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At the peak of his career in the early 1970s, the actor Ian Carmichael was the most highly paid actor on BBC Television. Many years earlier, he had enjoyed a successful career both on stage and in movies. He wrote his memoirs, published in 1979, but this is the first full biography.
During the twenty years or so after World War II, any TV or film producer looking for somebody to cast in a 'silly-ass' role - well-spoken, gentlemanly, but rather naïve - rarely had to look any further than Ian Carmichael. He somehow personified 'the innocent face of England - already disappearing as the last of British ethics disappeared; strangely enough, hand-in-hand with the disappearance of the Old Empire.'
As this biography suggests, for much of the time, the real Ian Carmichael was very close to the personality seen on the large and the small screen. Inevitably tastes changed over the decades, and as they did so his character and style seemed a little dated, lacking in cutting edge. His career was in fact rather in the doldrums for a while, so it is pleasant to read that he did return to favour, albeit in fairly small roles, during the last years of his long life. And as Fairclough emphasizes, he lived into a relatively peaceful, happy old age, content with his domestic home life in England and his position as an exclusively British entertainer - unlike some of his contemporaries, notably Peter Sellers, who could not resist the lure of Hollywood and possibly paid the price.
It was Carmichael's good fortune to be cast in some of the classic comedies of the late 1950s and early 1960s. In the first, 'Private's Progress', he played Stanley Windrush, an innocent soldier called up during the Second World War and caught up in the murky world of petty criminals, deserters and dishonest senior army officers. It was one of several films of the time made by the Boulting Brothers, who specialized in satire, sending up the establishment and in this case marking a departure from the standard patriotic war film in which all the British were jolly good chaps. The Empire was fragmenting, and the media was ready to poke a little fun at the sacred cows of the day. Needless to say, it delighted left-leaning journalists and offended the military top brass in equal measure.
Three years later came the sequel, 'I'm All Right Jack', a wickedly funny must-see picture co-starring him as a wet-behind-the-ears factory worker alongside Peter Sellers playing an obstinate Marxist shop steward, which makes fun of corrupt management and incompetent trade union leaders alike. A year after this came the equally popular 'School For Scoundrels'. During this time there were other, less-remembered films, and also regular appearances on stage and TV.
Already a household name, his stock soared even higher when chosen to portray Bertie Wooster in a very popular TV dramatization of P.G. Wodehouse's Jeeves stories. I can just remember these from my childhood, which is as far as I will ever get, as sadly only one and a half episodes out of the three resulting series survive. (Future generations are thus given little opportunity to compare him and Hugh Laurie in the same role many years later - for my money, although arguably too old, Carmichael was far better). In the 1970s he switched from comedy to light drama when he took on the role of aristocratic detective Lord Peter Wimsey in a dramatization of the Dorothy L. Sayers stories.
This biography takes us thoroughly through the chequered career. On the whole, he was a gentle, unassuming character, perhaps not far removed from his 'creation' Stanley Windrush, exuding what one film reviewer called at the time 'his dishevelled and diffident charm.'
Nevertheless he was a perfectionist who demanded the same high standards from those who worked with him as he strove for himself, and others could find him difficult to work with. He even had a nervous breakdown in 1961, the result of years of pushing himself too hard, and had to be persuaded, almost ordered, to take a short holiday with his wife and family in order to recharge his batteries. Coincidentally, just as they were about to leave England for the Riviera, he was made an offer to go to Hollywood for another job. Realising that for once family had to come before career, he turned it down.
As well as presenting us with a warm-hearted yet quite searching portrait of the actor himself, Fairclough sets him against the life and times setting. He shows how Carmichael's success endured well into the 1970s even though he was associated with roles which personified the virtues of an England long gone. But while Lord Peter Wimsey was on the screen, tastes were changing. That, and the fact that he was unofficially blacklisted for having working in South Africa during the apartheid era, all served to derail his career for a while in the 1980s, before he was forgiven and returned to small roles in dramas such as 'Strathblair' and 'The Royal'. By this time he could justly be regarded as 'the elder statesman of British entertainment'. It is pleasant to record that he was working until very close to his death in 2010 at the age of 89.
Fairclough has not merely relied on his autobiography for information, but also talked to various actors and actresses who knew him and worked with him, among them Nicholas Parsons (who contributed the Foreword), Derek Fowlds, and Briony McRoberts. He is clearly an admirer of the actor and finds little to criticize in him, and I finished it with the impression that on the whole he was a thoroughly likeable, easygoing man. Anybody who has enjoyed his acting will certainly love this book.
[Revised version of a review I published elsewhere]
Hardcover: 256 pages / Publisher: Aurum Press Ltd / Published: 1 Sep 2011 / Language: English