Jack Douglas

Jack Douglas remembered by Brian Slade

In the world of variety theatre, sometimes a talented performer needed a stroke of luck or needed to be in the right place at the right time to get the success they craved. For one man, an unsung hero who became best known for his twitchy characters in the later Carry On… films, that good fortune was called upon on a number of occasions to thrust him into the public eye of British comedy fans. That man was Jack Douglas.

Born Jack Roberton in 1927, young Jack was not a willing schoolboy. He gave up on education long before he was due, and against the will of his family, running away at the age of 11 to join spotlight operators at Feldman’s Theatre in Blackpool. Despite being a theatre impresario himself, Jack’s father, John D Roberton did not approve of his son’s move. In an effort to get him back into his education he urged Jack’s employers to give him the worst jobs possible, but Jack was not to be put off. He embraced every challenge and when his father threw him an even bigger one, he excelled. Roberton senior gave Jack a script for a pantomime being staged at the Sunderland Empire and promptly told him to go there and direct the show. Despite only being 15 years old, Jack did as his father demanded and flourished.

Jack Douglas with Des O'Connor

He remained behind the scenes from then on until one of the stars of a Dick Whittington pantomime he was working on suffered a heart attack. At that point, Jack stepped in as the only other person who knew the lines, and the stage bug bit him. What made things even more impactful for Jack was that the unfortunate person to suffer the heart attack was a straight man to comic Joe Baker. Baker himself had seemed destined for the stage having been carried on stage at just 11 weeks old by Gracie Fields! When an agent in the audience came backstage and questioned how long Baker and Douglas had been working together, the truth was revelaed that they had been working together for just that one performance. They formed a partnership, Douglas being largely the straight man. Achieving some stage success, as well as a spell on the opening episodes of Crackerjack under Eamonn Andrews, the pairing split when Baker headed Stateside, leaving Jack to work as the straight man for such variety giants as Arthur Askey, Bruce Forsyth and Des O’Connor.

Jack Douglas with Windsor Davies

Despite the end of the comedy partnership with Baker, Jack had been blessed with another piece of good fortune during their time together. For one routine in a show at Butlins in Clacton, Jack was in character as a magician who would call upon a plant in the audience, which was supposed to be Baker. On one evening, Baker had managed to get himself locked out, leaving Jack to improvise. He did so by creating a caricature of somebody he knew with a twitch, and so was born the persona he would become most remembered for – Alf Ippititimus. Alf’s twitch was extreme and at any given comical moment, he would bring forth the word, ‘Phwaay!’ and do a near pirouette, invariably losing whatever he had in his hand as he struggled to regain his balance. It was this persona that Jack would inhabit in most of his Carry On… roles and for which he would become most noted and impersonated.

Despite the success of his comical creation, Jack turned his back on show business and opted to open a restaurant in Blackpool. It was only his friend and frequent comedy partner Des O’Connor who managed to persuade him back into the business in another moment of good fortune. Jack remained a culinary fan however, and he even hosted a television cookery show in his later years as well as releasing a recipe book entitled The Wu-Hey to Better Cooking.

Jack Douglas with Sid James and Joan Simms

Jack stumbled into the Carry On… series courtesy of a chance meeting with renowned producer Peter Rogers. Rogers experimented with Jack’s Alf-like character with a one-line cameo as a twitching parent in Carry on Matron, a role for which he was only paid in champagne. Alf was in full flow as a regular in a bar at the start and end of Carry on Abroad, and after that he became a regular member of the team, albeit increasingly one of the better elements of a series on the decline, culminating in the awful Carry On Emanuelle and the unfortunate reboot, Carry On Columbus.

Jack Douglas with The Goodies

Jack wasn’t exclusively a Carry On… actor, even though his most successful television run was in the Carry On Laughing series in the mid-1970s. He guested in The Goodies and had a role in Hylda Baker’s Not on Your Nellie, and achieved some success in the 1980s in Shillingbury Tales and its follow-up, Cuffy, with Bernard Cribbins.

Stage work kept Jack going as television and film worked faded, and as long as there were screens, Carry On… stars would be in demand somewhere. Away from the stage, as well as his cookery skills, Jack had his own musical talents and enjoyed jazz music. He saw out his days in quiet retirement on the Isle of Wight with fellow actress Vivienne Russell.

Jack Douglas

Jack Douglas didn’t hit the headlines or get the leading roles in movies or shows, but without solid performers such as he, those at the front would not have shone so brightly. And who among those of us of a certain age hasn’t been tempted to do a full 360 turn, pint in hand, shouting ‘Phwaay’?

Published on March 21st, 2024. Written by Brian Slade for Television Heaven.

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