Liz Fraser

Liz Fraser

Brian Slade pays tribute to a star and unsung hero of the small screen.

There was no doubting who was in charge of the Carry On… films. Producer Peter Rogers was notoriously cheap with the talent and somewhat ruthless in disposing of those who upset the apple cart. But when he reportedly sacked one of his stars for questioning his marketing strategy in the early years of the series, it became television’s gain. The absence of her appearances in the Carry On… films gave Liz Fraser the chance to become a small screen success with the likes of Tony Hancock and Sid James.

Liz Fraser was born Elizabeth Joan Winch in South London in 1930. She was just 11 years old when her father died of tuberculosis. Unperturbed and determined to give her daughter a good education, Fraser’s mother ran a corner shop, determined to afford to send her to a good school. After attending St Saviour’s and St Olave’s Grammar School, 16-year-old Liz became a typist, doing classes in the evening at the London School of Dramatic Art. Her desire to go into the arts was reportedly from watching her uncle entertain with magic tricks.

Liz Fraser

Liz took her theatrical bow as most people did at the time, courtesy of a repertory company in Accrington. It wasn’t long before she was seen on celluloid, debuting in Britain’s earliest soap, Sixpenny Corner, with minor roles in Ealing comedies, before finding her meatiest role as Cynthia in the film I’m All Right Jack. The star-studded line-up, headed by Ian Carmichael and Richard Attenborough, included a little-known Peter Sellers as Cynthia’s father. She would resist Sellers charms, despite his best efforts, and work with him again. I’m All Right Jack was a box office success, Fraser receiving a BAFTA nomination for most promising newcomer, but the downside for Liz was that it showed her to the world as a stereotypical blond bombshell, something she would struggle to shake off.

The floodgates didn’t open for Liz, but the Carry On… films beckoned, but her departure for speaking out of turn after three films allowed her more time for television. She had long been alongside Tony Hancock, and when Sid James was given his own series, Citizen James, she went with him to play his long-suffering girlfriend, albeit only for one series. She departed when the programme’s writing was handed over from Galton and Simpson to Sid Green and Richard Hills.

Liz Fraser

Liz would dip in and out of comedy shows, mixing with the finest talents of the time. Playing one of the supporting cast, she chalked up work with The Goodies, Tommy Cooper, Norman Wisdom, Benny Hill and Jimmy Tarbuck, but the more serious roles she pined for weren’t coming her way, at least not on television. Comedy was where she had been pigeonholed, appearing in the movie version of Dad’s Army as Pike’s mum and eventually gaining a reprieve from Peter Rogers, at a much-reduced fee, to re-join the team, albeit with the series in decline with Carry On Behind.

There was a more permanent role in 1984 when Liz played Doris Entwhistle in the two series of Fairly Secret Army with Geoffrey Palmer, but she would gain plaudits for her appearance in Eskimos Do It, in which she played a woman who has been given two weeks to live. Liz herself survived three cancer spells. It was typical of the challenges life threw her way. She had been beaten up after challenging a man for urinating in the street, and she had a hard time with her two marriages – the first ended in divorce, and the second, to director Bill Hitchcock, alas ended when he died in his 40s.

Liz Fraser

The Carry On… films have an undoubted legacy for their artists. They certainly didn’t offer anything financially, with paltry pay and zero fees for any subsequent use once the films were in the can. Fortunately for Liz, partly courtesy of her first marriage which had seen her husband misuse her funds, and partly from having lost savings to an unscrupulous agent in her early years, she had become financially savvy and made good investments that made sure she didn’t end in the same poverty-stricken situation that some of her Carry On… co-stars did.

The other legacy of those films is that despite her efforts in other films, and a healthy list of quality stage work, those three early Carry On… movies and the below-par Carry On Behind ensured that British viewers rarely saw past her involvement. Had they done so, they would have seen a talented actress, an indomitable spirit and a principled fundraiser for the Royal Variety Club of Great Britain.

Liz Fraser

Liz Fraser passed away from complications following surgery at the age of 88. The Times obituary concluded with a wonderful quote that summed up her spirit: ‘I’ve been robbed and attacked, I’ve been in accidents. My first husband was a thief, my second husband died young. Life teaches you about life, acting doesn’t.’

Published on April 6th, 2024. Written by Brian Slade for Television Heaven.

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