Stanley Holloway: A life entertaining

A Day To Remember. Charley Porter (Stanley Holloway). Copyright: Rank Organisation

The eras into which we are born and grow tend to define our lives and achievements. Imagine being born in London in 1890: in your mid-20s, if you were a man, you would most likely be fighting in The Great War. Before you were 40 you would have lived through the General Strike and the Great Depression. If you reached your 50th birthday then you were living through the Second World War, and if you reached your 60th birthday you had endured 10 years of rationing. Not much to laugh about amongst that lot! And you would need to be an exceptional individual to develop a career in entertainment, and even more exceptional to become one of the most well-rounded and versatile performers this country has ever produced. And yet that is exactly what Stanley Holloway OBE achieved.

Leaving school at 15 after his father abandoned the family home in East London, the young Stanley started work as a carpenter before becoming an office clerk. It is not clear what sparked the young Stanley's interest in the performing arts, but he was a great-nephew of theatrical actor Charles Bernard (1830-1894). In 1907 Holloway joined the London Rifle Brigade and for the next 15 years his entertainment career would run in parallel to military service.

By 1912 Holloway was a baritone and one of the entertainers working for impresarios Bert Graham and Will Bentley, making his theatrical debut in The White Coons, a concert party variety show, soon regularly performing as a singer at the Westcliffe Gardens Theatre in Clacton-on-Sea. In 1913 he was hired as a supporting actor in a concert party starring then famous comedian Leslie 'Rubberface' Henson (1891-1957, below), who is widely regarded as Holloway's mentor.

Leslie Henson

Around this time Holloway also travelled to Milan where he received vocal training as an opera singer. But the outbreak of The Great War in 1914 temporarily interrupted his stage career. He served in the Connaught Rangers, but his first taste of military action came in Dublin, fighting Irish republicans in the Easter insurrection of 1916. Later that year he was transferred to France and experienced the horrors of trench warfare: his regiment suffered over 2,500 casualties but he was one of the lucky survivors. During the war Holloway's talents as an entertainer served to boost morale, as he performed in army revues and theatrical shows.

At the end of hostilities he immediately returned to singing and acting in London's music halls and theatres, performing at the Winter Garden as Captain Wentworth in Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse's Kissing Time in 1919, and as Rene in A Night Out in 1920. He also demonstrated his versatility as an all-round entertainer to huge success in the concert party revue The Optimists, which ran from 1921. He appeared in more than 1,500 performances on stage and also appeared in the film adaptation of the show.

Holloway hade made his film debut in the silent movie The Rotters earlier in 1921, and in the same year reunited with fellow singing comedian Leslie Henson to form London-based touring musical revue the Co-Optimists. (This troupe would virtually reinvent itself every year through to 1929.) Stanley established himself as a BBC radio personality in 1923 and developed his solo act throughout the 1920s while continuing his involvement with the musical theatre. In 1928, he started performing on-stage comic monologues, creating the stage character Sam Small, a working-class soldier from the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815). Small was very popular with audiences and Holloway recreated the role on film.

This Happy Breed

The 1930s saw Holloway become one of the busiest entertainers in the country, appearing in a string of hit stage revues during the decade. These included The Savoy Follies (1932), Three Sisters (1934), Here We Are Again (1935), All Wave (1936) and London Rhapsody (1938). His film career also blossomed as he enjoyed roles in productions such as Sing As We Go! (1934); Squibs (1935) and The Vicar Of Bray (1936).

At the outbreak of World War 2, Holloway - now aged 49 - was considered too old to re-enlist in the Army. He was hired, however, by the British Film Institute and Pathé News to narrate war-time propaganda films, educational films, and documentaries. He also found time to appear in some major productions, notably: the classic film adaption of George Bernard Shaw's Major Barbara (1941) alongside Rex Harrison and Wendy Hiller; This Happy Breed (pictured above), Champagne Charlie, and The Way Ahead (all 1944); and The Way To The Stars and Noel Coward/David Lean's superb Brief Encounter (both 1945).

With the cessation of hostilities in 1945 Holloway quickly became one of Britain's hardest-working on screen actors. He was rarely outside of the studio over the next fifteen years, appearing in a variety of roles including the post-war thriller Snowbound (1948), which also starred Herbert Lom and Dennis Price.

Passport To Pimlico. Image shows from L to R: Shirley Pemberton (Barbara Murray), Arthur Pemberton (Stanley Holloway). Copyright: Ealing Studios / STUDIOCANAL

The Ealing Studios comedy Passport To Pimlico (1949) was nominated for an Academy Award and remains one of the best-known films of his entire career. Striking a chord with cinema-goers across the country, it superbly captured the most quintessential English traits of individualism, tolerance and compromise.

