And so another stalwart of British film and television comedy and drama leaves us – one who was there when TV was in its adolescence – and the BBC can’t even bring itself even to give her a mention on their news website. But clearly a spat between two daytime chat show presenters is much more important, and as her passing came on the same day as a Hollywood contemporary, then maybe the BBC’s ration of news stories about people from the ‘olden days’ of mass entertainment had been taken up. Grrr.
But Liz Fraser was a significant figure in the British comedy pantheon, and I had the great pleasure of getting to know her in recent years when, although well into her eighties, she continued to carry the torch for her generation of comedy actors. I’m not going to regurgitate the detail of her life and career; it’s all there on line and in her down to earth 2012 autobiography, “Liz Fraser and Other Characters”. As a devotee of classic British comedy, she’d been a part of my life from early youth, not just as an original Carry On blonde in Cabby, Regardless and Cruising, but as a regular in a host of black and white film comedies, beginning with her first major role as Peter Sellers’ daughter in I’m All Right Jack, courting Ian Carmichael in an Isetta Bubble Car. More recently, if I spotted her name amongst the cast list for the DVD re-issue of a long unseen British film of any genre, it was usually a good sign. Our meeting came through an unexpected route, though, linked to my work with the Terence Rattigan Society, celebrating the work of one of Britain’s foremost 20th Century playwrights.
On a visit to the superb Cinema Museum in Kennington, we were watching a clip from Wonderful Things an obscure 1958 romantic comedy outing for singer Frankie Vaughan and featuring the Society’s President, Princess George Galitzine – then Jean Dawnay, a Dior model and close friend of Terence Rattigan. As Frankie delivered the title song in a fairground scene, a familiar face sauntered on in the role of a hot dog girl – none other than Liz Fraser in one of her earliest appearances, but one that much impressed the producers Herbert Wilcox and Anna Neagle and gave her career a boost. Scroll forward a few months, and I’m reading Liz’s book and find that she is writing enthusiastically about playing opposite Telly Savalas in Rattigan’s Man and Boy (definitely no comedy) on ITV in 1971. In the next chapter, she writes movingly of her performance as Doris, the cockney barmaid, in a Bromley stage performance of Rattigan’s wartime RAF drama Flare Path. Tentatively, we approached her to see if she might consider taking part in a Society event to recognise her direct connections with the world of Rattigan. With immense enthusiasm and good grace, she readily accepted, and I found myself meeting her at the Hurlingham Club (close to her Putney home), speaking regularly on the phone, and then interviewing her on stage at the Cinema Museum in front of a Society audience.
For an amateur journalist like me, it’s hard to know where to start in introducing and then interviewing someone with Liz’s vast experience of British drama and comedy. I wanted to concentrate on the things she was less well known for in a long career which had it roots in a childhood spent very close to the Museum. Indeed, it is almost a pity that her place at the heart of a golden age of British film comedy – and her generosity in giving her time to celebrate those she shared it with – has somewhat overshadowed what is an astounding body of work covering everything from the birth of post-War television, to British film noir, to the epitome of the tradition of touring theatre. This is an actress who has, we reckoned, played a murderer twice and died no fewer than seven times on stage and screen. Fortunately, with the expert help of the Cinema Museum team, we were able to intersperse our conversation with clips from some of her more obscure films, including Wonderful Things, The Painted Smile from 1962 (which, despite director Lance Comfort’s determination to erase Liz’s natural personality from her performance earlier in the picture, features her first screen death) and Up the Junction from 1968, which features Liz blazing in action as an outraged Battersea mum.
Of course, having said that I wanted my focus to be on Liz’s straight roles, I couldn’t resist touching on just one aspect of her career as a comedy actress, and that’s her place as a friend, and co-performer, alongside two of the great British film and TV comedy actors, Sid James and Tony Hancock. There can be few, either now or even then, who were as close to them as she was, or who were so regularly sought out to provide a trusted on-screen foil. Again, video clips gave us two moments to treasure; the first from Citizen James, Sid James’ solo vehicle penned for him by Galton and Simpson after the split from Hancock, featuring Liz reeling off a long list of cigarette options; the second, and one of the most perfect little cameos capturing post-War cafe culture, from Hancock’s 1960 feature film, The Rebel.
In truth, the interview bit was easy, as the Liz Fraser depicted in her autobiography was very definitely the person you got on in real life and, with only minimal prompting from me, the memories and anecdotes came tumbling out – of her sadness at seeing her friends Sid and Tony fall out as Hancock stepped away from their on-screen partnership, of her hopes at each near-miss chance for a reconciliation, and the tragedy of Hancock’s suicide in Australia in 1968. There was the marvelous story of the tricks that Irene Handl would pull on fellow members of the cast when touring, of visiting Belfast with friend Bill Kenwright at the height of the Troubles in 1981 (and finding that he was always far more interested in the football results than the current production of his plays). Away from acting, there were the odd diversions that her career path had taken her down, including selling tin foil on TV in live ‘infomercials’, having a song published (You Must Be Using Magic on Me in 1956) and a record single (an unlikely vocal pairing with Sid James on the theme from Double Bunk), honing her poker skills with Jameses Garner and Coburn and, more seriously, her thirteen years as a Samaritan worker. Nor had the acting bug left her, as she treated us to a reading of her final speech from Flare Path.
Indeed, her acting career stretched into the 21st Century, with the obligatory comedy stalwart cameo in Last of the Summer Wine matched with a range of other roles, including her last on-screen death in Holby City. It was as a spokesperson for her generation of comedy actors, though, that she was best known, taking on an exhausting round of personal appearances (ours included) to celebrate not only the Carry Ons and their stars such as Sid James and Kenneth Williams, but the raft of other comedy legends with whom she had worked: Tommy Cooper, Vic Oliver, Charlie Drake, Eric Sykes, Arthur Askey, Bernard Bresslaw, Peter Sellers, Terry Thomas, Frankie Howerd, Fred Emney, Terry Scott, Bill Maynard, Harry Secombe, Alan Young, Eric Barker, Jimmy Edwards, Joyce Grenfell, Norman Wisdom, Benny Hill – and dozens more. She provided the linking material for an entire day’s worth of her films on Renown’s Talking Pictures TV – leaving with a wealth of very personal insights into an era of which she was truly representative. Acutely conscious that she was one of the very few from that era left alive, she clearly felt a duty to keep their memories alive for as long as she could.
Warm, funny, car mad (she insisted on driving me back from Hurlingham to Putney station), devoted owner of a string of Basset Hounds who were always at her side (including Brodie, who ‘sang’ for us at Kennington), and with the delightful scattiness that comes of a varied life lived to the full and crammed with memories, it was easy to see why she was so loved by all she worked with. More than our moment in the public limelight of the Cinema Museum screening room, I’ll always treasure those occasions when my phone would flash up ‘Liz Fraser’, prelude to a conversation that would begin “Now, about this thing we’re doing…” and then take us off into a meandering journey through her wonderful tales of people, places and films. Many characters you might have played, Elizabeth Joan Winch, but you’ll always be Liz Fraser to us.