50 Years of the Carry Ons

Andrew Roberts looks back at the UK film-comedy franchise that almost survived the great bingo-purge of the 1970s...

It is a sad fact that the professional CVs of the principle cast members of the Carry On team include Oscar nominated songs, major theatrical triumphs or winning medals at RADA – which often makes it all the more poignant that their efforts are best remembered for a film in which the apparent highlight is of a lady’s bikini top is yanked off with a fishing rod. Outside of the series Joel Solomon Cohen, a well-spoken South African, had transformed himself into Sid James, the masterly British cockney character actor respected by film-makers as diverse as Michael Powell and Carol Reed, Kenneth Williams gave a one man rendition of Gogol’s Diary of a Madman that will haunt anyone who has ever heard the recording and Barbara Windsor’s performance in Sparrows Can’t Sing was one of the finest in British films of the 1960s. But the label of a series that really died in 1978 still pervades.

Twenty years earlier the main British cinematic attractions were Room at the Top, the first ‘kitchen sink film’, and Hammer’s Dracula with little attention being paid to a modestly budgeted comedy being made by Peter Rogers at Pinewood Studios. The stars of this 6-week wonder were Shirley Eaton, the veteran character actor William Hartnell as the eponymous NCO, and the TV comedian Bob Monkhouse. The picture proved to be a vast commercial hit in the dying days of National Service, but there is little or nothing in Carry On Sergeant to suggest future glories, save for the presence of Kenneth Williams and Connor, Charles Hawtrey and Hattie Jacques some way down the cast list.

Indeed, the novice Carry On viewers will look in vain for flying bras in the first seven films – Sergeant has a sentimental ending of a successful passing out parade, Cruising, the first entry in colour, resembles a middle class Rank comedy of the previous decade and Constable showcased Sid James in his original series incarnation as the tough-but-fair NCO figure.

Asides from the cast, the only obvious links with the later entries were the films’ quite spectacular cheapness. The budget for Sergeant was a mere £74,00, setting the tradition for props being borrowed from the Bermondsey Work Group Hospital Management Committee for Nurse, and location shooting being restricted to Wales, Brighton or, best of all, the studio car park. This was mirrored by an equally straightforward approach to characterisation; mothers-in-law were accompanied by tuba music and were often chased by goats; battleaxes wore wing-tip glasses; and Sid James usually played someone called ‘Sid’, for ease of recognition.

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The films often boasted some dazzlingly low-rent product placement for the likes of Saxo Table Salt, the Morris Marina and, most famously, the entire Ford Consul-Cortina PR fleet in Cabby. To many enthusiasts Cabby still represents the series at its most beguiling; an enthusiastic cast of skilled pros careering through a black-&-white Windsor to a very jaunty theme tune but instead the archetypal Carry On is strangely held to be Camping, quite possibly the only film to owe some of its success to the 1958 epic Nudist Paradise. The great commercial success of this support feature was principally via allowing the great British (male) public to see the great British (female) bottom in all of its cellulite-strewn glory.

Flash forward some ten years to the opening scene of Camping, where Sid James & Bernard Bresslaw, both attired in their best suits, have taken their girlfriends to their local ABC in order to see this masterpiece. As a cinematic précis of the sort of “suspect individuals” who would be attracted to Carry On films, it is simultaneously masterly and utterly depressing to witness our middle aged heroes excitedly consume their Orange Mivvis as they gaze at the screen in sheer rapture at actually seeing a naked woman. Anyone hoping for a Peeping Tom-style denouement of voyeurism will be severely disappointed; Sid, the Carry On film everyman, can revel in his unrequited lust, safe in the knowledge that nothing untoward will ever really happen.

Still, Camping deserves to be remembered for far more than 31 year-old schoolgirls losing their bikini tops in the middle of November, as this was the Carry On film that finally encountered the 1960s. What is especially noticeable is not the fact that the hippies have only one Mini-Moke, with the Sisyphean task perpetually doomed to travel round the same muddy field, that the rhythm guitarist with ‘The Flower Buds’ has a comb-over or that none of the group’s instruments are actually plugged in.

No, the main point of interest here is that the filmmakers clearly considered thirty extras indulging in some tame, albeit appalling, dancing to what sounds like a ’62 Shadows B-side to be the epitome of the hippy menace. In 1963, Cabby perfectly captured the zeitgeist of early 1960’s consumerism with its glossy ranks of Cortina ‘Glamcabs’, but this was virtually the last time that the series celebrated a vaguely contemporary England. After Camping, subsequent Carry Ons that eschewed a period or institutional setting included the ‘Swinging London’ of Loving (as late as 1970), the unions of 1971’s At Your Convenience and the feminists of 1973’s Girls – all of which described a gentle arc from the inept to the utterly awful.

