During the halcyon days of the 1970’s, the British situation comedy went through a golden era with memorable characters, familiar signature tunes and a treasure trove of defining televisual moments which have since formed the basis of the British cultural identity. The Croft and Perry era which predominantly spanned from the mid sixties until the early nineties, defined a generation with its unforgettable characters and quintessentially British sense of humour. Any actor who had the pleasure of entering this madcap world of eccentric characters in carefully crafted situations has since become synonymous with a very significant part of British culture and can boast to being part of TV history.
Character actor and writer Michael Knowles joined such an elite group when he was cast as the stereotypical English gentlemen Captain John Ashwood in Perry and Croft’s wartime sitcom It Ain’t Half Hot Mum in 1974. Yet this was merely the television highlight of a career which has spanned over half a century and has seen Knowles share the screen with some of the biggest names in comedy. We met at Frank Williams’ 90th birthday celebrations at the Leicester Square Theatre in London before arranging a follow up interview to celebrate his remarkable career in British comedy. Unfortunately due to technical issues, the interview no longer exists but hopefully the following article will go some way to making up for a grave mistake.
Like most actors of his generation, Michael began his career in rep before joining Jimmy Perry’s repertory company at the Watford Palace Theatre during the early sixties. Despite being in the company of future sitcom legends Frank Williams and Jeffrey Holland, it was Michael’s chemistry with fellow actor Donald Hewitt which became most significant. It didn’t take long for the pair to be in sync with the other’s breathing patterns and generated a sixth sense of determining what each other were about to say. This had an enormous advantage over the quality of the productions which Jimmy Perry put on as the pair had an unrivalled connection which could adapt itself to any role. Unbeknown to both Knowles and Hewitt, this rapport would be a significant relationship in the direction of both of their careers and would prevail for over a quarter of a century.
This association with Jimmy Perry and indeed Donald Hewitt would prove vital for Michael in the coming years and in 1969 secured a cameo in the third episode of the second series of Dad’s Army entitled The Loneliness of the Long Distance Walker. Having known the majority of the cast and crew from his days at the Watford Palace Theatre, Michael fitted right in with the production of Dad’s Army and this was to remind Jimmy Perry of his versatility as an actor. David Croft always liked to create a family atmosphere on set and those who passed the test could expect a long association with the sitcom heavyweight. Therefore although his appearance in Dad’s Army was a very fleeting one, it remains a very significant role in the course of his career and one which he shall forever treasure.
Such a role would have enormous repercussions for Michael as in 1972 he was cast as the pompous, English gentlemen Captain John Ashwood in Perry and Croft’s next sitcom venture It Ain’t Half Hot Mum alongside Windsor Davies, Michael Bates and Melvyn Hayes. The sitcom was inspired by David Croft’s posting to India during the Second World War and Jimmy Perry’s experiences as a comic in the camp concert party. Set in the fictional village of Tin Min in Burma, during the last months of the Second World War, It Ain’t Half Hot Mum was the ultimate ensemble of carefully crafted eccentric characters combined with Perry and Croft’s genial use of verbal dexterity. Reunited with Donald Hewitt, Knowles’s Ashwood represented the comedy found in the pomposity and stupidity found in military authority and the sense of entitlement surrounding it.
The use of language played a dominant role in It Ain’t Half Hot Mum as it gained the prestigious accolade of the first bilingual sitcom. Actor Michael Bates was born in India and could speak fluent Urdu therefore Perry and Croft were determined to incorporate this aspect into the series. As an actor, Knowles was in awe of Bates’s ability to switch between languages at the drop of a hat and this added to the authenticity of the show. For eight series and fifty six episodes, It Ain’t Half Hot Mum proved a hit and the onscreen chemistry between Captain John Ashwood and Lieutenant Colonel Reynolds alias Michael Knowles and Donald Hewitt became one of the most endearing aspects of the sitcom. The chemistry which they nurtured at the Watford Palace Theatre was now being rekindled on screen in one of the biggest sitcoms of the day. For Michael, it was of real benefit to be able to interpret the actions and behaviour of his co-star and believes that this was one of the components in making It Ain’t Half Hot Mum one of Britain’s best and most enduring situation comedies.
Beyond his acting credentials, Michael also carved out a successful career as a writer. In 1980 together with David Croft, he successfully adapted the scripts of Dad’s Army for the radio version of the legendary sitcom. The series was fortunate enough to rely on the talents of the original cast which was a major component to the show’s success. The mission was to maintain the authenticity of the TV series while applying the disciplines of radio. Having known the majority of the cast for many years, Michael was able to determine the phrases and mannerisms unique to each character. Not only was he familiar with the characters and their various idiosyncrasies, he also knew the abilities of each actor so could tailor the dialogue and action to fit each member of the cast. Such a task would not have been possible without Knowles’s extensive knowledge of Dad’s Army, its characters and most importantly, the actors involved. In short Michael was the perfect candidate to perform this craft and remains extremely proud of his involvement in the Dad’s Army story.
His association with the Perry and Croft franchise wasn’t over and in 1988 reunited with Donald Hewitt for one last time in You Rang M’Lord alongside Paul Shane, Su Pollard and fellow Watford Palace Theatre alumni Jeffrey Holland. Cast as The Honourable Teddy Meldrum; the brother of Lord Meldrum (Donald Hewlett), owner of Meldrum House, who takes matters into his own hands when he hires new servants to run the home. This ensemble cast of three of David Croft’s best loved sitcoms: It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, Hi-De-Hi and Allo Allo were all carefully cast as the last outing for such an enduring formula. Such familiarity encouraged Perry and Croft to experiment with the principles of sitcom and instead of adhering to the standard thirty minute time slot, the sitcom legends updated the genre by making each episode fifty minutes in length. Despite not being as celebrated as Perry and Croft’s earlier work, Knowles insists that You Rang M’Lord remains a comedy classic and is still one of TV’s biggest exports.
Sadly this proved to be Michael’s last regular TV role as he embarked upon a well deserved retirement. In 2016 he was enticed by a cameo in the star studded BBC One sketch show Walliams and Friend which was the ultimate acknowledgment of his comedy pedigree. Yet as complimentary as it is to be a sitcom legend, Knowles remains content to enjoy a relaxed and fruitful retirement. Despite his vast achievements as a writer and actor, he takes pleasure in the knowledge that he was part of an elite group of comic actors who helped to define the British sitcom in the seventies and eighties. Fads and fashions in television come and go but Michael Knowles was part of a comedy franchise which will never be forgotten. There’s not many better testimonies for one’s career than making an indelible mark on one’s industry and our subject has definitely achieved this. It was an absolute pleasure to meet and interview the legendary Michael Knowles and with a formidable career behind him, he most certainly has earned a long and prosperous retirement of holidays, watching live comedy and celebrating the golden era of the British situation comedy.