Carry On: a very Bri­tish phe­nom­e­non

On the six­ti­eth an­niver­sary of the first in the se­ries, Roger Lewis salutes the cheap, ter­ri­ble films that cap­tured the grim, post-war mood

The Oldie - - CONTENTS - Roger Lewis

France had Truf­faut, Jeanne Moreau and Jean-paul Bel­mondo. Italy had Fellini and Vis­conti. Germany had Rainer Werner Fass­binder. Swe­den had Ing­mar Bergman.

Good luck to them. We had Pri­vate Wid­dle and Bar­bara Wind­sor, whose bra flew off and hit Ken­neth Wil­liams full in the face.

Make no mis­take, the Carry Ons are ab­so­lutely ter­ri­ble – a na­tional em­bar­rass­ment. Sex­ist, racist, ho­mo­pho­bic and mea­grely made to the point of cyn­i­cism, they are easy pic­tures to make fun of – and need­less to say, mod­ern aca­demics, with their pu­ri­tan­i­cal an­i­mus, have been quick to den­i­grate the se­ries for ‘pro­mot­ing the het­ero­sex­ual ide­ol­ogy of a male, pa­tri­ar­chal society’ and sim­i­lar, mas­sive af­fronts.

I love them. I have the boxed set – 29 fea­ture films, dozens of tele­vi­sion spin-offs and the Christ­mas spe­cials, in one of which Frankie How­erd ap­pears in drag as Cin­derella’s Fairy God­mother.

The se­ries was in­au­gu­rated in 1958, with Carry On Sergeant, star­ring Wil­liam Hart­nell. It was soon fol­lowed, ev­ery few months, by fran­tic plots in­volv­ing teach­ers, po­lice con­sta­bles and taxi driv­ers. Hos­pi­tals and doc­tors were al­ways a pop­u­lar tar­get – where in the wards no­body was ever dan­ger­ously ill, and a nurse planted a daf­fodil up Wil­frid Hyde-white’s bot­tom.

For a while, the Carry Ons, made at Pinewood, ri­valled the Boult­ing brothers. In films made at Shep­per­ton, with Ian Carmichael, Richard At­ten­bor­ough and Peter Sell­ers, the Boult­ings satirised the le­gal pro­fes­sion, diplo­macy, the church or in­dus­trial re­la­tions.

But the Carry Ons were al­to­gether broader, more vul­gar – cheap in ev­ery sense. They did not aim for so­phis­ti­ca­tion.

The first truly iconic pic­ture, with its Six­ties bounce, was Carry On Cleo, in 1964. Shot in colour on left­over sets from El­iz­a­beth Tay­lor’s epic Cleopa­tra (1963), and with Sid James in a Ro­man cen­tu­rion cos­tume ac­tu­ally worn by Richard Bur­ton, Talbot Roth­well’s script was crammed with in­nu­endo – about erec­tions, tes­ti­cles, lava­to­ries, tools and jock­straps.

Sex in the Carry Ons was al­ways un­mis­tak­ably off-putting, de­spite Swing­ing Lon­don os­ten­si­bly be­ing some­where in the back­ground. Ken­neth Wil­liams flinches with hor­ror at the sight of lin­gerie. Bernard Bress­law was ac­com­pa­nied ev­ery­where by a bat­tleaxe of a mother-in-law. Sid James in­ef­fec­tu­ally deals in con­tra­band birth-con­trol tablets in Carry On Ma­tron. Girls with dainty fin­gers and al­most no clothes on, played by Sally Gee­son, Carol Hawkins, Jacki Piper and a young Wendy Richard, are bo­somy,

cur­va­ceous and freckly – yet al­ways a bit dim. Though they are ob­vi­ously up for it (and ‘hav­ing it off’ is ev­ery­one’s am­bi­tion), noth­ing much ever hap­pened. The cen­sor saw to that.

‘Ev­ery joke has a sex­ual mean­ing!’ lamented the pres­i­dent of the Bri­tish Board of Film Clas­si­fi­ca­tion.

So, when Sid James col­lapsed on top of Amanda Bar­rie’s sul­try Cleopa­tra, a few inches of cel­lu­loid had to be cut ‘so we don’t see him wrig­gling his legs’.

When Charles Hawtrey emerged from a tent with a busty brunette, in Carry On Camp­ing, au­di­ences were not al­lowed to hear him re­mark, ‘She’s been help­ing to stick my pole up.’

If we laugh at what we fear, the Carry Ons are as bleak as Strind­berg about the bat­tles of the sexes. Mar­riage is al­ways a trap and wives are scolds – Joan Sims or

Patsy Row­lands as fat old bid­dies, sit­ting in the kitchen smok­ing. Hus­bands, played by Peter But­ter­worth or Ken­neth Con­nor, are lazy, feck­less and work­shy, hop­ing for tiny vic­to­ries down the bet­ting shop, dream­ing of a quick kiss from the bar­maid. Terry Scott, the seething hus­band of Betty Mars­den, in Carry On Camp­ing, was a mar­tyr to piles, and it shows on his face.

