Barbara Windsor receives a Lifetime Achievement Award in Bradford next week. Stephen McClarence talks to a man from her professional past
Forty years on, David Dawson studies a glossy photograph taken at the launch of Carry On Henry. It was the 21st of the Carry On films, it starred Sid James as Henry VIII, and it included a character called Bidet. Over on the right of the photograph is the young Barbara Windsor, wielding an axe, as if planning to behead Charles Hawtrey.
Windsor, who will be presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Bradford International Film Festival next Friday, cuts a 1970s dash in her white plastic boots. Hawtrey, who had memorably played Private Widdle in Carry On... Up the Khyber a few years earlier, looks like a camp and rather bewildered owl.
What’s distracting David Dawson, however, is the suavely smiling young man in the smart suit over on the left: himself in his days as a publicist for Rank Films, working with some of the great stars and directors of the late 1960s and early 70s, including Alfred Hitchcock.
I first met Dawson, whose collection of film memorabilia has been acquired by the National Media Museum (host of the film festival), a couple of months ago, while doing a piece for this magazine on the relaunch of Bamforth’s saucy seaside postcards, the cartoon answer to Carry On.
Dawson, from Staveley near Knaresborough, is public relations consultant to the Bamforth project. Surrounded by images of big-breasted women and lecherous drunks, he reminisced about his days at Rank. He talked about “Kennie” Williams and “Charlie” Hawtrey, about Barbara Windsor – “that shapely Cockney sparrow” as he described her in a 70s Press release – and about the lordly film critic who dismissed The Sound of Music as “an incidental little flick”.
He told me, in a splendidly well-modulated voice belying his Geordie origins, about the stars he met, the stunts he set up and the good times he had in Fleet Street and Wardour Street. It was a glimpse of a long-gone media world. I thought: “Now here’s an interesting man; here’s a one-off.” So we arranged to meet up again at the Media Museum and have a browse through the David Dawson Collection.
On the day, he’s there before me, dapper in a cream suit with a scarlet pocket handkerchief, blue-and-red striped tie, and checked waistcoat, beaming like a genial showman. Chuck him a cane to twirl and he could probably do you a soft-shoe shuffle.
He hands me a Press release, hand-written in capital letters, about his career: “David entered journalism in the mid 1950s as a ‘cub’ reporter on the Whitley Bay Guardian in Northumberland, earning the princely sum of £2-19-6d a week – ‘about the price of a pint of bitter in my local now’.
“When not making the tea, doing police, fire and ambulance calls and writing ‘hatched, matched and despatched’ stories, David was given the entertainments page to write because it was the job no senior colleague wanted!
“‘It was wonderful,’ he says. ‘There were five cinemas in town (now there are none). Every evening the managers, wearing their immaculate dinner jackets, would stand at the entrance to their cinema and greet every ‘customer’ personally.”
I’m feeling a bit redundant in this interview, but I risk a question or two. What, for instance, was it like to cover five screenings a week? “Bloody marvellous! If one had five girlfriends, one could take one of the them to the cinema every working day of the week. A manager would sometimes say ‘Where’s David sitting?’ and an usherette would shine a torch at me and say: ‘The manager insists you have a Mivvi!’”
He pulls yellowing cuttings out of his briefcase: The Whitley Bay Gazette, 1957, with his reviews at the Gaumont, the Essoldo, the Picture House, the Coliseum and the Regal. In the corner is an advert for And God Created Woman with Bardot “in Cinemascope and Eastman Colour”. Another world. “I think I said Elvis Presley would do quite well,” he says.
He got a job as PRO with the fledgling Tyne Tynes Television, and another with Littlewoods Pools, organising cheque presentations, but was soon back with the big screen. He recalls old colleagues (“great character... lovely man... good journalist; came from Pudsey”), points out what’s off-the-record, and talks about working with Hitchcock on the publicity for Frenzy, one of his last films.
Dawson called to see Hitchcock the morning The Times carried a bad review of the film, partly shot in Covent Garden. “He stayed at the same suite at Claridges where he’d stayed for 45 years. I went into his bedroom and there was a huge figure like a beached whale, with a sheet pulled over him; it looked like a shroud.
