Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Michael Crawford, aka Frank Spencer and the Phantom

A profile of a gifted actor and singer for Overlooked Films, Audio & Video at Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom.

In the 70s and 80s and long before cable, India’s state-run television Doordarshan (Far Sight) telecast several British sitcoms like Fawlty Towers, Sorry, Are You Being Served?, To the Manor Born, Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em, and 'Allo 'Allo! Yes Minister and Yes, Prime Minister came later followed by American series like Cosmos: A Personal Voyage by Carl Sagan, Dynasty, and Remington Steele. Der Alte, or The Old Fox, was a popular German crime serial at the time.

During this period Doordarshan also broadcast mini movies lasting no more than an hour. They were watched avidly. I remember one such film, Baxter, about a young boy unwanted by his parents (or so I think) and adopted by a young married couple who are fond of him. It was a poignant film. I haven’t been able to trace it since.

All that was in the past though some British sitcoms like Blackadder and 'Allo 'Allo! have made it back to Indian television screens, thanks to cable.

Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman in The Phantom of the Opera, 1986.
© Donald Cooper/Rex Features

A couple of years ago, we watched Joel Schumacher’s The Phantom of the Opera (2004) starring Gerald Butler, Emmy Rossum, Patrick Wilson, and Minnie Driver, and instantly fell for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s awe inspiring music vocalised by the lead actors other than Driver. At the time the film reminded me of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s famous stage production that had English actor and singer Michael Crawford in the title role of the Phantom. I have not seen it, only read about it.

Michael Crawford—now where had I heard that name before? To my pleasant surprise, I discovered that he was none other than the accident-prone, bumbling idiot, and affectionate husband Frank Spencer in Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em which was first broadcast in 1973 and then again until 1978. For a while I actually thought they were two men with the same name. I mean how could the blundering Frank Spencer be the debonair Phantom? A BBC poll rated it one of Britain’s best sitcoms.

In case you haven’t seen the sitcom or heard about it, here’s what it was all about, courtesy Wikipedia: “The wimpish, smiling Frank, sporting his trademark beret and trench coat, is married to (his long suffering wife) Betty (Michele Dotrice) and in later series they have a baby daughter, Jessica, which offered scope for even more slapstick humour. Frank was a gift for impersonators, and for a time it became a cliché that every half-decent impersonator was doing an impression of him, particularly his main catchphrase, “Ooh Betty,” (and) a quavering “Oooh…,” usually uttered with his forefinger to his mouth as he stands amidst the chaos of some disaster he has just caused (and which he himself has invariably escaped unscathed).”

Frank and Betty Spencer (Michael Crawford and Michele Dotrice)
© Wikipedia

While Michael Crawford, CBE, will always be remembered as Frank Spencer in this silly but delightful comedy about a made-for-each-other husband and wife, it would be unfair not to mention his other achievements, particularly as an award-winning singer who has cut albums and a stage actor on both London's West End and New York’s Broadway.

He was only 19 when he got a role in the American film The War Lover (1962) alongside Steve McQueen. At 25, he made his Broadway debut in Peter Shaffer's Black Comedy with Lynn Redgrave and was noticed by Gene Kelly who gave him a part in the film adaptation of the musical Hello, Dolly! Crawford then went on to act in various plays (No Sex Please, We're British), films (Disney adventure Condorman), and sitcoms (Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em, which made him a household name).


Michael Crawford, CBE
© www.wmeentertainment.com
Crawford got his second big break in 1986 when Andrew Lloyd Webber cast him in the musical stage adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s novel The Phantom of the Opera in the title role opposite English soprano Sarah Brightman. 

Over the next two-and-a-half years, he gave more than 1,300 performances on both West End and Broadway winning several music and theatre awards on the way. The Phantom of the Opera has since been produced in nearly 150 cities across 25 countries and recently celebrated its 25th anniversary. In 2011, Crawford and Webber teamed up again for the musical version of L. Frank Baum's novel The Wizard of Oz.

Years later, when Joel Schumacher made The Phantom of the Opera for the big screen, people wondered why the smiling and affable Frank Spencer wasn’t cast in the role of the Phantom. Michael Crawford has never been able to shake off the sitcom tag. In 2004, however, he’d have been 62 and perhaps a tad old to play the Angel of Music but he was the original Phantom, the man who has inspired many Phantoms over more than two decades.

