Monday 20 August 2018

Ooh, matron! Carry On at 60 - these vulgar relics are not without merit

It's six decades since the first instalment of the bawdy British film franchise, but these vulgar relics are not without merit, writes our film critic

It's an enigma: Hattie Jacques, Barbara Windsor and Kenneth Williams in Carry on Doctor
It's an enigma: Hattie Jacques, Barbara Windsor and Kenneth Williams in Carry on Doctor

Paul Whitington

Sixty years ago this summer, British filmmakers Peter Rogers and Gerald Thomas released a comedy called Carry On Sergeant. Directed by Thomas, it had been pulled together in a matter of weeks on a shoestring. Its story of a group of incompetents enduring their national service was tailor-made to appeal to a mass audience, but there were no thoughts of Carry on Sergeant being anything other than a one-off.

Instead, it was the beginning of a film series that would run for decades and become a beloved institution. The Carry On films touched a deep chord in their nation's consciousness, and appealed to the mild and harmless anti-authoritarianism of the British working class. They also tapped into an ancient strain of English humour that mixed low slapstick with sexually themed double entendres that were emphasised with much mugging.

They were silly, strangely innocent films that reflected the gender biases and mores of their era. For many years they were hoary staples on British television, but of late they've fallen completely out of fashion, and when an ill-fated revival was recently mooted, critics and commentators responded with fury and scorn.

Carry Ons were always going to be a bad fit in this age of high-minded correctness, but the hatred with which some writers described them took me by surprise. Peter Bradshaw of the Guardian demanded that people abandon their "dishonest nostalgia" for these "ghastly second-rate films". They were "parables about failure", argued Tanya Gold of the same newspaper, populated by actors whose "misery melted out of the screen". The Carry Ons clung to the "body of British culture like a rotting thong", and worst of all, were "not funny".

The films were certainly hugely variable in terms of quality, and became pretty much unwatchable towards the end. Their attitudes to women were not edifying: the females portrayed were either beautiful idiots (Barbara Windsor, Liz Fraser), or bitter harpies (Hattie Jacques, Joan Sims) determined to control and subdue unruly men. But it's sometimes forgotten that the males on display in the Carry Ons were hardly paragons either: they were usually downtrodden losers who muttered on the sidelines, trying and failing to achieve significance. Rutting ladykillers played by Sidney James were made to look ridiculous, and the repressed homosexuality of Kenneth Williams and Charles Hawtrey was plain for all to see.

The Carry On films were not made in an age when people pretended to be free of all prejudice, and their comedy was based on the kind of engrained and often reprehensible social attitudes that would be recognised and cheered by working audiences of the time. But however inconvenient a truth it might be to modern commentators, they were sometimes very funny indeed.

That was more often down to the talents of a brilliant ensemble of comic actors than it was to the sledgehammer innuendoes of the Carry On scripts, but there was a certain salty charm to the films, which in theme and tone evoked not just the lewd seaside postcards of Donald McGill, but also the bawdy excesses of the rapidly vanishing British music halls. And that is why they're still important.

Though the cast inevitably changed through a run of over 30 films, a small group of actors became indelibly linked with the Carry On films. Kenneth Williams, Sid James, Charles Hawtrey, Hattie Jacques, Joan Sims, Barbara Windsor, Bernard Bresslaw, Kenneth Connor: their very names evoke an absurd parallel Britain populated by gurning, cartoonish eccentrics who meant a great deal to a whole generation of moviegoers. But sadly, most of them didn't do all that well out of the franchise, and Kenneth Williams would comment bitterly on what he saw as the endless ordeal of doing them in his posthumously published diaries.

Even he, though, would have admitted that the early ones were pretty good. Carry on Sergeant was followed within in a year by Carry on Nurse, a bawdy take on the working-class experience of Britain's brave new National Health Service. Kenneth Connor, Charles Hawtrey, Leslie Phillips and Wilfred Hyde-White played moany patients whose minor ailments were unlikely to be cured by the histrionic hospital staff: Kenneth Williams was a supercilious consultant, Hattie Jacques the terrifying matron.

The familiar template was being set: lustful, unattractive middle-aged men would hanker pointlessly after beautiful young women while their frumpy wives did their best to foil them. Sex, though ever present, was only referred to through pun and innuendo: authority figures were absurdly pompous, and Britishness, though also lampooned, would always triumph over Johnny Foreigner. These films might have been silly, but they struck a chord with the public: Carry on Nurse was the biggest British film of 1959, and the sequels that followed would make producer Peter Rogers a fortune.

The franchise really hit its stride in the 1960s, when Sid James and Barbara Windsor joined the ensemble, and writer Talbot Rothwell was brought in to brighten up the scripts. Carry on Spying, Carry on Cleo, Carry on Screaming and Carry on Up the Khyber were hilarious in patches, and showcased the sublime comic timing of Williams, Hawtrey, James, Sims and company.

Then there were the outrageous puns, which made you groan as well as laugh. In Carry on Matron (1972), Hattie Jacques is handing out post on the ward and says to Kenneth Williams' doctor, "By the way, your mail." He bristles, and replies, "Yes I am, and I can prove it!" And in Carry on Cleo there's my favourite moment of all, when Williams' Caesar is about to be assassinated and runs towards the camera shouting "Infamy! Infamy! They've all got it in for me!"

Peter Rogers seemed to have it in for his cast. He fired Charles Hawtrey for two films after he asked for top billing. Hawtrey was paid £5,000 for Carry on Sergeant, and that pay scale (roughly the same for all the cast) never really rose.

Sid James, a South African adventurer and womaniser, didn't much care what he was being paid: he was an inveterate gambler, and had told his agent to keep salary details from him so he didn't flutter it all away. He spent most of his time on the Carry On sets pursuing his young co-star, Barbara Windsor, with whom he had a torrid 10-year affair.

Williams, perhaps the most talented of them all, sighed quietly as the films' quality began to dip. He had made his name alongside James on the radio show Hancock's Half Hour. He was also a fine writer, though this would only be discovered after his death when a pristine set of diaries were found.

"It is appalling," he complained to himself about one script, "it is a Carry On".

As the film series staggered on into the late 1970s, the titles themselves told a story: Carry on Dick and Carry on Behind did not promise subtlety and nuance, nor did they deliver it. With the Sex Pistols blaring from the radio and race riots on the London streets, the Carry Ons suddenly seemed absurdly irrelevant, though some would argue that they always had been.

The last of the original series, Carry on Emmannuelle, sank like a stone when released in 1978, and was deemed "morally and aesthetically offensive" by Observer film critic Philip French. An ill-advised attempt to refloat the franchise in the 1992 film Carry on Columbus fared no better.

Was the butt of the Carry On joke the British people themselves, with their bad food, class obsessions and repressed sensuality? Possibly, and however distasteful modern commentators may find the films, they did capture the atmosphere of post-war, post-colonial Britain as it faced into an era of slow decline and huge social change.

Things, sadly, did not end well for most of the actors. Hattie Jacques died of a heart attack at the age of 58, and Sid James was performing on stage when he collapsed and died at 62. Both Joan Sims and Charles Hawtrey ended their lives as lonely alcoholics: Hawtrey's last act was to throw a hospital vase at a nurse who'd asked for his autograph.

As his diaries would posthumously reveal, Williams battled depression for years and struggled to come to terms with his homosexuality. He took an overdose of barbiturates in 1988.

I saw him once, walking in Regent's Park. A small, slight, neatly dressed man, he nodded and smiled when he saw that I had recognised him, and strode briskly on. He died a short time after.

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