Peter Butterworth - the spongy-faced comic actor who survived 16 Carry On films and the real Great Escape...
posted by Richard Green on 16/07/2017

Charles Hawtrey (left) and Butterworth (right) sharing a joke with the extras between filming

Peter Butterworth had one of those faces, and the talent to back it up, that stole many a comic scene. Bumbling and browbeaten, and always entertaining to watch, he was a mainstay of the Carry On films - a franchise of 31 low budget movies that drew inspiration from the British tradition of bawdy music hall turns and saucy seaside postcards. 

My favourite Carry On scene is centred on a piece of Butterworth brilliance. It’s the governor's black tie dinner from the 1968 ‘Carry On Up the Khyber’ - Khyber Pass being Cockney ryhming slang for 'arse' - where the British embassy compound is shelled by the The Khasi of Kalabar (played by Kenneth Williams) and Bungdit Din (Bernard Brezlaw). There are direct hits on the residency all through the meal, but the staff continue to serve food and drinks and the band plays on to entertain Sir Sidney Ruff-Diamond (Sid James), Joan Sims (Lady Joan Ruff-Diamond) and Captain Keene (Roy Castle).

Roy Castle, Sid James, Julian Holloway and Peter Butterworth during the infamous residency dinner

All except for Butterworth's character epitomise the very British concept of 'keep calm and carry on', and display ludicrous nonchalance in the face of extreme danger. But here Brother Belcher (Butterworth’s character) is the only person who’s beyond stiff upper lipping; he twitches and jumps in fear, ducks for cover under the table, and grabs a wine bottle and starts swigging from it.

It's said that Joan Sims ad-libbed the "Oh dear, I seem to have got a little plastered" line; that there are no close-ups of Angela Douglas (Princess Jelhi) as she couldn't stop laughing at the deadpan performances going on around her, and that everyone tried to avoid looking at Butterworth during his wonderful reactions to the ensuing violence. 

Incidentally, being such a low budget film, Carry On Up the Khyber was actually filmed at London's Pinewood Studios, and on location in England and Wales. The Pass of Llanberis in Snowdonia stood in (rather unconvincingly) for the Khyber Pass in Afghanistan, and was the furthest afield that filming ever took place in the Carry On series. The British colonial residence and fort was actually Heatherden Hall in Iver Heath in Buckinghamshire - itself in the grounds of the studios and still used as offices, film sets and a wedding venue. Incidentally, the real Anglo_Irish treaty of 1921, that led to the creation of the Irish Free State was signed in the hall. 

Peter William Shorrocks Butterworth was born on the 4th of February 1919 in Bramhall in Cheshire – and although he was best known for his roles in the Carry On films, he was also popular on children's television and radio, played a Doctor Who villain called the Meddling Monk in five episodes (the Dr's first recurring baddie), and was married to the actress and impressionist Janet Brown.

William Hartnell as Dr Who and Peter Butterworth as the Meddling Monk; the franchise's first recurring villain

He served as a lieutenant in the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm in WWII, when his Fairey Albacore was shot down when he was 20 in 1940 off the Dutch coast and made a forced landing on the island of Texel, where he was taken prisoner and sent to Dulag Luft POW transit camp, near Frankfurt.

He escaped from the camp in June 1941 through a tunnel and managed to cover 43 kilometres over three days before being spotted and turned in by a member of the Hitler Youth, causing him to joke in later life that he could never work with children again.

Butterworth as the ticket collector with Margaret Rutherford in the 1961 version of Agatha Christie's Murder, She Said

He took part in other escapes, but never made it beyond the camp’s grounds, and was eventually sent to Stalag Luft III, infamous as the scene of The Great Escape. Whilst there he met Talbot Rothwell, who went on to write many of the Carry On films. He and Rothwell sang duets in camp shows, so that the booing or applause would cover the sounds of other inmates digging an escape tunnel. 

And Butterworth was one of the people who used a gymnast's vault to provide distracting cover for the escapees during the escape portrayed by the book and film ‘The Wooden Horse’. Ironically, he auditioned for the film in 1949 but was turned down because he "didn't look convincingly heroic or athletic enough".

Butterworth taking time out from the Khyber filming in order to plug the newly released Carry on Doctor

In the same camp as Butterworth and Rothwell were the future actors Rupert Davies, Stratford Johns and John Casson - the son of Lewis Casson and Sybil Thorndike (two very prominent British actors). All five remained close friends after the war ended and all appeared on Butterworth’s appearance on This Is Your Life when in 1975.

