Thursday 22 March 2018

Such Carry On: a rude awakening for comedy

Camp: The Carry On crew initially struck a chord with ordinary folk but the franchise limped to a standstill in the 1970s
Camp: The Carry On crew initially struck a chord with ordinary folk but the franchise limped to a standstill in the 1970s

Paul Whitington

A few weeks back, while idly skimming obscure satellite channels, I came across a Carry On film. I recognised it instantly because of Sid James, rumple-faced, bulb-nosed and cackling inanely as he copped a load of Barbara Windsor's eloquently jiggling bosoms. It turned out to be Carry On Camping, a substandard outing made in the late 60s when the hoary old franchise was becoming stale, stilted and notably out of kilter with a rapidly changing Britain.

Still, it had a certain vulgar energy thanks to the sterling efforts of its expert cast of comic actors, who winked and mugged their way past the glaring deficiencies of an uninspiring script. Kenneth Williams oohed, Charles Hawtrey aahed, Terry Scott squeaked, Hattie Jacques made the scenery bounce and Babs Windsor effervesced as only she can.

The famous scene where her bikini top is accidentally removed by an errant fishing line was and remains inane beyond words, but there are little moments of brilliance now and then, when the actors overcome the essential crassness of the production with brief flights of comic excellence.

When I was a boy, Carry On films were ubiquitous on the few TV channels at our disposal, and in a sense we grew up on them, amused by the childlike clowning of Hawtrey and Williams, and ignoring the ever-present undercurrents of lewd innuendo. To the pure all things are pure, and I remember them as comedies that, like Morecambe and Wise or Hall's Pictorial Weekly, the whole family sat down and laughed at together.

That was then and this is now, and in 21st century Britain the Carry On films have never been more unfashionable. In this age of correctness there seems no place for their overt sexism, working class caricatures and cheerful xenophobia. To judge them by the standards of today is, of course, ridiculous: what seems offensive now was entirely unremarkable in the 1950s and 60s. A better question might be, how should they be positioned in the history of British cinema, and are any of them any good?

In recent times English film writers like Peter Bradshaw have decried the sneaking public affection for them that remains. "Why are the Carry Ons still held in such high regard," Bradshaw has said, "when so many of them were so painfully unfunny?" Is he right?

Overall, I'm afraid so, especially in the 1970s as the franchise crawled slowly towards death and what had once been giddy and saucy became crass and embarrassing. But I would maintain that there are actually some good Carry Ons: Carry On Cleo is a kind of classic, as in its way is Carry On Up the Khyber, Carry On Screaming has a certain camp charm, and a case could also be made for Carry On Nurse and Carry On Doctor.

But nothing dates like comedy, and time has been cruel to the Carry On brand. Even the best films have very ordinary patches, and overall I think the best way to experience the Carry On franchise is as a series of madcap clips, plucked out scenes that seem like skits and sketches performed by masterly comic actors in their prime.

Because while many of the 31 Carry On movies are very forgettable, there's nothing forgettable about the wonderful cast that Peter Rogers and Gerald Thomas had the foresight to assemble back in 1957.

In fact the franchise came about by happy accident. Rogers was a hack producer at the Rank-controlled Pinewood Studios in the mid-1950s when he teamed up with jobbing director Gerald Thomas to make a low-budget comedy called Carry on Sergeant.

It starred William Hartnell as a crusty drill sergeant given the task of knocking a sorry bunch of National Service inductees into shape. Bob Monkhouse played the lead, but most of the film's laughs were provided by a supporting cast that included Hawtrey, Williams, Jacques and rubber-faced comic actor Kenneth Connor.

It was pretty basic stuff, but grounded in reality and spoke to the experiences of a generation who'd endured compulsory national service. Like all the Carry Ons to come, it had the common touch in spades. Made for just £73,000, it earned over £500,000. Pinewood wanted more.

The next one was an even bigger hit, and cemented the series into the British zeitgeist. Carry On Nurse made £1.5million, was the biggest film of 1959 and was so popular with the British public that it was still playing in some local cinemas in 1962. Even Dilys Powell, the much-feared Sunday Times film critic, was won over by Carry On Nurse's salty charms, describing it as "a welcome breath of good, vulgar, music hall fun," and perceptively praising the "excellent playing" of its assembled cast.

