He’s Popeye the soldier man

Meet Bernard Bresslaw, one of the stars of Granada’s The Army Game

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From the TVTimes for week commencing 12 January 1958

NO, Bernard Bresslaw — Popeye of The Army Game — isn’t as goofy as all that. It’s just that he’s 6ft 5in tall, has an adenoidal voice, big eyes, and tends to leave his mouth open…

But one can’t kelp making good-humoured fun of Bernard — his looks and personality naturally invite it.

The other day, for example, a man introduced his young daughter to Popeye. She had insisted to her father that Popeye couldn’t really be so silly. “Say something,” ordered the girl. Bernard said something. The poor girl went away with an even more puzzled air. To be proved wrong at that age can be shattering…

Of course, being so tall isn’t all fun. People tend to pick on you. Till last season, Bernard used to play rugby. He was a wing forward, one of the most vulnerable men. Opponents used to look his team over, then the whisper would go round: “Better get that big feller down hard to start with or he might be a trouble.” First time he touched the ball, down he would go under a pile of writhing bodies.

Bernard Bresslaw
Bernard Bresslaw as Private (Popeye) Popplewell in “The Army Game”

It was the same in the Army. Bernard didn’t find it half such fun as the television one. People always used to pick on the tall RASC driver clerk.

But Bernard showed them. He turned to good account his natural ability to play the part of an “oaf.” His first big part was that of a simple country boy in the Irish farce The McRoary Whirl. This was one of the few occasions he has worn a suit on stage — a sky-blue suit to go with his off-white camel-hair coat and white cap.

The play lasted only three days in London’s West End. But it was a good blooding for Bernard.

Previously he had been cast in the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art students’ annual public show. It was Christopher Fry’s Venus Observed, and was put on at the Phoenix Theatre. He didn’t play an oaf then. In the audience was the director of Windsor Repertory, who heard complimentary remarks about Bernard made by Fry, who was sitting next to him.

When Bernard wrote to Windsor Repertory for a job the director gave him a part in The McRoary Whirl.

Bernard left the Academy with the Emile Littler Prize.

He did a couple of tours before The McRoary Whirl, but then began to find doors closed to him with “You’re too tall.” They couldn’t say that, though, when he was auditioned for the part of a guardsman in the television play Who Goes There? In this part, people really began to appreciate what a perfect oaf he made.

But oafishness is not the only weapon in Bresslaw’s armoury. He recently played a brute in a Mark Saber thriller film on ITV.

A man swoons into another's arms as his boss takes his pulse
Popeye collapses – and is caught by Cupcake (Norman Rossington), while William Hartnell, as Sgt Major Bullimore, feels his pulse… with dark suspicion

Bernard’s friends say he makes a lovable goof; others say he’s a “natura” as a psychopathic case. And it was as the latter that he appeared in the Mark Saber production, going so far as to shoot a poor old lady’s dog.

He believes his public will accept him in this sort of role. One admirer wrote him saying she didn’t like Popeye nearly so much since he had shot that dog. I don’t know whether that means she accepts his other guises or not, but at least she really lives them all with him. I wonder what she’ll think if she sees Bernard in his current film role as a bearded sneak-thief in Blood of the Vampire?

Though 23-year-old Bernard doesn’t mind playing the fool, he would like to develop his other capabilities. He doesn’t yearn to play Hamlet, but he does want to play Shakespeare.

Another ambition is to play in pantomime. Any combination of Idle Jack and Buttons would do.

Who knows? Under that amiable and “vacant” exterior may beat the heart of a great Shakespearean actor. What would Cupcake think of that?

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