Tolly (Talbot) Rothwell helped him a good deal after the war, and during a summer show at Scarborough introduced him to the impressionist Janet Brown, who he married in 1946. Brown later became known for her television impersonations of Margaret Thatcher during the 1970s and 1980s. Their son Tyler Butterworth is an actor and is married to the actress Janet Dibley.

Peter Butterworth appeared in pantomimes and bit parts in films, before coming to national notice in five episodes of a Terry-Thomas TV sketch programme called ‘How do you view?’ in which he played the chauffeur ‘Lockitt’. His warm personality and amusingly expressive face led him to present several children’s programmes in the 1950s, including ‘Whirligig’ and ‘Butterworth Time’.

In 1965, he debuted in the Carry On films as ‘Doc’ in Carry On Cowboy, largely thanks to Rothwell (who’d been screenwriting on four of the films by then) who convinced the creator of the series – Peter Rogers – to offer him the job.

Butterworth was often cast as a stooge - in Carry on Screaming! he played Detective Constable Slowbotham, the foil for the incompetent Detective Sergeant Bung (Harry H. Corbett), and in ‘Carry On Don't Lose Your Head’ he played the toady Citizen Bidet, assistant to Citizen Camembert (Kenneth Williams).

Harry H. Corbett, Jim Dale and Peter Butterworth in Carry On Screaming!

Though in Carry On Camping Butterworth’s gentle eccentricity was ideal for the part of Joshua Fiddler - the dodgy campsite manager who relieves Sid James of most of his cash. He had a substantial role in Carry On Abroad (1972) too, in which he played 'Pepe' the manager of an unfinished hotel, who greets his unexpected guests in the guise of the builder, the porter, the receptionist and a telephone operator.

Peter Butterworth and Hattie Jakes in Carry On Abroad

Butterworth remained with the series until the final film, Carry On Emmannuelle (1978), and made three appearances in the films of Richard Lester - A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966), The Ritz and Robin and Marian (both 1976) alongside Sean Connery, Richard Harris and Audrey Hepburn. He made an uncredited cameo in the film version of the musical Oliver! (1968), and was in an episode of Catweazle in 1970, and Dad's Army in 1975.

When the Carry on films finished in 1978, Butterworth took a small part in The First Great Train Robbery with Sean Connery, and was in the Alan Bennett play ‘Afternoon Off’ - both shot in 1979 and broadcast posthumously.

Peter Butterworth as 'Pedro' in Carry On Abroad 

After filming The Great Train Robbery, he was in a pantomime production of Aladdin as Widow Twankey at the Coventry Theatre. He failed to return for a matinee and was found dead in his hotel room on 16th January 1979, just before his 60th birthday, having apparently suffered a heart attack.

Peter Butterworth is buried in the village of Danehill, eight kilometres northeast of Haywards Heath in East Sussex.

The headstone at Peter Butterworth's and his wife Janet Brown's grave in East Sussex 

What is Lieutenant Columbo's first name?
posted by Richard Green on 14/12/2018

Freeze frame Columbo flashing his badge and there's your answer, or is it?

In a series where the main character habitually refers to his spouse only as ‘my wife’ and who’s Basset Hound is called ‘dog’, it’s hardly surprising that Columbo was coy about his name too. 

He regularly name checks cousins and relatives, but he only ever introduces himself as ‘Lieutenant Columbo’. In ‘Undercover’ (Season 12, episode 3) he jokingly gives his first name as ‘Lieutenant’ to Major General Martin J Hollister, played by Eddie Albert.

As reticent as Morse: a similar ruse was employed by the popular British detective character of Inspector Morse, who was also shy when it came to his Christian name, and Morse himself – played by John Thaw – similarly joshed that his first name was ‘Inspector’. In fact the riddle was revealed by author Colin Dexter at the end of the 1996 Morse story - Death is Now My Neighbour - to be 'Endeavour'.

Frank Cannon (played by William Conrad) and Endeavour Morse (John Thaw)

Philip, surely not? Anyone who played Trivial Pursuit back in the 80s may remember that the answer to Columbo’s first name question was Philip. Philip? This alleged fact was the one deliberate mistake among the question cards, inserted by Fred L Worth who wrote a book called ‘The Trivia Encyclopaedia’. He used this false fact as a trap for would be plagiarists, much in the same way that map makers have done in the past by inserting fictitious lakes or lanes in remote places to catch out potential copy cats.

Worth found that around a third of the questions in the blockbusting game of Trivial Pursuit were pinched from his encyclopaedia - including the rogue Columbo question. He threatened to take the manufacturers to court, but the case never came to trial; the Trivial Pursuit people didn't deny that they had culled Worth's book, but they and the judge reasoned that facts cannot be copyrighted.   

