Obituary: Bernard Bresslaw
Monday 14 June 1993
I CLEARLY remember the day I met Bernard Bresslaw. So, I'll bet, can anyone who met him.
It was 1951. He was leaning his 6ft 7in frame against the wall of the Rada canteen as I walked in. One of us greeted the other and we started talking. Realising I was an American, he began pumping me, gently but thoroughly, about transatlantic pronunciation, with particular reference to the Deep South. This was typical; I don't think Bernie wasted a minute at Rada, and it paid off when he won the academy's Emile Littler Award as Most Promising Actor.
He was born in Stepney, his father an impecunious tailor's cutter. Bernie became an actor thanks to the efforts of his English teacher. (In typically stage-struck fashion, he often likened her to 'Miss Moffatt', the dedicated schoolmistress in the Emlyn Williams play The Corn is Green.) Impressed by the young giant's erudition and acting potential, she encouraged him to try for a Rada scholarship. That's how he came to be there.
After graduation, Bresslaw gained practical experience by touring hospitals, army camps and prisons as Lachie, the arrogant, doomed Scot in John Patrick's The Hasty Heart. In 1953 he made his West End stage debut at the Duchess Theatre, playing Roary MacRoary, an Irish wrestler, in The MacRoary Whirl by Gerald McLarnon. It was advertised as a farcical comedy, but audiences and critics detected precious few laughs and its whirl was short.
Far more successful was Maxwell Anderson's Broadway play The Bad Seed (1955) at the Aldwych Theatre. In this chilling study of an eight-year- old murderess, Bresslaw played 'Leroy', a prying janitor who wound up as another of the moppet's victims. He gave an effectively oily performance and his American accent was, unsurprisingly, faultless.
He had begun making films in 1954, starting with the role of a gullible castle guard in Men of Sherwood Forest, a Hammer second feature. In 1957 Norman Wisdom starred in Up in the World, the tale of a lovable window cleaner who is framed for a crime and sentenced to 25 years. Bresslaw played his lugubrious cellmate, and when the writer and ace talent-spotter Sid Colin saw the film he immediately decided to write the young actor a key role in Granada Television's new sitcom The Army Game. The series was an enormous success and Bresslaw's 'Private 'Popeye' Popplewell' character made him an instant star. The feature film version that quickly followed took its title from his catchphrase I Only Arsked], his records 'The Army Game Theme' and 'Mad Passionate Love' remained high in the charts for many weeks, and he duly followed in the footsteps of Max Bygraves, Beryl Reid, Harry Secombe, Benny Hill and Tony Hancock by joining the cast of Educating Archie on radio.
In 1958 Bresslaw starred, along with Bruce Forsyth and Charlie Drake, in Sleeping Beauty at the London Palladium. Because of his Army Game popularity, he played 'Popeye', a private in the Tyrolean Army. He always said Sleeping Beauty was his all- time favourite booking; also in the show was a strikingly statuesque dancer who, in 1959, became Mrs Bresslaw. The kind of couple guaranteed to give divorce lawyers ulcers, Bernie and Liz produced three splendid sons, Jonathan, Mark and James.
But soon the media incorrectly decided the Popplewell character represented the limit of Bernie's ability and the offers ceased. 'OK,' he reasoned, 'if film and television jobs are playing hard to get, there's always my first love, the Theatre.' So he started going where the work was, tackling Sheridan, Marlowe, Ionesco, Ustinov, Galsworthy, Pinero, Chekhov, Shaw, Moliere, Cooney - you name it. There was Shakespeare too: he did Twelfth Night for the British Council, playing a creditable Sir Toby Belch. ('It must be the first time,' he said to me, 'that Sir Toby's ever been played by Sir Andrew Aguecheek]') He played Falstaff in two national tours with the Oxford Playhouse company, and began a long association with the Open Air Theatre. (This summer he was to have appeared in Regent's Park as Grumio in The Taming of the Shrew and as Merlin in Rodgers and Hart's A Connecticut Yankee. He collapsed in his dressing room before a performance of The Shrew.)
In 1965 Bresslaw made Carry on Cowboy. The first of his 14 Carry Ons, it cast him as the Indian brave 'Little Heap', towering over his father, 'Chief Big Heap' (Charles Hawtrey). The juiciest Bresslaw characters from these films are 'Sockett', the sinister butler in Carry On Screaming (1966) and the gutteral tribal leader 'Bungdit Din' in Carry On Up the Khyber or The British Position in India (1968).
In 1969 - between Carry On Camping and Carry On Up the Jungle - he took over from Laurence Olivier as AB Rayam, the wily lawyer in the National Theatre production of Somerset Maugham's Home and Beauty. He also worked for the English Stage Company, the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Young Vic and the Chichester Festival Theatre, for whom he played the homicidal Jonathan Brewster in Arsenic and Old Lace.
Bresslaw was a versatile pantomime performer, playing Dame in Jack and the Beanstalk, Ugly Sister in Cinderella and Bernard the Bad in Babes in the Wood. In 1982 he appeared as Abanazar in Aladdin at Richmond. (Ironically, his Widow Twankey was Les Dawson, who died the day before him, also aged 59.)
In 1983 the director Peter Yates (another of Bresslaw's fellow students at Rada) gave him his most impressive film role. In the dollars 27m Krull he played 'Rell', the terrifying Cyclops. In The Science Fiction Film Source Book, David Wingrove praises the movie's dazzling visuals, particularly 'the Beast itself, Bernard Bresslaw brilliantly disguised'.
Last summer he appeared at a revue in Blackpool, for which Barry Cryer and I wrote material. Although he had been unwell for some time, our star did us proud, deftly playing an actor laddie, a lecherous landlady, a bibulous heckler, a frowsy poet and a George-Formbyesque Frankenstein Monster. After the show one night, a man came up to us in a restaurant and said, 'Mr Bresslaw, I must tell you, I loved you in The Ladykillers.' Bernie smiled and accepted the compliment with thanks. Of course, he didn't play 'One Round', the over-the-hill prize fighter in that 1955 film. Danny Green played the part; Bernie was only 21 at the time. But he certainly wasn't going to embarrass the man by correcting him. That would have been out of character.
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