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Crawford, Michael (1942-)


Main image of Crawford, Michael (1942-)

In an undoubtedly steady and progressive career climb, Michael Crawford would seem to have been a performer with something to offer for everyone. At one level there's the keen boy actor: children's TV programming with Billy Bunter of Greyfriars School (BBC, 1952-61), high adventure as the hero's nephew in Sir Francis Drake (ITV, 1961-62). Then there's the youthful capering in mid-1960s films for directors like Dick Lester and Michael Winner. There is also, at different points and in different moods, a rumbustious period alternating musical comedy theatre with television comedy.

Crawford's sensitive, awkward character in The Knack ...and How to Get It (d. Lester, 1965), taking girl-chasing lessons from a sleek Ray Brooks, his love-smitten Roman youngster in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (d. Lester, 1966), and the inept young lieutenant in How I Won the War (d. Lester, 1967), all seemed to be steps in the direction of Frank Spencer of BBC sitcom Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em (1973-75; 1978).

Winner, attempting to tap into the youth zeitgeist, used Crawford's innocent-on-the-loose as Oliver Reed's younger brother, engaged in 'borrowing' the crown jewels in The Jokers (1967). He delivered a surprisingly earnest performance as a long-distance runner for the over-flashy The Games (1969) but seemed crowded-out by other big names in the cast (Stanley Baker, Ryan O'Neal, Charles Aznavour).

Once a talented boy soprano (singing in Benjamin Britten's chamber operas), he had a healthy career in musical theatre. Before the stage successes Billy (1974), Barnum (1981), and international fame with The Phantom of the Opera (1986), he won a Broadway award in Black Comedy/White Lies (1967). It was due to his winning performance in the latter that director Gene Kelly selected him for his lavish movie musical Hello, Dolly! (US, 1969), in which he shared screen time with Hollywood heavyweights Barbra Streisand and Walter Matthau.

Whether with reward or with regret, he will forever be remembered by TV viewers for his innocent incompetent Frank Spencer in the slapstick sitcom Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em. The series featured Crawford as a well-meaning, accident-prone misfit whose misadventures trigger an escalating series of destructive incidents. This comedy of physical disaster stems back to the days of Buster Keaton and Laurel and Hardy, drawing in visual gags from Jerry Lewis and Jacques Tati.

Strangely enough, there is a hilarious scene in an early film, Two Left Feet (d. Roy Baker, 1963), in which, as a callow youth, he makes a sudden, nervous pass at his date and starts a chain reaction involving her dog, the neighbourhood cats, crying babies, shouting neighbours and the sounds of breaking glass, and ultimately an entire row of clamorous houses.

Admirers and detractors alike would probably agree that his sitcom was one of the funniest, if not most chaotic, of the 1970s. Virtually a one-man job (with screen wife Michele Dotrice merely a sympathetic bystander), with his hapless Frank more often irritating than endearing, it threw up numerous moments of genuine comic invention, and proved Crawford to be both gifted physical comedian and fearless stuntman.

Tise Vahimagi

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Thumbnail image of Knack ...and How to Get It, The (1965)Knack ...and How to Get It, The (1965)

Archetypal Swinging London film which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes

Thumbnail image of Police Surgeon (1960)Police Surgeon (1960)

Early ITV drama that served as a dry run for The Avengers

Thumbnail image of Sir Francis Drake (1961-62)Sir Francis Drake (1961-62)

The exploits of Queen Elizabeth I's favourite adventurer

Thumbnail image of Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em (1973-75, 1978)Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em (1973-75, 1978)

Sitcom based around Michael Crawford's iconic Frank Spencer

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