Stanley Holloway DVD box set. Stanley Holloway. Copyright: Strawberry

Other notable Ealing films of this era featuring Holloway included The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) and The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953), both of which are similarly celebrated cinematic works, but - for reasons that remain unclear to this day - the company terminated its relationship with him in 1953. It was around this time that Holloway began to work with The Rank Organisation, arguably Britain's pre-eminent film company during the 1950s and 60s. A recently released DVD box set from Strawberry Media contains four of his finest films with the company:

THE HAPPY FAMILY (1952) sees Holloway star alongside George Cole, Kathleen Harrison and Naughton Wayne. When the government decides to build the Festival of Britain on London's South Bank everything goes to plan until they try and demolish Henry Lord's (Holloway) corner shop and come up against fierce opposition.

A DAY TO REMEMBER (1953) co-stars some of Britain's finest post-war comedy talent, including Donald Sinden, Bill Owen, Peter Jones and James Hayter. It's the amusing story of a London pub's darts team on a day trip to Boulogne.

Fast And Loose. George Crabb (Stanley Holloway). Copyright: ITV Studios

FAST AND LOOSE (1954, pictures) is a Ben Travers farce that sees Stanley star alongside Kay Kendal and Dora Bryan, as an unmarried couple spend an unexpected night together in a country inn.

JUMPING FOR JOY (1956) is perhaps the outright funniest of the lot as Holloway teams up with another screen legend, Frankie Howerd, in this hilarious tale of a sick greyhound.

1956 would be a pivotal year for Stanley Holloway, as it saw him originate the role of Alfred P. Doolittle in the Broadway production of a new musical play, My Fair Lady (1956) by Alan Jay Lerner, an adaptation of Pygmalion (1913) by George Bernard Shaw. Holloway was Lerner's first choice for the role, though Lerner was concerned whether the 66-year-old Holloway still had his resonant singing voice. Holloway relieved Lerner's concerns with an improvised performance during their lunch meeting and Doolittle became one of the actor's most famous roles, one that - again - he reprised when the tale was further adapted to film. The 1964 movie version of My Fair Lady went on to win 8 Academy Awards.

Stanley Holloway. Copyright: Allan Warren

Holloway, now 70, was awarded an OBE in 1960 for his services to entertainment but he continued to work on stage and screen for many more years, demonstrating his versatility in the BAFTA-winning No Love For Johnnie (1961), a political drama in which he played a whip in the recently elected Labour government.

Continuing to work well into his later years, Stanley Holloway toured Asia and Australia in 1977 with The Pleasure Of His Company, a Noël Coward tribute show, and gave a Royal Command Performance in 1980. He died - aged 91 - in a nursing home in Littlehampton, Sussex, on 30th January 1982, a year after the popular reprinting of his memoir, Wiv A Little Bit O' Luck: The Life Story of Stanley Holloway (as told to Dick Richards), first published in 1967. He was the father of actor Julian Holloway, and paternal grandfather of the author and model Sophie Dahl.

Stanley Holloway left behind a wide body of work to be proud of. Aside from steadfast wartime service to his country, his work ranged from concert party revues to breakthrough radio work and monologues to Oscar-winning films and great theatrical successes. Undoubtedly one of Britain's most talented entertainers, few will give as much for their country as Stanley did.

Stanley Holloway

Born in London in 1890 Stanley Holloway was one of Britain's finest comedy actors. It was in the 1950s that Holloway produced arguably his finest work on the big screen and this box set includes four of his finest films.

The Happy Family (1952)
Holloway stars alongside George Cole, Kathleen Harrison and Naunton Wayne in this post-war comedy. When the Government decides to build a Festival of Britain exhibition site everything goes to plan until they try and demolish Henry Lord's (Holloway) corner shop!

A Day To Remember (1953)
Some of Britain's finest post-war comedy talent including Donald Sinden, Bill Owen, Peter Jones and James Hayter star in this amusing story of a London pub darts team's day trip to Boulogne.

Fast And Loose (1954)
Holloway stars in this hilarious Ben Travers farce alongside Kay Kendall and Dora Bryan, as an unmarried couple spend an unexpected night together in a country inn!

Jumping For Joy (1956)
Holloway teams up with another screen legend, Frankie Howerd, in this hilarious canine tale of a sick greyhound!

In terms of recognition, Stanley Holloway was awarded an OBE in 1960 and was also nominated for an Academy Award and a Golden Globe. He continued his long acting career into his 90s, passing away in 1982 aged 91, and will be remembered as one of Britain's greatest comedy actors.

First released: Monday 12th July 2021

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