The prank ran and ran though, and Peugeot claimed in an advert that 'Lt Philip Columbo' as the world's most famous Peugeot convertible driver, and the 1997 Cop Cookbook includes a recipe from Peter Falk for pumpkin lasagne and a reference to his TV character, Philip Columbo. 

Writer's block: the creators of Columbo were Richard Levinson and William Link, who said that he was never given a first name. However, there is on screen evidence at odds with this. Columbo flashes his L.A.P.D. badge several times over the course of Columbo's run on TV, first in the ‘Dead Weight’ episode (Season 1, Episode 3). The first name 'Frank' is clearly visible on this ID.

Columbo in his clapped out Peugeot 403

To be Frank: given that there were 69 episodes that didn’t mention or refer to his first name, it seems likely that this was put on the ID for expediency by a prop person. This was in the days before being able to stop the film stably with a pause button was possible, so it’s likely that nobody would have thought it a blunder.

It doesn’t seem an inspired or even likely name really, running as it did at the same time as ‘Cannon’ – a successful TV detective that ran from 1971-1976. The portly detective's first name really was Frank. The role was played by William Conrad: and due respect to him for narrating The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle as a by the by.

And also contemporary to the crumpled detective was an Italian bodybuilder and actor, Francu Columbo. It would seem a little strange for the shabbiest of TV detective's name to so strongly echo a famous bodybuilder of the day.

Francu Columbo (upside down) with Arnold Schwarzenegger and friends

One more thing...If it was an oversight/accident to use the name Frank, it had consequences if you happen to be watching the series in Cologne or Klagenfurt, as in the German language dubbed Columbo’s he is occasionally referred to as Frank by other police officers.

Oscar Homolka, who's homely KGB colonel was a highlight of two Harry Palmer spy films...
posted by Richard Green on 31/03/2017

I have a picture of Oscar Homolka and Michael Caine on my real bathroom wall because of the impact he made in the bizarrely bonkers 1967 film 'The Billion Dollar Brain'.

When I was a kid, the film would be repeated every so often, and I just couldn't get enough of Homolka's presence in the film, and especially the way he kept calling Caine's character in the film - Harry Palmer in fact - 'English'.

Despite me thinking Homolka a shoe in for any BBC Central Casting call for any Soviet part in any film, he was actually Austrian. Born in 1898 he fought in the Austro-Hungarian Army during the First World War. He graduated from the Imperial Academy of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna and worked in the Munich theater during the 1920s.

He made many silent pictures in Germany, and worked in early cinema there into the 1930's. He wasn't Jewish, but nevertheless decided to move to the UK, where he starred in popular British films of the period, before moving on the the USA.

In 1936 he starred in Alfred's Hitchcock's 'Sabotage' opposite Sylvia Sidney. In the following decades he starred with Ingrid Bergman in ' Rage in Heaven', with Marilyn Monroe in the 'Seven Year Itch', and with Katherine Hepburn in 'The Madwoman of Chaillot'.

In the mid 1960s he returned to the UK to play the KGB Colonel Stok in 'Funeral in Berlin' and 'Billion Dollar Brain'. His last film was the Blake Edwards romantic filming of 'The Tamarind Seed'.

Homolka's private life was marred by tragedy. Grete Mosheim was his first wife, a German actress who he married in 1928, and divorced in 1937. His second wife was the Hungarian actress Baroness Vally Hatvany, but she died four months after the ceremony. Next was socialite Florence Meyer, after the divorce to whom he married for the fourth time, to American actress Joan Tetzel, in 1949. Tetzel died in 1977.

Homolka lived in England from 1966 until his death from pneumonia on the 27th January 1978 - just three months after the death of his fourth wife. He is buried in Christ Church Churchyard, Fairwarp, East Sussex, England.

Joan Tetzel and Oscar Homolka's headstone in Christ Church, Fairwarp, East Sussex. Photo Ian McFarlaine

Columbo as hangover cure, an appreciation...
posted by Richard Green on 04/10/2016

In the pilot (left) Falk played it cool and aloof, but from 1968 (centre) to 2003 (right) the character and his clothes were set

There are 69 episodes of Columbo spanning 35 years, and it is remarkable how consistent his clothes, gestures and verbal ticks were. Of course there was the catchphrase of needing to ask 'just one more thing', but also there is the extreme deference, civility and naivety.   

The mayor of Budapest unveiling the world's only Columbo statue, in 2014

Stars queued up to appear in an episode; including Donald Pleasance (left) and William Shatner (right)


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