Beatles fans know the name “Charles Hawtrey” from the Let it Be album. John Lennon intones it in his introduction to “I Dig a Pony”, which he characteristically renders as “I Dig a Pygmy” (which might well have been a more enjoyable song, if it existed). Older Brits may know, though younger ones likely won’t, nor will many Americans, that Lennon was making a pop culture reference. There was a real Charles Hawtrey. In fact, though Lennon may not have known it, there were two — the second one, whom Lennon was referring to, was named after the first. I briefly mentioned them in my earlier post about homonymic performers. Today we’ll give a little more detail.
Sir Charles Hawtrey (1858-1923)
The original Charles Hawtrey was considered by many to be the premiere English stage comedian of his generation. Hawtrey was the son of a clergyman and was educated at Eton. The Marble Arch (1882) with Herbert Beerbohm Tree was one of his first professional roles. He created the role of Lord Goring in the original production of Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband (1895), was also associated with Somerset Maugham, and was a mentor to Noel Coward.
Charles Hawtrey (1914-1988)
The second Charles Hawtrey was actually named George Hartee; he falsely claimed to be a son of the first one (his real father was a car mechanic). This Hawtrey was also a West End star. He started out as a boy soprano and child actor in pantomimes and fairy plays. Later he appeared in revues, sang on record, and performed on radio. In the ’40s he appeared in films starring comedian Will Hay, and directed some movies himself. In the ’50s, ’60s and early ’70s, he appeared in the hilarious Carry On comedies (over two dozen of them), and this is what he became best known for, in addition to his work in television. He had a distinctive, strange, prim comedy style, sort of like an old woman’s. He lived with his mother until her death in 1965. Hawtrey was a closeted gay man who drank and smoked throughout his adult life to excess. He died at age 73 of peripheral vascular disease, following a fall.
For more on show business history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.