Each month I take a look at Funny Women from throughout the 20th Century – stating their case so that you may decide which to vote your favourite Vintage Funny Woman. So far we have looked at Fanny Brice, Lucille Ball, Yorkshire’s Marti Caine, Music Hall star Vesta Tilley and the great Judy Garland. This month we are looking at the Carry On star Hattie Jacques.
Carry On films now feel dated and sexist to put it mildly, but there were two pillars of strong woman-hood in Joan Sims and Hattie Jacques. There was no messing with these ladies but Hattie did also have a soft side and she played the sex-kitten much better than Barbara Windsor ever could.
Hattie Jacques was born ‘Josephine Edwina Jaques’ (the extra ‘c’ was added later) in Sandgate, Kent, on 7th February 1922. Her mother Mary was a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse and her father Robin Rochester Jaques served in the Royal Air Force but sadly died in 1923 when attempting a difficult manoeuvre on a solo-flight. As Mary could not afford to look after the family as a single parent, Hattie was then taken by her mother, along with her brother Robin, to live in (the then run-down area of) Chelsea with her Grandparents.
Hattie started dance classes aged 12 and had dreams of becoming a ballerina which was to be thwarted due to her size. She was teased at school and later stated: "When you're my size, you're conditioned from childhood to people making jokes against you. You have to make them laugh with you, rather than at you." At 17 she joined the local amateur dramatics society.
When war broke out, Jacques followed in her mother’s footsteps and became a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse. Towards the end of the war Jacques started performing in a revue show called ‘Late Joys’ at the Players Theatre – her brother Robin worked as a lift operator. She would sing music hall songs and later in the year gained the role of the ‘Fairy Queen’ in the pantomime of Cinderella – a role she would revisit throughout her career. It was around this time the extra ‘c’ was added to her name to sound more French.
In 1946 Jacques performed in blackface for a minstrel show at the Players Theatre and it was then that a stagehand nicknamed her ‘Hattie’ after comparing her to the ‘Gone with the Wind’ actress Hattie McDaniel – this name stuck for the rest of her life.
Jacques went on tour with the Young Vic Theatre Company in 1946 shortly after making her first uncredited big screen appearance in ‘Green for Danger’ but it was in the 1947 adaptation of ‘Nicholas Nickleby’. It was at this time Jacques met and started a two year relationship with the 'Dad’s Army' actor John Le Mesurier who was estranged from his wife at this time.
In late 1947 Jacques joined the cast of BBC Home Service’s ‘It’s that Man Again’ performing most notably as Sophie Tuckshop. She performed in the radio show by day and with the Player’s Theatre by night for the next two years, as well as appearances in the films ‘Oliver Twist’ and ‘Trottie True’, until ‘It’s that man Again’ was cancelled. At this time Le Mesurier’s divorce came through and he was free to marry Jacques, which they did on 10th November 1949.
At this time Hattie made radio appearances in ‘Educating Archie’ (one of the scriptwriters being her future co-star Eric Sykes) and as a regular on Britain’s favourite radio comedy ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’, as well as a string of film appearances including ‘A Chance of a Lifetime’ and Alistair Sim’s ‘Scrooge’ .
In 1952 Hattie Jacques fell pregnant with her first son Robin, but worked all the way through her pregnancy including performing in a Players’ revue in which she slid down a table and ended up in the splits! She gave birth in March 1953 and went straight back to filming within a few days. She continued to work steadily on radio, stage and screen for the next few years, only taking a small amount of time off to give birth to her second son Kim in 1956.
Jacque profile was constantly raising and in 1958 she performed in 380 performances of a revue show called ‘Large as Life’ at the London Palladium alongside many big names of the day.
It was in 1958 that the first ‘Carry On’ film ‘Carry on Sergeant’ was made and Hattie made her first of five appearances as part of the core team.
1959 brought ‘Carry on Nurse’ in which she would create her enduring role of Matron.
In 1960 Jacques first formed a double act with Eric Skyes in ‘Skyes and a…’ and this would be the start of a long running on-screen partnership as twins (‘identical’ as Hattie’s character would say) that spanned 19 years up to Jacques's death. During this time Jacques appeared in many more TV series and TV specials which other stars, but it is along-side Eric Sykes that she is best remembered.
Her personal life was about to get complicated when, in 1963, Jacques met and started an affair with chauffeur John Schofield. She moved him into the marital home and Le Mesurier moved into the spare room in hope that they would rectify the damage and reunite. Sadly this was not possible and the following year Le Mesurier moved out, allowing her, at his suggestion, to put on the divorce papers that it was his infidelity that caused the marriage breakdown so as to save her from negative publicity.
Jacques went onto star in her television show ‘Miss Adventure’ and appeared in a television adaptation of Noël Coward’s 'Blithe Spirit' as the infamous ‘Madame Acarti’. In 1966, Jacques filmed ‘The Bobo’ in Rome with Peter Sellers. Schofield flew out to meet her but started an affair with an Italian heiress and left Jacques. She was so upset she comfort ate until she reached nearly 20 stone.
Over the next few years, Jacques publicly enjoyed a steady flow of film roles including a reprise her role as ‘Matron’ in ‘Carry on Doctor’, but her private life was troubled.
In 1974 her boys were arrested for possession of cannabis and Jacques turned down an OBE to detract press attention from them. She then suffered a cancer scare which turned out to be benign tumours in her kidneys. Jacques went on to develop arthritis and ulcerated legs which needed dressing every day. Her working relationship with her comedy co-star Eric Sykes was becoming strained as he felt she was receiving special treatment due to her ailments, so he made her working life miserable.
By 1980 Jacques knew her time was running out, her health was poor and insurance companies refused to insure her for filming. On 6th October Jacques passed away from a heart attack aged 58.
The great Ruth Jones portrayed Jacques in the BBC drama ‘Hattie’ in 2011.
Contact me with suggestions of future nominees on twitter @MirandaDawe