I recently caught up with the actor and author David Barry for a chat about his role as Frankie Abbott in the classic comedy series Please Sir! and The Fenn Street Gang. We also discuss his second career as a successful writer and why he decided to bring back Frankie all these years later. So Carry On Reading for more on the likes of Carol Hawkins, Joan Sanderson and Yootha Joyce!
I understand you trained as an actor at the famous Corona Academy in West London. What are your memories of your time there?
I remember how nervous and excited I was on my first day there. I lived in Hounslow at the time, and so did another 12-year-old, Vernon Morris, with whom I had already worked with in my stage debut at Theatre Royal Windsor. He was already a pupil of Corona, and he accompanied me on my first day. I enjoyed my time there enormously, doing all the things I enjoyed doing, perhaps with the exception of ballet. And my fellow pupils, including Richard O’Sullivan, Larry Dann, Carol White, Jeremy Bulloch, Paul Cole have given me such fond memories and all the laughs we had during our time there, and all the pranks we got up to.
The principal of the school I bonded with as she chaperoned me throughout Europe on a tour of Titus Andronicus with Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh and Anthony Quayle. She loved her Shakespeare plays and I recall all the Shakespeare extracts – as well as plays – I was involved in at Corona. I can still remember many of the speeches I learnt.
I think one of your earliest screen appearances was as a school boy in Carry On Teacher in 1959. What was that experience like?
My earliest screen appearance was aged 13 in a film called Seven Waves Away (US title: Abandon Ship) starring Tyrone Power, Mai Zetterling, Stephen Boyd, Gordon Jackson and a host of other well-known British actors. Nine weeks getting wet in a lifeboat in a great big five-foot-deep tank in one of the Shepperton Studio sound stages, complete with wave machines.
I only recall doing one or two days as an uncredited schoolboy in the Carry On film. I can vaguely remember Kenneth Williams keeping us amused between takes.
I have to ask about the wonderful Please Sir! What was that series like to be a part of?
It was a great experience, especially being encouraged by writers Esmonde & Larbey, and Frank Muir and Barry Took, who worked there as heads of comedy at the time. I looked forward to every single day, and hearing the theatrical stories of Noel Howlett and Deryck Guyler. Although the recordings were quite nerve-racking, as Mark Stuart, producer and director, liked everything done as a theatre piece in front of the studio audience and done in one take, so we dreaded putting a foot wrong.
I love the actress Joan Sanderson who played the rather stern Miss Ewell in Please Sir! What was she like to work with?
One of your co-stars in the film of Please Sir! and the spin off, The Fenn Street Gang was the lovely Carol Hawkins. What was Carol like to work with?
Carol was always very professional, and her timing was excellent, and we all used to socialise and head for the pub or bar after rehearsals, and we all got to know one another’s wives/husbands/girlfriends/boyfriends.
I think the film version of Please Sir! is definitely one of the more successful big screen comedy spinoffs of the era. What was it like to make that film at Pinewood Studios?
Exciting, and there was less pressure than making the TV series, because in a film it is broken down into shorter scenes. Then as they relight the next set-up, you have time to adjust to the thoughts and demands of the next scene or chunk of dialogue.
I remember a lunchtime visit to the James Bond set at Pinewood, which was very impressive, which featured a great bubbling tank of mashed potato into which a stunt man doubling for Bond would have to be immersed.
Carry On actress Patsy Rowlands appeared in the film of Please Sir! Patsy is another of my favourite actors - what are your memories of working alongside her?
Patsy was easy-going, with a great sense of humour, and fitted in perfectly as one of the Please, Sir! crowd.
Sadly several of the actors who played the "kids" in Please Sir! have now left us - two of my favourites were Liz Gebhardt and Malcolm McFee. What are your memories of working with and getting to know them?
Both Liz and Malcolm became close friends, and I worked with them both in other productions over many years in the 1970s and 1980s. My wife and I visited Liz’s family home (her mother and grandmother) in Llanberis, North Wales, many times, and we also became close friends with Liz’s husband, Ian Talbot. I also ran a theatre company with Malcolm, and we toured together many times, and also worked in panto together, and he taught me a great panto routine which was quite physical and demanding.
In 1980 you co-starred in the film version of George and Mildred. Was that a fun film to make and do you have fond memories of acting with the likes of Brian Murphy and the late Yootha Joyce?
I loved working with Brian and Yootha, and I always had lunch with Brian, and a beer after shooting with him. They were both so professional and unselfish as performers, and great to talk to – sharp, witty and intelligent people.
You are now mainly known as a writer. Can you tell me how that career change came about?
I had in the 1980s attempted to write a novel, but I think it got chucked out as not good enough somewhere along the way. I had already written an episode of Fenn Street Gang and three episodes of Keep It in The Family, and then in 1999, with time on my hands, I began work on a crime novel, Each Man Kills. This resulted in a publication in 2002 with a Welsh publisher Gomer Press, which has since been reissued by Andrews UK in 2014.
Of all the books you've written, which would be your favourite and why?
I think perhaps my favourite is my children’s book, The Ice Cream Time Machine, which seems to be doing well in America. And it brings back fond memories of working as Writer in Residence in Aberdeen when I was writing it, and reading passages of it to primary schoolkids, although I have also aimed it as a book that can be enjoyed by adults as well.
You have recently returned to the character of Frankie Abbott with a new stage show. Can you tell me a bit more about that?
I did a talk for Misty Moon Film Society, and Stuart Morriss, the curator, said the audience attending the talk would have liked me to have done a bit of Frankie Abbott. I said I was probably too old now, then I had a lightbulb moment, and had the idea of setting Abbott in real time, and placing him in a care home. The script turned out well, full of pathos as much as comedy, and we took it to Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where we got a five-star review in the Edinburgh Evening News. We have also toured it in the south east, and will be doing many more dates with it.
My blog's main focus is of course the Carry On films. Why do you think those films and their stars are still so popular after so many years?
I think they are unashamedly corny, but the actors go for it and appear to enjoy the performances and revel in lines like ‘Infamy! Infamy! I think he’s got it in for me.’ Who can fail to laugh at stuff like that. And it’s also very British, and has a McGill-like seaside postcard humour. It’s humour history, really.
Finally, what's your next project?
My next project is a book I am putting the finishing touches to, called Before They Die, a crime novel that is very topical. And also A Day in The Lives of Frankie Abbott at Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2017.
You can follow me on Twitter @CarryOnJoan and also Facebook
I'd like to thank David for giving up his time to answer my questions. It's great to hear his memories about such wonderful comedy series and the great actors he worked alongside.
You can follow me on Twitter @CarryOnJoan and also Facebook