by Wes Butters
296 pages, hardback
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At last – the definitive biography of Charles Hawtrey! From Wes Butters, Sony award winning broadcaster and author of Kenneth Williams Unseen, comes an extensively researched and compelling book almost fifteen years in the making, featuring scores of exclusive interviews, including Hawtrey’s inner circle and surviving descendents, never-before-seen photographs, and private documents and correspondence. The result is the first definitive account of a life Hawtrey himself was keen to see evaporate into the mist of history.
Years before, Hawtrey started out as a child actor in silent films, he was England’s leading boy soprano and worked alongside a positive who’s who of the thirties and forties. He had directed films and produced West End shows, starred in three hit TV series and was a prolific radio actor for the BBC. Yet he was never content and spent his life desperately searching for stardom and success, which, in his own deluded way of thinking, always failed to live up to expectations.
Like the character we see on the screen, Hawtrey never grew up. Egged on by his mentally-ill mother, he disowned the rest of his family, embarrassed by a background that included workhouses and illegitimacy. Instead, he declared himself the son of Sir Charles Hawtrey, an illustrious theatrical actor and Noël Coward’s mentor.
By the time the Carry Ons got going, Hawtrey was well and truly typecast as a “funny fella with glasses” and his bid to be taken seriously was over. He wasn’t the least bit interested in his reputation or leaving a legacy, growing old disgracefully in Deal, the Kent seaside town he lived in for the last twenty years of his life: collapsing in pubs; swearing at autograph-hunting children; and taking home teenage rent boys (one of whom set fire to Hawtrey’s cottage, with Hawtrey still inside it).
In 1988, doctors gave him a life or death choice to amputate both his legs. Hawtrey refused, believing a transplant of pig’s veins would save him, but he died a month later. Nine people were at his funeral.
Wes Butters’ Radio 4 documentary on Charles Hawtrey aired in May 2010. This long-awaited book gives the WHOLE story!
The relative unfamiliarity of (Hawtrey’s) story and the sad complexity of his life make this biography very welcome. This is a labour of love, thoroughly and carefully researched, and neatly published by a Sheffield imprint with many excellent photographs. Most refreshingly of all, Butters chooses to let the story tell itself, and editorialises only when he feels he has to. Who would expect a former radio 1 DJ to make such a self-effacing biographer? The irony of this insecure, miserable and disappointed man’s lingering posthumous popularity is not lost on (Butters) or, indeed, on us.
This splendid, sympathetic book is a worthy tribute.
The Daily Mail
Wes Butters, extensive biography is a sympathetic weaving of fact, piercing analysis and contemporary opinion. The effort of the author is unquestionable and his experience writing of other Carry On stars in radio documentaries and biographies speaks for itself. His many insights and analyses, often on difficult material are supported by extensive footnotes and a wealth of supporting material. This is a remarkably complete reading of Hawtrey’s life. Butters has outdone himself – a cohesive and probably definitive collation of facts and memories, an in-depth and well researched analysis of the life, career and surroundings of an oft-overlooked cast member. WHATSHISMAME is a well-written biography in which the passion and sympathy of the author can be felt in every word without interfering in its accuracy or objectivity.