 25 1934 (his grandfather had come over from Silesia in the early 1900s: the name Bresslaw is derived from the Polish city of Wroclaw), Bernard was expected from a young age to follow his father into the rag trade. But at school he demonstrated an immense gift for acting, something his English teacher not only noticed but nurtured.
This led to a scholarship at RADA – one of only two awarded each year and hence fiercely competitive – where Bresslaw made an instant impression, winning at the age of seventeen the Emile Littler Award for the actor of his year most likely to succeed.
After some gruelling rep theatre tours and occasional film work, he appeared in 1957 alongside Norman Wisdom in Up In The World, a performance that prompted his casting as Popeye Popplewell in The Army Game, (catchphrase: “I only arsked”). His fame as Popplewell then led to his fourteen Carry On films, his highest profile performances that left us with the image the gormless buffoon that prevails today.
Yet, affectionate as that legacy may be, Bernard Bresslaw’s eightieth birthday is surely the right time to re-evaluate the talents and career of one of our most instantly recognisable comedy actors.
In contrast to his screen persona, Bresslaw was erudite, incredibly well-read – every room of his house was filled with piles of books – and a deep thinker. Indeed, he even published a small collection of poetry exploring his Jewish heritage called Ode To The Dead Sea Scrolls, copies of which change hands today for three-figure sums.
Even in his Carry On roles there was something different, something incongruously dignified about Bernard Bresslaw. While the rest of the cast went in for manic gurning and the relentless – and futile - pursuit of nookie, Bernard’s characters were always more nuanced than they first seemed.
Take Bernie Hulke in Convenience, for example. He wasn’t the brightest of blokes, the right hand man to Kenneth Cope’s two-dimensional shop steward, but where the rest of the male cast would go all leery and predatory whenever Myrtle, the siren of the tea trolley, wafted onto the factory floor, Bernie’s face would light up with undiluted, innocent affection: he adored Myrtle but in a protective, almost paternal way, in sharp contrast to the overtly lecherous designs of the rest of the male workforce.
In this way his characters would frequently counter the fist-pumping phwoaaaaring of the rest of the cast; still allowing the jokes to get across but in a far more subtle, knowing fashion.
In Carry On Behind, for example, Anna Vrooshka, the east European archaeology professor who’d clearly attended the double entendre school of the English language, told Bernard’s Arthur Upmore that she kept a ‘dirty caravan’ and invited him in to ‘look at the birds’. Most other Carry On males would have rubbed their hands and dived headlong through the door with a cry of, “cor, not ‘arf”, but Arthur paused just long enough for the double entendre to settle before replying, with immaculate timing, “No thank you, not just now”.
Similarly, in Carry On Girls, Bernard’s character is sitting on a train when he’s asked, “Are you going to Fircombe?” to which he simply deadpans, “this train’s going there, yes”. It’s a reply that perfectly acknowledges the double entendre: he knows it’s there, we know it’s there, he knows we know it’s there, but the pay-off is delivered in a far more subtle and effective way than you’d expect from a Carry On film.
But it’s the other side of his acting career that I think deserves more acknowledgement. In the last decade or so of his life in particular Bresslaw concentrated far more on his stage work. It might surprise many to learn that Bernard Bresslaw was an accomplished and respected stage actor, particularly in Shakespearean roles. He played many of the Bard’s great parts, including two national tours as Falstaff, playing Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Malvolio in Twelfth Night, as well as appearing in plays by great names from Chekhov to Ibsen.
Yet all the time he was quietly wowing theatre audiences in a range of demanding roles Bresslaw would remain best known as that gormless oaf from the Carry Ons. There’s possibly no better illustration of this curious career dichotomy than when, between filming Carry Ons Camping and Up The Jungle, he replaced Sir Laurence Olivier in the lead role of a Somerset Maugham play at the National Theatre.
If it bothered him it never showed. There’s only one one-to-one interview with Bresslaw on YouTube, from 1987, when he’s talking to Anne Diamond on breakfast television about his forthcoming role in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but in three minutes it captures perfectly this conflict between the two Bernard Bresslaws, even down to the outcome. While Diamond goes through the motions of an interview the focus is actually on Nick Owen, who’s sitting next to her wearing a donkey’s head (Bresslaw’s character Bottom is turned briefly into a donkey during the play).
Despite the fact that he clearly expected to talk about playing one of the great Shakespearean characters, it soon became clear that Bresslaw was merely there as the straight man to a bloke in a donkey’s head. Yet far from displaying any signs of displeasure at being upstaged by a prop Bernard plays along, trying to pep up the weak banter, politely playing the role of the stooge that was expected of him. The comedy is lame – it’s Nick Owen, for heaven’s sake – and the interview is a shambles, but Bernard slips into his allotted role with neither complaint nor the merest trace of indignance.
Bernard Bresslaw died on June 11th 1993 in his dressing room at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, suffering a heart attack while preparing to go on as Grumio, the canny slave in the Taming Of The Shrew. He was only 59 years old. Even in death it seemed he was destined to play the straight man: his passing was overshadowed in the headlines by that of Les Dawson the previous day.
So let’s acknowledge him properly now and raise a glass on his eightieth birthday to Bernard Bresslaw: actor, comedian, eminent Shakesperean, thinker and poet.