If you were compiling a list of great British comedy actors of the 20th Century both Hattie Jacques and Charles Hawtrey would be well up there near the top. Hattie had the ultimate accolade of a BBC4 biopic in 2011 but I suspect that a proper Charlie Hawtrey biopic would be too outrageous even for BBC4 audiences. Both were regular members of the Carry On team and both appeared with Joan Sims in the sitcom Our House first broadcast in 1960. Written by Norman Hudis, writer of the first five Carry On films, and occupying a one-hour slot instead of the usual 30 minutes, the show features a group of disparate characters who all share the same house in London. Played out in the studio in front of a live audience, Our House adopts a format similar to the stage farces that were enormously popular in Britain at that time and often broadcast on TV. To modern audiences it may look contrived and stagey but in 1960 it would have been a very familiar format. Of the 39 episodes broadcast between 1960 and 1962 only three survive in the archive, all from 1960 and presented here on a single disc. The scripts are standard fare for the time and although written by the first Carry On writer, the innuendos have been toned down for the teatime audience. As I've mentioned before these series were created to pull in a large audience for the station's advertisers so had to be popular, inoffensive and accessible. Radio and the big screen were the places for smutty innuendo in those days. What does set Our House apart though is the calibre of some of the performers. Although each episode has a large ensemble cast, some of whom are little more than background colour, the episodes here feature particular characters in turn.
The first episode on the disc, Simply Simon showcases Charlie Hawtrey as the lonely Simon Willow bemoaning the fact that none of his large family have bothered to write to him for years. Cue then a chance for Charlie to do some character work as his brother, aged uncle and then aunt come to visit separately while he is out. Well they have to because he plays all four characters. Hawtrey's distracted performance style gets off to a shaky start in the first scene but as the episode progresses he really gets to show his stuff. For those who only know him from the Carry On films, this episode is a revelation. His range and skills extended far beyond the often simple caricatures he essayed in those films and he proves himself a considerable and charismatic artist here. Not only does he show a real talent for pathos but as Aunt Wilhelmina he turns out to be a very capable and elegant drag performer, much to the studio audience's audible delight as he sashays around the set in high heels. His timing and characterisation are immaculate and he is a joy to watch. He's best remembered now for his film work but this shows him to be a far, far greater performer than he ever showed on film.
The remaining two episodes showcase Hattie Jacques. A Thin Time looks at the difficulties of life for a 'larger lady' in 1960 which prompts everyone in the house to start dieting with the exception of Joan Sims who keeps on tucking in. It seems an easy target but Hattie, despite her size, was always a dignified performer and radiated an elegant sexuality often at odds with the frustrated characters she portrayed in the Carry On films. She also manages some very impressive exercise moves while encased in a formidable 'foundation garment' as they were called in those days. One minor criticism is that she doesn't appear to be completely at ease with the live audience as she sometimes mis-times her lines and delivers them during the laughter. In Love to Georgina she enjoys a romance with Deryck Guyler plagued with misunderstandings. They would later co-star in Sykes throughout the 70s.
It's not difficult to see why these three episodes were kept in the archive. Without Hattie Jacques and Charles Hawtrey this would be just another sitcom of the time. If you don't mind watching scratchy old tapes then these are fascinating glimpses into the work of two of our greatest comedy performers, in Hattie's case before she became typecast as the Carry On Matron later in the 60s. Her grace and talent lift some mediocre material. Charlie Hawtrey, on the other hand, was always a scattershot talent which worked well on the large screen with its tighter editing possibilities. However Simply Simon shows him at his stunning best with an adoring live audience before booze and self-indulgence took the edge off. For that alone, this set is worth purchasing and gets a high mark from me.
This is best described as an unmediated viewing experience. The tapes are not in the best shape and have studio run-in cues left in and considerable damage evident. There are speckles, distortion and some occasional crease damage similar to the sort of thing you would get if you caught your old VHS tapes round the tapeheads at home and had to manually re-spool the cassettes with the aid of a pencil. But the performances are so good and these episodes so precious that it's terrific just to have them survive in any shape at all. The mono audio is, by modern standards, muffled and microphone placement in the studio wasn't always ideal. The raucous dialogue usually surmounts these limitations except when obscured by audience laughter. There are no extras.