“I think he was genuinely upset by the review. I had to postpone four interviews and a lunch that day. He was extremely demanding, but he was a very nice man.”
Hitchcock told him a story about North by Northwest, his great 1950s thriller. The director wanted to call it The Man in Lincoln’s Nose and shoot a radically different version of the climactic chase sequence where Cary Grant clambers over the sculpted heads of American presidents on Mount Rushmore. “Hitch wanted Cary Grant to hide in the nostril of Abraham Lincoln,” he says. “Grant would then have had a sneezing fit which would have given him away.” Hitchcock, however, was told that no one, not even Cary Grant, got up Lincoln’s nose.
Seventies hospitality could be lavish. Dawson recalls ringing America to ask Ernest Borgnine to help with publicity at the UK premiere of The Poseidon Adventure. “He said: ‘I’m sorry but I’m going on my honeymoon... my fifth honeymoon.’ I said: ‘Why don’t you come to London with your bride and we’ll pick up the tab?’ So we put them up at the Inn on the Park for about a fortnight.”
Time to view the David Dawson Collection. Michael Harvey, the National Media Museum’s curator of cinematography, has brought out three large boxes of memorabilia. “If you’re telling the story of cinema, you need to explain how a film gets from studio to cinema,” he says. “The cinema business is a very complex business. There’s great activity in terms of marketing and we want to reflect that in the collection. We’re trying to assemble ‘documentary evidence’. And this is a very important collection to have. The variety of things in it...”
He lifts out carefully stored promotional material – ephemera in its day, generally chucked in the waste bin as soon as finished with, but now a fascinating insight into the social history of cinema. Material from this period is particularly interesting, says Harvey, because TV was poaching the big cinema crowds “so the job of attracting audiences was made so much harder”.
He pulls out a Press release for the 1972 Royal Film Performance – Mary Queen of Scots, with Vanessa Redgrave and Glenda Jackson. Live music by Ron Goodwin and his orchestra, commentary by Pete Murray, nostalgia by the bucketful.
Here’s a specially printed copy of the Daily Sketch distributed at the Brighton world premiere of Doctor in Trouble. Journalists awoke to find Rank banners draped along the promenade railings in front of their hotel.
Here are publicity stills from Seventies sex comedies and gala screenings featuring leggy blonde starlets wearing strategically little. A cartoon Hitchcock drew of himself and gave to David Dawson. Pictures of Dawson and the rest of the publicity team, clean-cut young men, bright as buttons.
He worked on seven Carry Ons, with that Carry On Henry premiere particularly memorable. “Someone said: ‘Let’s invite famous Henrys’, so I invited Henry Cooper and collected him in a cab. I asked the cabbie how much the fare was and he said: ‘Do me a favour, guv, it’s the greatest honour of my life to have Henry Cooper in my cab.’ We had a wonderful supper party at The Ivy.”
Then as now, critics generally reviewed films at private screenings, but the Carry On producers shrewdly wanted the screenings to include an audience. “So we used to paper the house with off-duty policemen, fireman and ambulance drivers – 400 to 600 of them – at 10 o’clock on a Monday morning. The critics said: ‘We need a private screening. We can’t hear the lines because of the laughter.’”
He describes the Carry On team as “a repertory company that met twice a year”. Barbara Windsor? “The most wonderful person when you were launching a film. I wrote at the time (as if dictating to a newspaper copytaker, spelling out punctuation): ‘Barbara Windsor purred: ‘The Carry On crowd? They’re incorrigible, outrageous, crazy, incredible – and absolutely smashing! I love ‘em all’... And Kennie Williams was far funnier off the screen, if that’s possible. And – don’t put this down...” We go off the record. The beans stay resolutely unspilled.
Was it a good life? “I would have paid to go to work,” he says. We wind up. He shakes hands with YP photographer Simon Hulme and me and says: “And now I’m going to buy you both a pint.”
But Simon has another job to go to, and I’ve got a two-hour journey home, so we decline. I feel a bit guilty. It isn’t, after all, the way things were done in the 70s.
Carry on, David. Great character, lovely man; but not from Pudsey.