Peter Butterworth - the spongy-faced comic actor who survived 16 Carry On films and the real Great Escape...
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