Tragedy of the Carry On stars – death on stage, obesity, alcoholism and suicide

The Carry On films have brought laughter to British homes for more than 60 years and are among the most beloved of any movie series.

With their cheeky puns and saucy gags, they made stars out of actors such as Kenneth Williams and Sid James

Dame Barbara Windsor, who died last night aged 83, was one of the breakout stars and went on to become a household name thanks to the popularity of the films and later on EastEnders.

Beginning in 1958 with Carry On Sergeant, the series ran for 31 movies up until 1992's Carry on Columbus.

But away from the movies, the stars often struggled behind the laughs.

Here we look back at some of the more tragic stories attached to the stars of the British institution.

Sid James

With his wrinkled look and dirty laugh, Sid James will forever be the face of the Carry On films.

Appearing in 19 of the movies, James rarely ever played anything other than a version of himself – a skirt-chasing, hard-drinking, gambling lad. And people loved him for it.

He famously had an affair with Babs during his time on the films, with his tiny co-star recalling: "I cared deeply for him.

"I didn't at first, he was just my leading man and I used to push him off.

"But he was an old-fashioned charmer, opening doors and all the rest of it, making you feel like a lady. So our relationship was inevitable."

Dame Barbara Windsor

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  • Despite the affair, James remained with his wife Valerie and continued working all across the country.

    And it was on one of those nights that James died.

    On the opening night of his live comedy The Mating Season on April 26, 1976, James had a heart attack on stage.

    His other performers had no idea what had happened and continued to say their lines to him – but the 63-year-old tragically never replied.

    He had died in the middle of a scene while sitting on a couch in front of a live audience.

    Kenneth Williams

    Another of the most famous members of the gang, Kenneth Williams was a multi-talented entertainer who was loved by the nation.

    Whether it be a rude pun or a joke in German, Williams could do it all.

    He first got huge fame on the radio with Hancock's Half Hour and Round the Horne.

    But it was his appearance in 24 Carry On films that really saw his fame rocket,

    Often playing a stuffy doctor or headmaster who would have his pomposity pricked by Sid James or Barbara Windsor, Williams would likely steal any scene he was in.

    But away from the cameras he suffered long term depression and was incredibly lonely.

    He lived alone for most of his life with only his mother, who lived nearby, for regular company.

    He died in 1988, thought to be suicide, and shortly after his diaries were released which showed a complex man haunted by insecurities and self doubt.

    His final diary entry was "Oh, what's the bloody point".

    Charles Hawtrey

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    With his slight frame, round spectacles and famed "oh, hello" catchphrase, Charles Hawtrey is another of the main cast who are instantly recognisable to fans across the globe.

    Often playing the wimpy mummy's boy, Hawtrey appeared in 23 of the Carry On films beginning with the first one, Sergeant, in 1958.

    His final appearance came in 1972's Carry on Abroad – by which time he was struggling with alcoholism and would frequently appear drunk on set.

    The producers had enough and got rid of him.

    Without his regular work on the films, Hawtrey withdrew to his home in Deal where his addiction steadily got worse.

    One local publican recalled: "Millions of people think of him as a lovely person who makes them laugh.

    "I try to remember him like that, but mostly I think of him lying on my bar floor with his legs in the air, absolutely plastered and incapable of speech."

    This lifetime of hard boozing and smoking took its toll on the slight Englishman and in 1988 he was told he had peripheral vascular disease and would need both his legs amputated.

    He flatly refused, telling doctors: "I want to die with my boots on".

    And he did later that same year.

    Bernard Bresslaw

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    Standing at 6ft 7ins tall, the imposing-looking Bresslaw was always more of a gentle giant.

    Appearing in 14 of the films, Bresslaw would usually play the amiable sidekick to Sid James' scheming Jack the lad.

    He began in 1959's Carry On Doctor and appeared in his final one in 1975's Behind.

    The giant actor was rarely out of work – picking up roles in Doctor Who and other sci-fi shows, but he was always a fan of the theatre.

    And one of his favourite spots was the Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park, London.

    It was here too that the big man died. He suffered a sudden heart attack on 11 June, 1993 in his dressing room just moments before he was due to appear as Grumio in The Taming of the Shrew.

    Tragically his diary entry in the same year read: "What a joy to return to play at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre for another season. There is nowhere I would rather be."

    Hattie Jacques

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    Hattie Jacques was often portrayed as the sex-starved matron, desperate to get together with Kenneth Williams' stuffy superior.

    But in her real life, Jacques wound up in a affair with a car dealer while married to fellow actor John Le Mesurier – who played Wilson in Dad's Army.

    Incredibly, when Le Mesurier found out, instead of ending the marriage he agreed to let the new man sleep in the marital bed while he moved upstairs and into the attic.

    The couple formally divorced some time later but by then her weight had begun to spiral and she weighed more than 20st.

    By 1980 she had developed severe heart problems and on October 6 she suffered a fatal heart attack at the age of 58.

    Joan Sims

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    Joan Sims appeared in more than 20 Carry On films and was often the object of affection for a rampant Sid James.

    Beginning in 1957's Carry On Admiral, Sims would continue as one of the front stars of the film franchise up to Emmanuelle in 1978.

    Never married, Sims would suffer from depression throughout her life and in her later years suffered from alcoholism.

    Upon the death of her great friend Hattie Jacques, she was too upset to go to the funeral and continued her tragic spiral.

    In 2000 she fell into a coma, and although she regained consciousness, she died later in 2001 at the age of 71.

    Imogen Hassall

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    Despite only appearing in one film – Carry On Loving – Imogen Hassall became a fan favourite and was known as "The Countess of Cleavage".

    Playing a meek person who transforms into a liberated woman through dating, Hassall as one of the standout performers in the 1970 hit.

    She also appeared in hit TV shows The Avengers, Jason King and the Persuaders.

    Away from the cameras, Hassall suffered a traumatic personal life having a number of failed relationships, two marriages and tragically losing a baby just shortly after birth.

    In the years after Carry On her career fell into decline.

    In 1980, the 38-year-old had failed to meet a friend for a holiday and pals rushed to her Wimbledon home.

    She was found dead having killed herself with an overdose.

    Peter Butterworth

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    While Peter Butterworth is best known for appearing in 15 of the Carry On films from 1965 to 1978, what is less well known is his heroics in the Second World War.

    As an airman with the Fleet Air Arm, Butterworth was shot down at the beginning of the conflict and ended up spending the remainder of it as a prisoner of war.

    In scenes reminiscent of a Hollywood film, Butterworth staged an elaborate escape through tunnels and managed to get out for three days before being spotted by a member of the Hitler Youth.

    His son Tyler told the Northern Echo last year: "He always joked he’d never work with kids after that."

    Tragically like many of his pals on screen, Butterworth died while continuing to perform for crowds

    In January 1979, while starring as Widow Twankey in Aladdin at the Coventry Theatre, Peter was found dead in his hotel room.

    He had suffered a suspected heart attack.

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