In the seaside town of Deal, Kent, 117 Middle Street bears a blue plaque, honouring a former resident – Charles Hawtrey. A beloved character on screen, Hawtrey is now famously remembered for his comedic roles in the Carry On films. But behind the laughs, the real story is a torrid tale of bitterness and rebellion!
Back in 2010, former Radio 1 DJ Wes Butters reported, “It’s been 22 long years since Charles’s death, but to this day, the pub landlord refuses to place a photograph of him behind the bar!” Butters, who not only organised the tribute plaque in 1998 but has also authored an in-depth biography of the icon, unveiled Hawtrey’s fractious relationship with the townsfolk – dismissing autograph-seekers, alienating parents, and branding locals as ‘peasants’ down at the local.
As Wes recounts, “Carry On might have been a fantasy world for us, but Hawtrey’s attitude left a lasting sting for the people of Deal. I’m genuinely shocked that his memorial plaque remains untarnished.”
While Hawtrey’s on-screen antics had audiences in stitches, the off-screen reality was riddled with pain and heartache. It’s common knowledge that the Carry On set wasn’t always filled with sunshine and roses, but Hawtrey’s tale was especially tragic.
“Think of all the beloved British comics, like Peter Sellers or Spike Milligan. Many faced challenges, but Charles’s life was a tragic opera. He felt underappreciated, spiralling into a pit of alcohol and bitterness,” claims Butters.
Adding to the mystique, Charles allowed everyone to believe he was the progeny of renowned actor Sir Charles Hawtrey. This theatrical facade hid his actual identity – George Frederick Joffre Hartree, a Hounslow-born lad from humble beginnings.
Despite a tumultuous relationship with his father and brother, Charles found solace and support from his mother, Alice. Her tales even led him to think he was the illegitimate child of Rolls-Royce’s founder, Sir Henry Royce.
A natural entertainer from a young age, young Georgie captivated neighbourhood kids with performances in his garden. From silent films at eight to being mentored by renowned drama teacher Italia Conti, Charles’s career seemed destined for stardom.
Before the ’40s concluded, he’d amassed an impressive filmography, acting opposite luminaries like Errol Flynn and Vivien Leigh and making a fleeting appearance in a Hitchcock classic.
However, Butters notes a critical stumbling block: “Charles was forever trapped in ‘overgrown schoolboy’ roles, limiting his career.”
Come the Carry On era, while he frequently played memorable, effeminate characters, his off-screen life was tumultuous. His disdain for the franchise, quarrels over pay, and frequent intoxicated episodes even led Barbara Windsor, a fellow Carry On star, to recount, “Charlie would often question his place in those ‘dreadful films’.”
Behind the scenes, Charles was grappling with his mother’s deteriorating health. Her passing in ’65 pushed him further into alcoholism, making his performances erratic at best. While he took up residence in Deal, seeking companionship from local men, the town’s fondness for him dwindled. From refusing to pay for services to a scandalous fire incident involving a disgruntled partner, Charles’s reputation took a hit.
When Charles passed away in ’88, a mere nine individuals mourned his demise.
To Wes Butters, Hawtrey’s tale is a poignant lesson. “He aspired for roles and respect reserved for leading men. Tragically, he couldn’t grasp his unique talent, ending up as a bitter soul – such a stark contrast to his lovable on-screen persona.”