Hattie Jacques? Phwoar!

Saturday January 22, 2000 The Guardian

What can one say of Hattie Jacques? "She was a great gravy maker," said one friend. Can't we do any better than this? "I mean, I've never been able to make gravy in my life, but she had this enormous tin into which she_" Yes, yes. Get on with it. "and she had this enormous spoon and she'd be stirring and putting in pepper_" Is there much more of this? "And she always had a cigarette in her mouth." Mmm, I see. I believe I'm on the point of spotting the punchline. Something to do with fag ash as seasoning, perhaps? And so it turned out. Surely, if you're going to have a programme presumptuously entitled The Unforgettable Hattie Jacques (ITV), you have to do better than this.

Let's try again. In one of the Carry On films (she appeared in 14 of them), Jacques breathed in and filled her matron's starched uni form. Kenneth Williams breathed in through flared nostrils and barely filled his pigeon chest. It was a very arch moment, and four impossibly raised eyebrows rather proved the point. "The younger birds may be soft and tender," Matron told Dr Williams, saucily, "but the older birds have more on them." With that she wafted out. Williams inflated his nostrils still further and eyed her departing back narrowly: "True, and they need a lot more stuffing."

And again, in another Carry On, to sarcastic, elephantine tuba music, Jacques stood sadly on a pair of scales: "Who would have thought that a cow would have made all the difference?" Pah, pah, paaaah, commented the tuba.

Despite the gravy and stuffing, this was an unexpectedly affecting memoir. Best of the talking heads was Bob Monkhouse: "Her career was greatly helped as regards regular employment by her weight," he recognised. He realised, too, though, that her comic talents were hardly exploited: most Carry Ons were written by jokesmiths rather than script writers, by men who couldn't create living, breathing characters to save their lives. Throughout that career, she was the fat woman on the receiving end of the obvious punchline. Like Mollie Sugden as Mrs Slocombe, Jacques was always the battleaxe, hungry for sex but doomed to a life of frustration. And like Sugden, Jacques was pitted against the pneumatic dolly. For Sugden it was Wendy Richard as Miss Brahms; for Jacques, it was Barbara Windsor as pert as you like in a bikini. Instead of sex, Jacques would have to learn to reconcile herself to a career of put-downs from Bernard Bresslaw and his ilk.

Worse, for 19 years Jacques was Eric Sykes's on-screen sister. As Monkhouse noted, in Sykes she had to create a role for herself; Sykes's scripts only offered a foil for the funny man. Nonetheless, she was still the sex-starved loser: in one scene from Sykes he spotted a lonely hearts ad with a familiar phone number. "Good-looking women don't put their numbers in the paper," said Sykes. Hang on, though. What was that noise? The phone ringing. A call for the good-looking, slender woman whom Jacques had invented for the ad. "Hello," she breathed into the receiver. For that moment she was Marlene Dietrich, though more louche.

Life was not like her screen roles, not like that unliveable existence imagined by male screenwriters. Friends queued up to tell what a sensual sexpot she was in real life, and to reveal that men, unimagined by the writers of Carry On and Sykes, fancied her rotten. Which was nice. She left that eternal faded public- school playboy John Le Mesurier for an entrepreneur called John Scofield. The home-movie footage of her new lover showed him to be a hunk - in winter, square-shouldered and granite-jawed in a camel coat; in summer, a Greek god striding through the surf in negligible trunk. This was the reality, and this was the kind of man Jacques loved. Ironic, eh? Pah, pah, paaah.

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