Joan Sims made her Carry On debut in this film, Sid James arrived in 1960, for Carry On Constable: they would often be cast together as unhappy, thwarted couples, and together with Charles Hawtrey, Kenneth Williams, Hattie Jacques and Kenneth Connor, formed the heart of the Carry On troupe. And while other actors like Jim Dale, Bernard Bresslaw, Terry Scott and Peter Butterworth would also become synonymous with the series, it was the core group of comic experts that really made the Carry Ons tick.

Sid James was the most famous of them at the outset, having played Tony Hancock's cynical sidekick on TV and radio in the hit sitcom Hancock's Half Hour. The South African-born actor bought his easy charm, comic timing and famous dirty laugh to the proceedings, and would star in 19 of the Carry On films.

Though Joan Sims started out in the legitimate theatre, Hattie Jacques, Kenneth Williams and Charles Hawtrey all had roots in the rough and tumble of comic revues and music hall, which prepared them well for the bawdy knockabout of the Carry Ons.

They were an odd bunch: James, the hard-living gambler and womaniser who'd later embark on a long affair with his young co-star Barbara Windsor; Sims the lonely spinster in thrall to her puritanical parents; Hawtrey, an alcoholic secret homosexual who lived with his mother; and Williams, gay also but repressed, solitary and deeply unhappy, as his bitter diaries would posthumously attest.

They didn't get on that well, and had little time for their penny-pinching producer Peter Rogers, who once said "I'll do anything for my actors, except pay them". Carry On stars like Williams and Hawtrey were awarded salaries of £5,000 for the first film, and never given a raise thereafter.

The atmosphere on set could be poisonous, with Williams prone to back-biting, and Hawtrey obsessed with getting star billing.

Hardly a happy camp, then, but when the Carry On players came together, something special often happened. In Carry On Up the Khyber, for instance, when North Wales stood in for the Himalayas in a hilarious send-up of the British Raj, or Carry on Screaming, a wonderfully over-the-top skit on the Hammer Horrors starring Kenneth Williams as a kind of camp Frankenstein's monster whose catchphrase was the old chip shop motto, "frying tonight!" Best of all was Carry On Cleo, a whimsical take on the Roman conquest of Britain in which Williams, playing the soon-to-be assassinated Julius Caesar, rushes towards the camera screaming "infamy, infamy, they've all got it in for me!" The films' humour was basic, broad, lewd and evoked the bawdy tone of mid-century British seaside postcards. The Carry On men were usually either cowed middle-aged grumps married to formidable frumps and lusting after unattainable younger females, or effete and histrionic homosexuals whose gayness, though never directly alluded to, was as plain as the nose on your face.

But they seemed like real people, and their petty lives and little failures spoke to a nation laid low by rationing, hardship and the aftermath of a war from which Britain had emerged notionally victorious but very much diminished.

The Carry On films struck a chord with ordinary British people, who saw themselves in the repressed and gurning characters on screen, who were inured to defeat and met it with defiant aplomb.

The series limped to a standstill in the late 1970s, and finally ended in 1992, with Carry On Columbus.

It was awful, but that mainly was because none of the great Carry On actors were alive to star in it.

Sad ends of the Carry Ons

Though Sid James and Hattie Jacques had successful TV careers in the 1970s, most of the Carry On regulars ended up terminally typecast, and none lived into happy old age. Beset by marital woes and an addiction to gambling, Sid James collapsed and died on stage in Sunderland in 1976, at 62. Hattie Jacques was just 58 when she suffered a fatal heart attack, in 1980: following the breakdown of her marriage to Day’s Army star John Le Mesurier, her weight had ballooned to over 20 stone.

Joan Sims died an alcoholic, and so did Charles Hawtrey, who was something of a misanthrope and spent most of his life dodging the opprobrium occasioned by his active homosexuality. A lifetime of drinking and smoking eventually did for him, and the last thing Hawtrey did was throw a vase at a nurse who’d asked for his autograph. He died in 1988, and so did Kenneth Williams, who’d lived a life of quiet desperation, confiding his woes to his posthumously published diaries. I once saw him walking near Regent’s Park, a small, slight, natty man who responded smiling to nods of recognition but seemed lost in his thoughts. He was found dead in his London flat having taken an overdose of barbiturates that was probably accidental. He was 62.

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