Meanwhile British cinema was enduring its 25th crisis since the Second World War – after 1970, when the US studios had closed their British operations, censorship was relaxed and Swinging London was dead. The coming decade saw cinemas surviving via a very motley assortment of sit com spin-offs, Hammer Studios issuing attacks from successive waves of naked lesbian vampires – and by the Carry On series. By now the once-familiar comedy staples of Norman Wisdom, the Doctor films, the Boulting Brothers, and St Trinians were no more, and the Carry On films seemingly kept themselves alive via finding yet more ways for Barbara Windsor to fall out of her bra.

The series also calamitously declined in technical quality during the 1970s, and one does not even have to read the biography of a team member eating or drinking his or herself to death or living in fear of their own sexuality amidst perpetual complaints about money to experience a sense of deadening gloom. Just looking at the visible markings on the car park as muddily photographed in the “18th century” setting of Dick or the grim spectacle of Kenneth Williams now shrieking his way through every performance should be quite sufficient. This air of decrepitude was exacerbated by the partial move to television in the form of some video-taped specials made for ATV between 1969 and 1975 which, as they lacked even the surface gloss of a cheap film, merely evoked pity for the over-worked cast.

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However, as compared with the British sex comedy, the decade’s other money-spinning genre, the Carry Ons still retained their peculiar innocence. The likes of Confessions of a Driving Instructor provided the audience with a peculiarly British vision of absolute Hell in the form of an unremittingly drab suburbia with a dead Hillman Minx on every street corner where ‘randy’ milkmen were ‘getting plenty’ from bit-part actresses who apparently found bad actors with worse sideburns totally irresistible. Fortunately, the Carry Ons, retaining their family-friendly ‘A’-certificate, were almost charmingly quaint; sex, in that particular corner of Pinewood Studios, simply meant a winning combination of Sid issuing the regulation dirty laugh, collapsing beds, and ladies’ skirts being caught in the door of a Ford Cortina.

But once the spectator feels sympathy with a large and highly attractive middle-aged lady in her search for sexual pleasure or feels for a tall man in a terrible wig who is required to put his head in a supporting player’s cleavage, any sense of charm is instantly dissipated, thereby destroying the film’s raison d’etre. It was always the skill of the central cast that had prevented overly critical viewers from asking too many questions as to the plausibility of a 44 year-old National Serviceman, or of a crook managing to infiltrate a nurse’s home despite the utter uselessness of his disguise.

For all of Peter Rogers’ claims that ‘the title is the star’, the bulk of cinema-goers naturally regarded the team as the title, particularly as the direction and the script-writing were rarely more than workmanlike – Again Doctor actually seems to end in mid-film. Attempts to bring in a younger cast were doomed; 1976’s Carry On England starred Patrick Mower but few people apparently wanted to see a Carry On film starring Patrick Mower. Indeed, the only film starring Mr. Mower that people seemed to warm to was The Devil Rides Out, in which the rest of the main cast took it in turns to kick him a great deal.

By 1978, the series had grounded to an utterly ignominious halt with Emmanuelle and, save for the compilation That’s Carry On and the dire 1992 revival of Columbus, that would seem to be the swansong of the series, for all of the hopes of Vinnie Jones & Shane Ritchie starring in Carry On London. Instead, a far more fitting celebration of the series’ 50th birthday would be to remember the ‘costume films’ of the mid-1960s – Cowboy, Cleo, Screaming and Up the Khyber. All of them may have been filmed on a budget of approximately 2/6d but the costumes and cinematography would not have disgraced a far more expensive production and the performances as often as good as in any British comedy.

The idea that a cheap comedy film can unconsciously reveal a great deal about the hopes and aspirations of its audience is hardly an original one. Nor is it a phenomenon restricted to the UK; from the French Gendarme comedies to Denmark’s Olsen Banden, most cinemas have churned out comedies primarily aimed at a domestic audience. What makes the best Carry Ons appealing is their childlike approach – Gilbert Adair once famously compared the cast of the films to children playing games in the playground, and it is precisely this quality that lends the best entries in the film a winning combination of rude vigour and the same form of innocence as evoked by Morecambe & Wise squabbling in their double bed.

In this regard 1966’s Screaming is probably the pinnacle of the series, the entry in which Donald McGill meets Hammer Horror with the invaluable help of an utterly catchy rock-&-roll theme song, Fenella Fielding’s vamp and Charles Hawtrey’s Dan Dan the Lavatory Man. And absolutely no flying bras.

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