Obituary: Norman Rossington
Friday 04 June 1999
The stocky, curly-haired actor first achieved prominence as one of the motley bunch of idle privates in ITV's The Army Game, and went on to feature in three "Carry Ons" and such movies as A Night to Remember and Lawrence of Arabia. A master of working-class accents from cockney to his native Liverpudlian, he spent much of his career portraying servicemen of the lower ranks, but also appeared with the Old Vic, the National Theatre (with Laurence Olivier) and the Royal Shakespeare Company, and only last year was on the West End stage playing the father of Belle, the beauty of Beauty and the Beast. He could also claim to be the only actor to have appeared in films with both Elvis Presley and the Beatles.
The son of a publican, he was born in 1928 in Liverpool, and left school at 14 to work on the docks as a messenger boy. After becoming an apprentice carpenter, he studied French and building at night school and trained to be a draughtsman, but at 19 a visit to a church social with his friend Kenneth Cope (also later to become an actor) changed the course of his life.
He took part in a sketch just for fun, was invited to join the local drama group, and took to his new interest with such enthusiasm that he was soon training for the professional stage at the Bristol Old Vic, making his stage debut at the Theatre Royal in Bristol, where his work ranged from Shakespeare to the musical Salad Days. In 1954 he played Snout in a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream that toured America, and in 1955 made his screen debut with a small part in a weak vehicle for the comic Ronald Shiner, Keep It Clean. However, work was not consistent and for a time he worked as a chef in police station canteens.
He had his first major success with the television series The Army Game (1957), ITV's biggest comedy hit in the early years of commercial television. This Bilko-like series featured a bunch of conniving and lazy soldiers, with Michael Medwin as their ringleader, William Hartnell their tough sergeant, and Rossington as Private "Cupcake" Cook, always eating and opening food parcels from his family in Liverpool. The show ran for five years and in 1959 Rossington and four other cast members performed a shortened version of it before the Queen Mother at the Royal Variety Show.
In 1958 The Army Game was filmed as I Only Arsked, the title coming from the catchphrase of the gormless "Popeye" (Bernard Bresslaw). In this box- office hit the group, initially dismayed when posted to the Middle East, find a secret passage to the king's harem, put down a revolution and find an oil well. In the same year Rossington had a small role in Roy Baker's fine account of the Titanic disaster A Night to Remember.
He was cast once again as an army recruit in the first of the "Carry On" series, Carry On Sergeant, getting laughs as a private who keeps failing to pass out. (Kenneth Williams, in his diaries, referred to Rossington as "a good fellow".) He later featured in Carry On Nurse (1959) as Norm, constantly running errands up and down the corridor, and Carry On Regardless (1960) as the referee of a boxing match in which Charles Hawtrey is one of the contestants.
Norman Hudis, writer of those early "Carry Ons", was to script several of the actor's television series, including Our House (1960) which found Rossington part of an ill-assorted group of people (including Hattie Jacques, Joan Sims and Charles Hawtrey) who buy a ramshackle house. Other notable television appearances included parts in Johnny Speight's controversial series about discrimination, Curry and Chips (1969), in which he was a bigoted shop steward, Dennis Potter's six-part Casanova (1971), starring Frank Finlay, a striking portrayal of mid-19th century explorer Samuel Baker in The Search for the Nile (1971), and countless comedy shows with such stars as Beryl Reid, Bob Monkhouse and Spike Milligan.
On the cinema screen he was the stolid chum of rebellious Albert Finney in Karel Reisz's key film of the British "New Wave", Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), and was in the military again for two 1962 epics, The Longest Day and Lawrence of Arabia. He had one of his best-remembered roles in the first and best of the films starring the Beatles, Richard Lester's A Hard Day's Night (1964), in which as Norm, the group's manager, he provided a gentle parody of Brian Epstein.
Two years later he appeared with the decade's other pop sensation Elvis Presley in Double Trouble. One of Presley's poorest films, it featured Rossington and Chips Rafferty as two inept crooks who switch suitcases with Presley and his girlfriend. He journeyed to Hollywood for this, and for the war film Tobruk (1966) with Rock Hudson, but turned down offers that would have kept him there. He had one of his favourite roles as Sergeant- Major Corbett in The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968), and more recent films included The Krays (1990) and Let Him Have It (1991).
Rossington's stage work included Brecht on Brecht with Lotte Lenya at the Royal Court, Shaw's Saint Joan with Olivier's embryo National Theatre company at Chichester in 1963, and the role of Doolittle in a revival of the musical My Fair Lady. He convincingly switched to an American accent for two musical roles - as the gambler Nathan Detroit in the National Theatre revival of Guys and Dolls (1985) with Lulu as his long-suffering sweetheart Adelaide, and as the circus promoter Charlie Davenport in the 1992 revival of Annie Get Your Gun.
In 1997 he sang again in the spectacular musical Beauty and the Beast, but had to leave the show last November after a fall on stage which preceded a six-month battle with cancer.
Norman Rossington, actor: born Liverpool 24 December 1928; twice married; died Manchester 21 May 1999.
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 If I were Prime Minister: I'd give tax cuts to the rich, keep Trident, and get my football team wrong
- 2 Top Gear: Jodie Kidd, Philip Glenister and Guy Martin 'in advanced talks' to join show
- 3 General Election 2015: 14-year-old boy asks Nick Clegg – 'can you kill Katie Hopkins?'
- 4 University student in court for allegedly covering housemates' food in window cleaner and spit
- 5 Garland shooting: Isis claims attack on Prophet Mohamed cartoon contest in Texas as its first action on US soil
In defence of liberal democracy
The Rothschild Libel: Why has it taken 200 years for an anti-Semitic slur that emerged from the Battle of Waterloo to be dismissed?
General Election 2015: UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power, Labour warns
General election live: SNP suspends two members for disrupting Labour rally
Schools forced to act as 'miniature welfare states' with teachers buying underwear and even haircuts for poor pupils
Andy McSmith's Sketch: Feisty audience is the real star of an enlightening show