02 December 2009
Hattie Jacques lived from the 7th of February 1922 until the 6th of October 1980, when she sadly died from a heart attack. At that time, without wishing to be melodramatic, the world was robbed of a British comedy legend. Oh, it's okay - it wasn't one of those clever, intellectual comedienne types or anything like that - it was, putting it plainly, a rather overweight woman with an amazing ability to squeal at Kenneth Williams, huff at Tony Hancock and slap Sid James. Many envy her for the opportunity to do that alone, forgetting the exciting opportunities she had to play matron, or Eric Sykes' sister.
I'm a big Hattie Jacques fan, if you can't tell, and I'm prepared to defend her slapstick style of British Carry On comedy to the death. Hattie Jacques worked with all the big, nostalgic names of British comedy, and I want to try and make it clear that this wasn't some sort of privilege for Hattie - quite the opposite. Hancock, Sykes, James and all the rest were working with someone special when they worked with Hattie. John Le Mesurier married her, although they did divorce later, so he doesn't get quite so many brownie points. That said, if you've read Hancock's biographies you'll know that the comedians of the sixties and seventies made a great show of laughter on set, seeming to run out when it came to everyday life.
Look; I'm going to tell you one of the classic British comedy moments. Hattie Jacques is playing a rather matronly matron of a set of British school girls. They need looking after, particularly in the chastity department. And Kenneth Williams, being Kenneth Williams, is behaving just like Kenneth Williams always does in these films, despite clearly being a screaming queen. Regardless, Hattie is explaining how she wants a little womanly attention: "I want to be wooed!" she declares. Bear in mind that Kenneth is adopting a dreadful speech impediment when he replies... nay, declares! "You can be as rude as you like with me!". And yes, that's basically the whole thing in a nutshell. Good old British slapstick, vaudeville, whatever you want to call it. And Hattie was a master at it.
So, enough unadulterated praise. The details. Hattie was born in Kent in 1922. She did the usual education stuff, worked as a nurse (good experience for those Carry On Doctor films, I suppose) and also as a welder. She began acting at the age of 20 and her rather chunky but undeniable charm led to her becoming popular for the more delicate roles. It's a pantomime thing.
She worked on It's That Man Again for a while, playing the aptly-named Sophie Tuckshop. In 1950 she made it onto Educating Archie and then began on Hancock's Half Hour in 1956. And, let's just pause to say that she's absolutely brilliant here. We might also consider how important the radio is in British comedy. I know we all enjoy Miranda, The League Of Gentlemen and The Day Today. Where did they all begin? That's right... radio. And that's nowadays, when the television is ubiquitous. Think back to when no-one had a television, when you paid money to go to the pictures if you wanted to see as well as hear. Radio ruled.
Speaking of the cinema... Carry On Films! After a couple of Norman Wisdoms she hurtled into the Carry On films and managed to appear in fourteen different ones, starring alongside a whole plethora of household names.
Sykes followed - a comedy vehicle for Eric Sykes, in which Hattie continued to play the type of roles she played so well. Sykes ran from 1960 to 1965, went off on a little holiday for a while, and then returned from 1972 to 1979. And, if you were paying attention at the start, that's when it all ends tragically. October the 6th, 1980. She was 58.