HIS onscreen persona was that of a bumbling buffoon on the verge of a nervous breakdown as chaos reigned around him.

As one of the core actors in the Carry On film franchise, Peter Butterworth was one of UK cinema’s most recognisable faces of the 1960s and 70s.

He appeared in 16 of them – more than the likes of Hattie Jaques, Bernard Bresslaw and Barbara Windsor – making him the sixth most prolific of all the Carry On team.

Among his roles was the dim-witted Detective Constable Slowbotham opposite Harry H Corbett in Carry On Screaming, Brother Belcher, the missionary with questionable morals in Carry On Up The Khyber, and frantic hotel manager Pepe in Carry On Abroad.

But behind the laughter was a deeply private family man, with an extraordinary backstory as a prisoner of war which he rarely spoke about in public.

Butterworth’s untold story is being presented by his son, Tyler, at Darlington Film Club next month. He will speak about his father’s life after a screening of one of the best-loved Carry Ons – Camping – in which Butterworth plays conniving camp manager Josh Fiddler.

Tyler says he was largely unaware of his father’s wartime service during his lifetime. Even when fellow camp survivors took part in his This Is Your Life programme, all the then 15-year-old Tyler remembers is “lots of old men coming on”.

“There’s a whole phenomenal backstory to dad which I didn’t discover until fairly recently,” he says. “It’s a complete contrast to the guy we all know in the Carry Ons.

“Dad was shot down at the beginning of the war and spent the whole time as a POW. But he never talked about and I never asked him – it didn’t feel right.”

It turns out that Butterworth, who served in the Fleet Air Arm, was one of the first people to stage a tunnel escape during the Second World War, achieving three days of freedom before being spotted and captured by a member of the Hitler Youth.

“He always joked he’d never work with kids after that,” says Tyler.

He spent much of the war in Stalag Luft III, which became famous as the venue for a breakout which formed the basis of the film The Great Escape.

Butterworth also played a part in an escape fictionalised in the book The Wooden Horse. Ironically, he was later turned down for a role in the film version because producers felt he did not look convincing enough as a POW.

The seeds of his acting career were sewn in Stalag Luft III. It was there he met Talbot ‘Tolly’ Rothwell, who went on to write many of the Carry On film scripts. Butterworth helped establish a camp theatre and he and Rothwell would perform shows for the other prisoners.

Tyler says audiences are often moved by references to his father’s wartime exploits.

“I’ve done this talk a few times now,”. he says.

“People roar with laughter to start with and then the story takes a turn. We go back to the start to get involved in his life in the war. It’s an absolutely gripping story, I don’t make anything up it’s just there and it’s quite moving.

“Everybody is on the edge of their seats listening because they have no idea this bumbling man had this incredible war story.”

Growing up, Tyler says he was aware of his father’ s fame. He remembers Carry On favourites like Joan Sims and Hattie Jacques visiting his home and day trips to Brighton with Kenneth Williams.

“Kenneth Williams was a great mate of dad’s,” he says. “He was quite a tricky guy to be friends with and I don’t think he liked a lot of them (Carry On actors), but he got on with dad.”

Despite the famous faces, Tyler describes his home life as normal, adding: “People sometimes ask what it was like having a funny father, but I didn’t know any different. He was just my dad.

“My dad was quite a private man and a a very loving father. He was a also a great letter writer and illustrated them with drawings because he was a very good artist. He was also quite strict and very hot on things like manners, letter writing and all those old-fashioned traditional things.”

Butterworth’s wife, impressionist Janet Brown, was famous in her own right. Tyler feels that after his father died in 1979, he “passed the baton” onto his mother, whose career then became “stratospheric” largely for her impressions of Margaret Thatcher.

He recalls a day in Blackpool where his mum was in summer season with Freddie Starr.

“Every 50 yards or so she’d be ambushed by old ladies who gripped onto her arm. They had a great technique of taking her by the arm, turning to their friend and saying ‘look who I’ve got here’.”

Tyler is a big fan of his father’s Carry On films. “I absolutely love them, especially those written by Tolly Rothwell,” he says.

“Dad and Tolly were friends for all of their lives – Tolly was dad’s best man and he wrote all those films that dad was in.”

He added: “I think they were done with good intentions and very much tongue in cheek.”

Carry On Up The Khyber is his personal favourite.

He recalls being present on set for the filming of the iconic dinner scene, with ceiling plaster – “obviously polystyrene” – falling into soup as the building is shelled around the guests, all seemingly oblivious to the destruction apart from Butterworth’s increasingly agitated Brother Belcher.

“I think it’s beautifully crafted stuff,” says Tyler.

Peter Butterworth: The Untold Story, presented in association with the Misty Moon Film Society, will be at the Forum Music Centre, on Borough Road, Darlington, on Monday, June 10, from 7pm. Tickets cost £10. For more details visit Darlington Film Club’s Facebook page, www.theforumonline.co.uk or call 01325-363135.