Christopher Fowler’s memoir Paperboy is essential reading for any fan of British cinema – not least for his guide to the character of a typical 1950s and 1960s British film. He mentioned such familiar names as ‘Irene Handl (charlady) Anna Quayle (posh woman) Lance Percival (dim nerd) Sid James and Sydney Tafler (spivs) to Liz Frazer (indignant girl in tight sweater). As for Hattie Jacques, she – of course – ‘Matron’.
‘I hate the size I am with all my soul’
Except that Jacques’ achievements on screen could never be defined by that role created in 1958 for Carry On Nurse. Acres of wordage have been devoted to her looks, and with that regard, I would direct the reader to Andy Merriman’s wonderful book Hattie: The Authorised Biography of Hattie Jacques. It is incisive, illuminating and, in terms of her health and self-esteem issues, utterly heart-breaking – ‘I hate the size I am with all my soul’ she once stated. Her most distinctive attributes were her voice that could strike terror into any inadequate (and usually male) subordinate or inmate of 23 Railway Cutting, and her expressive face. One 1952 theatre review noted the ‘dark expressive eyes’ and how Hattie Jacques could pass ‘from the demure into sudden, formidable truculence’.
Josephine Edwina Jacques – she would not adopt the “Hattie” stage name until 1946 – was born in Kent on the 7th February 1922. After wartime service as a welder and a Red Cross nurse, she joined the cast of BBC radio’s ITMA as ‘Sophie Tuckshop” – ‘the terrible child who never stopped eating, with sickening results’. A few years later she was a member of the central team of Educating Archie; to listen to Peter Maddern announce a cast including Jacques and Julie Andrews in a wireless ventriloquist show is beyond surreal.
In the 1950s Jacques’ film career mainly encompassed character roles, including the Medical Officer Captain Clark of Carry On Sergeant. Her fame mainly derived from Hancock’s Half Hour, in which she dominated her employer and the residents of East Cheam, and from her work as a director and leading light of the Player’s Theatre. Nurse, the second film in the series, consolidated her fame but with the exceptions of the delightful in 1963 (Jacques’ favourite Carry On) and the formidable Floella in 1972’s Abroad, they largely wasted her talents.
By contrast, television afforded Jacques far greater opportunities, including a starring role in the ABC TV sit-com Our House, scripted by Norman Hudis. In 1964 she appeared as Madam Arcati in Granada’s adaptation of Blithe Spirit which formed part of the A Choice of Coward anthology. Her performance received possibly the ultimate accolade – ‘finally someone had delivered a performance that wasn’t overshadowed by Margaret Rutherford’ (quoted in Merriman).
And on the 29th January 1960, Jacques appeared in the first episode of a new BBC TV series written by and starring Eric Sykes. The show Sykes and A… ran from until 1965 and was revived, as Sykes, in 1972. The show’s creator had previously worked with Jacques on Educating Archie, and he decided that she would play his twin sister as a “married couple” comedy was too restrictive. Their appearances were obviously contrasting – Eric Sykes was thin and furtive-looking, – but this was not the main theme of the show.
‘I have to know humour and its timing exactly’
The drama critic Nicholas de Jongh regarded Hattie Jacques as ‘A woman of decided gentility and comic pretensions to dignity and even grandeur who was subject to the whims, tantrums and madnesses of her leading men’ and “Hat” knows how to control her over-ambitious sibling. Jacques once reflected that much of her work was as a feed to comedians – ‘I have to know humour and its timing exactly’ – and these talents are perfectly on display in Sykes. The pair also appeared on the 1963 Royal Variety Performance – and better a routine of “Hat” interrupting Eric’s guitar playing than Carry On Dick in its dispiriting entirety.
Hattie Jacques died of a heart attack on the 6th of October 1980. Her legacy is not so much as “Matron” in Carry On Camping but the stage performer captured for posterity in the 1955 travelogue Tonight in Britain or “Mrs. Albion” in the 1953 short film The Pleasure Garden, which was awarded the Prix de Fantasie Poétique at the 1954 Cannes Film Festival. Her gleeful mistress of misrule urges the visitors of a London park to engage with their passions and defy officialdom. And, of course, Jacques was the lady of the house at 28 Sebastopol Terrance, plaintively crying ‘Eric’, after her brother embarks on yet another ill-advised scheme.
Film Historian Andrew Roberts MA PhD FRSA