The films are gaudy and dirty – and Bri­tain was still re­cu­per­at­ing from the war to a large ex­tent when these films were in the cin­e­mas. They por­tray an Eng­land full of re­stric­tions, with the cheer­ful in­hab­i­tants en­dur­ing an ex­is­tence of de­layed or can­celled grat­i­fi­ca­tions. They drive rusty cars. They go on day trips to pad­dle in the English Chan­nel. They eat pork-pie pic­nics. They go on no-frills, self-cater­ing week­ends where Hat­tie Jacques is queu­ing for the turbo-toi­let.

Leisure is hard work, eg the W.C. Boggs fac­tory ex­cur­sion to the Palace Pier, Brighton, where the cast stayed at the Royal Al­bion Ho­tel, which in ac­tu­al­ity was owned by Dora Bryan. But rather the wasps and the rain than ven­tur­ing abroad. When ‘pack­age’ hol­i­days to the Balearics came in, the Carry On team went to the re­sort of Els Bels to have it con­firmed that the Con­ti­nent was full of un­couth for­eign­ers in eth­nic skirts eat­ing kinky food, rude wait­ers, brig­ands, in­tel­lec­tu­als, volatile Latins and fiendish Gauls.

To shoot Carry On Abroad, they re­mained safely in the car park at Pinewood, which was sprin­kled with sand. For the Sa­hara Desert in Carry On Fol­low That Camel, they went all the way to Cam­ber Sands, near Rye. Carry On Up the Khy­ber was shot in Snow­do­nia, and Hawtrey’s drunken an­tics are still re­called with dread in Bed­dgel­ert.

Usu­ally they re­mained near the stu­dios, within the neigh­bour­hood of Maiden­head, Uxbridge, Wind­sor and Stoke Po­ges. Carry On Cow­boy was a few papier-mâché cacti on Chob­ham Com­mon. Hawtrey said that Carry On Up the Jun­gle was shot ‘in a f***ing green­house’.

Peter Rogers, the un­pop­u­lar pro­ducer, who lived in Dirk Bog­a­rde’s old house in Bea­cons­field, did ev­ery­thing in his power to save money and re­tain max­i­mum prof­its for him­self.

Be­cause the Equal Pay Act hadn’t come in, he paid the women less than the men, and ev­ery­one was on fixed fees, with no of­fer of any fu­ture per­cent­age of the gross. Sound stages were locked at lunchtime, for fear that crews would charge an over­time rate. Trans­porta­tion to the stu­dio was out of an artiste’s own pocket. When Laurence Olivier ex­pressed amaze­ment at the rub­bish con­di­tions, Ken­neth Wil­liams said, ‘That’s why Peter Rogers won’t cast you.’ For Carry On Scream­ing, Fenella Field­ing had to buy her own cos­tume jew­ellery.

All this shab­bi­ness shows up on the screen, with the badly lit card­board sets and the shame­less con­ti­nu­ity er­rors. Win­dows al­ways re­flect mi­cro­phones and crouch­ing cam­era­men, ex­tras walk past mul­ti­ple times in each scene, and coats, hats and bags change colour and shape, seem­ingly of their own ac­cord. Widean­gle and close-up shots sel­dom match. Props van­ish and reap­pear. Back­pro­jected roads al­ter un­pre­dictably from coun­try lanes to mo­tor­ways.

Yet the di­lap­i­dated, poky world on view – cardi­gans, drip-dry suits and Crim­p­lene knick­ers; the muddy Pinewood or­chard painted green to look more sum­mery; the diet of ham and boiled spuds – sym­bol­ises an English­ness also found in Philip Larkin po­ems or Lu­cian Freud paint­ings. Not good at sen­su­al­ity, we are mae­stros of the dingy.

Be­hind the gai­ety of flo­ral dances, lan­tern lec­tures (Frankie How­erd as Pro­fes­sor Tin­kle pre­sent­ing a pa­per on the oo­zlum bird), fox hunts and beauty pageants, it is chilly and get­ting dark.

I feel this par­tic­u­larly when thinking about the mag­nif­i­cent Carry On cast – shouldn’t they have been do­ing Sheri­dan or Con­greve or Coward, or ap­pear­ing in some clas­sic com­edy of manners at the Na­tional Theatre? Why didn’t such of­fers come their way?

Hawtrey drank him­self silly in Deal, an­gry at the way he was treated. Bress­law dropped dead, aged 59. But­ter­worth died in his dress­ing-room in Coven­try, dur­ing a panto. Ken­neth Wil­liams’s de­spair and spite led to his pre­ma­ture demise from a bar­bi­tu­rate over­dose. Though poorly now, only Bar­bara Wind­sor re­mains. Quite rightly she was made a dame.

Frankie How­erd, Anita Har­ris and Hat­tie Jacques, Carry On Doc­tor (1967). Be­low,Carry On Sergeant (1958) with (from left) Charles Hawtrey, Eric Barker, Wil­liam Hart­nell. At rear, Ken­neth Wil­liams

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