16 comments:

  1. I recognize him but don't really remember a lot of things he was in. My movie watching is spotty at best

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    1. Charles, I last saw Michael Crawford in his famous sitcom when he was in his thirties. He is much older now and has an impressive body of work behind him.

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  2. He's had an amazing career - I think I first saw him in the Richard Lester's ancient Rome farce, A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, where he sang some Sondheim tunes perfectly respectably - thanks for the great profile Prashant.

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    1. Sergio, you're always welcome. You're right about Michael Crawford's amazing career. I need to watch some of his films and sitcoms including the farce you mentioned and also listen to his songs. I'd quite forgotten about this fine actor-singer.

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  3. I grew up with Some Mother's Do 'Ave 'Em and remember being surprised when I heard he was the Phantom.
    Obviously a lot more than a one trick pony. Cheers for the post, Prashant.

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    1. Col, I thought you'd have. I remember finding Frank Spencer rather annoying, as he blundered his way around once too often and called out to his wife, Betty, in an effeminate way. In comparison, Timothy Lumsden (Ronnie Corbett) who played mama's little boy in SORRY was insufferable. Thanks for the kind words, Col.

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    2. I came to admire Ronnie Corbett more as he got older, not in SORRY though. I always found his partner Ronnie Barker a lot more amusing. The two Ronnies, as were, Morecambe and Wise - great Saturday night entertainment!

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    3. Col, I don't think I have seen the two Ronnies in anything including THE TWO RONNIES, or even MORECAMBE & WISE for that matter. We only had recourse to a few stock television serials in those days one of which included SORRY.

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    4. Apologies.or SORRY!...I thought you had as big a grounding in primetime UK TV of the 70's and 80's, as I had. I forgot you're 000's of miles away!

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    5. Col, no cause for apologies. I may have missed out on a few more Britcoms, especially BBC, other than the prominent ones I mentioned early on in the post. I also remember the British animated sf series called FIREBALL XL5 which I wrote about long ago. It was hugely popular in India, as was James T. Kirk's STAR TREK much later.

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  4. I also know Crawford from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which is a favorite movie in our house. We just watched it at Thanksgiving (we do a mini movie marathon). I also remember him in Hello, Dolly! Otherwise have not seen him in much. It was great to read all this information about him.

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    1. Tracy, thank you. I often wonder what happened to the British actors I watched on television. Sergio mentioned A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM too, so that's one of Crawford's early films I need to see.

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  5. Yes it is hard to believe Michael Crawford (at least the M.C. I remember) as the love-torn phantom. But actors have their own way of surprising you.I didn't even know he could sing. One of these days I'm going to have to give a listen to the original music.

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    1. Yvette, there was a lot I didn't know about Michael Crawford's film, television, and music career until I watched Schumacher's THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and read about him. I didn't know he could sing either. Check out the Antonio Banderas-Sarah Brightman music video of THE PHANTOM on YouTube. Banderas has sung the title song very well.

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  6. Been meaning to say thanks for the Keaton still at the top of your page. What a brilliant comic actor. Watched some of THE GENERAL again recently. His ride on the front of the locomotive is unforgettable. In the same league with Laurel & Hardy's delivery of a piano up a long flight of stairs.

    As for Crawford, your post manages to mention a half-dozen shows I have heard of but never seen. A lot of British farcical comedy is over my head. Exceptions: Fawlty Towers and Fools and Horses.

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    1. Ron, thanks for the appreciation. It's way too large, I think. I agree, Keaton was a "brilliant comic actor" more so since much (or most?) of his work was in the silent era unlike Laurel and Hardy who transited from silent films to the talkies. They called him, rather aptly, the "The Great Stone Face." I remember Keaton in THE GENERAL as well as Laurel and Hardy in THE MUSIC BOX, the latter a part of our collection of L&H movies.

      I have heard much about ONLY FOOLS AND HORSES and I think it was broadcast in the eighties, though I don't remember all that well. Apart from FAWLTY TOWERS, some of the memorable British sitcoms were ARE YOU BEING SERVED?, TO THE MANOR BORN, and 'ALLO 'ALLO!

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