There’s a scene in series three of Downton Abbey that still bothers Jim Carter, famous the world over for his portrayal of Carson the butler. It comes during the annual estate cricket match where a plumpish Carson looking, to be fair, as if he is wearing more cricket jumpers than the conditions require, puffs up to the crease and releases a delivery so slow it could only take the wicket of a batsman who’s had several shandies with his lunch.
“The edit wasn’t great,” says Carter, 68, a keen cricketer and former chairman of Hampstead Cricket Club. Even now he is, it seems, a little riled. “I have to say neither the writer nor director were cricketers. In my head when I came up to bowl I was Freddie Truman, but when you see it there’s this portly gentleman barely able to get his arm over the horizontal.”
Carter is now presenting a documentary for Radio 4, Howzat for Hollywood, that features a far more glamorous outfit than the Downton House team. The Hollywood Cricket Cub was founded in 1932 by C Aubrey Smith, an ex-pat British character actor who specialised in officer-class types, and was a good enough player to have captained England for one Test match in South Africa in 1889. Smith was helped by the hugely famous Frankenstein’s monster actor Boris Karloff – in reality a south Londoner called William Pratt – and in its pomp the club could put out teams that featured Karloff, David Niven, Errol Flynn, Cary Grant, Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce – who played Dr Watson to Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes – and Ronald Colman. Female stars like Elizabeth Taylor, Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland would take tea in the clubhouse on Sunday afternoons.
Smith, known as “Round the Corner Smith” because of his oblique bowling style, convinced the city authorities to give him a chunk of Griffith Park, conveniently close to the film studios in Burbank. “They raised $30,000 to build a clubhouse and imported English grass seed for the pitch,” says Carter. “PG Wodehouse, the highest-paid scriptwriter in Hollywood at the time, took the minutes at the first meeting. It was very much the thing to do and the place to be to seen for British actors – Laurence Olivier played one game.”
Famously Olivier arrived at the Chateau Marmont Hotel in Hollywood in 1933 to find a handwritten note from Smith: “There will be nets tomorrow at 9am. I trust I shall see you there.”
Elizabeth Taylor and Cary Grant attend a benefit match
With such a cast, one imagines life was lively at the club. “Niven and Flynn lived down on the beach in a place nicknamed Cirrhosis-by-the-Sea,” says Carter. “They enjoyed all the benefits being a film star brought them to the absolute full. I think they were very naughty boys and probably had a fantastic time.” Has Carter ever succumbed to temptation himself? “I’ve been married nearly 34 years [to actress Imelda Staunton],” he says. “I’m a proper English gentleman.”
He is also, thanks to Downton, very recognisable in Los Angeles. “People come up to me and say, ‘Oh my God, I love your programme, oh my God!’ They wish life were like that. I say, ‘It’s not a documentary, you know.’ Besides, I wouldn’t want to be a butler, standing around posh people who don’t know how to feed themselves. Invent a buffet, help yourselves!”
Carter’s love of cricket came as a birthright – a native of Harrogate, he used to watch Yorkshire play as a boy. “I have avoided people trying to make me into a professional Northerner,” he says. “They all think you’re working class whether you are or not. Harrogate is not the pit face.” Ironic then that, along with the steadfast, if disap proving, Carson, Carter is best known for playing Harry, the euphonium player in the Yorkshire coalfield-set Brassed Off (1996), a film he doesn’t think would be made now. “They would be frightened: it was too party political and partisan for the modern financier.”
The modern financier might well be interested in a major movie version of Downton, a long-rumoured prospect that Carter does nothing to dampen when he reveals he made the Radio 4 documentary while he was, “in Hollywood on Downton business”.
But while there Carter discovered that the glory days of the Hollywood Cricket Club are over. “In the early era those actors knew their stock-in-trade was their Englishness and they maintained it through their lifestyle with the Hollywood Cricket Club,” he says. “The more English they were the more saleable they were, in a way. It was a brand extension. But today British actors routinely play American roles and what was once a three-week journey from the UK to LA can now be done in ten hours. So the social side, almost inevitably, died out.”
C Aubrey Smith
That demise was confirmed 30 years ago when the club decided to concentrate on conventional sporting success in LA’s competitive local leagues, and left glamorous Burbank. “The original club-house is now a wedding venue and the team has now moved to Woodleigh Park, a somewhat unlovely area,” says Carter. “It’s like pub cricket now and the Hollywood Cricket Club is no sexier than Pasadena or the other clubs. There is no real sense of their history, no aura around the club.”
But the club has hung on to one piece of memorabilia. “I was given Boris Karloff ’s wicket-keeping pad to hold,” says Carter, with what might be genuine wonder in his voice. “That was a great moment for me. I really was thrilled.”
Howzat for Hollywood is on Saturday at 10.30am on Radio 4