Last year it was announced that two new Carry On films were in the pipeline, Carry On Campus and Carry On Doctors; neither, however , seems to have progressed beyond the ‘wouldn’t it be a good idea if…’ stage.
And that is probably for the best, since the Carry Ons were very much of their time- as the makers of the abysmal 1992 Carry On Columbus discovered to their cost.
The films’ saucy humour, double entendres straight off a Donald McGill seaside postcard and trouser dropping moments of farce, probably have no place in our po-faced, politically correct world and a sanitised version of the Carry Ons would be simply missing the point.
The Carry On films often turn up over Bank Holidays on the outer reaches of the digital channels, and there is clearly still an audience for the series and the unique insight it offers into how ‘ordinary’ people led their lives in the Sixties and Seventies.
More to the point, the films are still very funny, and a lot of that is down to the quality of the cast, many of whom had started out in music hall, variety and revue, all of which were very much imprinted on the Carry Ons’ DNA.
On March 24, 1958, when the first of the films, Carry On Sergeant, went into production at Pinewood Studios, there was no inkling that this would mark the beginning of the film franchise that would be a mainstay of British cinema for the next 20 years.
The film was based on a play, The Bull Boys, by RF Delderfield, author of To Serve Them All My Days and A horseman Riding By. It was given the name Carry On Sergeant to cash in on Val Guest’s film Carry On Admiral, which had been released the previous year but had nothing to do with what would become the Carry On series. ‘Carry on sergeant ‘ was also a military expression that would have been familiar to anyone who had recently undergone National Service, which would not be abolished until 1960.
Another important influence on Carry On Sergeant was the ITV sitcom The Army Game, not least its star and future Doctor Who, William Hartnell. His role in the film, that of a brusque army sergeant, was very close to his part in the TV show, but although Sergeant would prove to be Hartnell’s only Carry On, several other actors in the film would go on to become regulars in the Carry On series, including Kenneth Williams, Kenneth Connor, Charles Hawtrey, Hattie Jacques and Terry Scott.
It was the quality of this cast, allied to an excellent script but Normal Hudis, that made up the film an instant success, rushed into production just three months after Sergeant’s premiere.
Continuity was provided by another excellent Hudis script (based on the play Ring for Catty by Patrick Cargill and Jack Beale) and the return of Williams, Connor, Hawtrey and Jacques. Also appearing were bill Owen (who would later enjoy success as Last of the Summer Wine’s Compo) and raffish Leslie Phillips, who would return in several Carry Ons, usually playing a randy cad whose response upon seeing a pretty girl would be ‘Ding Dong’ or a salacious ‘hell-ay-oo’.
Phillips would later describe Carry On Nurse as the best script he had ever read, and the film went on to become not only the biggest grossing film of 195 but, in terms of cinema tickets sold, the most popular Carry On ever.
However, there were already rumblings of discontent among the cast. The films were made for next to nothing, and in later years the cast would have to endure much discomfort for little reward. Much of the resentment would be directed at the series producer Peter Rogers, as Phillips explained in 2010.
“He was a sweet man but he was tight-fisted. Carry On Nurse hit the jackpot in America, and it’s gone round the world ever since. And none of us made any money out of it, except Peter Rogers himself. He said he was going to offer us a piece of the action, but that was rubbish. Once he saw what happened to Nurse, especially in America, he buttoned up even more. I don’t get a penny from those films. Nothing. One mustn’t gamble, but I don’t like what he did to some of the cast. A lot of them, as they went on, became dependent on the Carry Ons and a lot of them were ill, short of many- and none of them were helped. It has left a bit of a nasty taste in the mouth.”
The Carry On production line continued with Carry On Teacher, which commenced shooting just weeks after Carry On Nurse had premiered. Ted Ray made his only Carry On appearance and it was the second role in the series for Joan Sims, who would become one of the most popular of the Carry On stalwart. She had originally appeared in the non canonical Carry On Admiral and over the years her role evolved from sexy love interest to frumpy wife (although Carry On At Your Convenience would see her demonstrate that even in the Carry Ons, middle aged women could have a hint of a sex life).
Charles Hawtrey was among the returning regulars and caused some consternation on set by bringing his chain smoking mother with him. While chatting in the canteen she dropped some ash into her handbag, which prompted Sims to exclaim, ‘Charlie, Charlie, you’re mother’s on fire’! Hawtrey calmly empties his cup of tea into the smouldering handbag and carried on his conversation.
Daringly for 1960, the next film in the series, Carry On Constable, was notable for its nudity- even if it was just Connor, Hawtrey, Williams and Phillips baring their behinds in the shower- but more so for the first appearance of Carry On legend Sid James, here playing against type as a benign authority figure rather than the shifty philanderer of later films.
The team of producer Peter Rogers and director Gerald Thomas was now well established, with Thomas filming all 30 films in the series including the later Carry On Columbus. Screenwriter Norman Hudis stayed with the dream for two more films, Carry On Regardless, a portmanteau film of interlocked stories centred on an employment bureau and Carry On Cruising, the first colour Carry On.
Regardless and Cruising also featured another Carry On regular, Liz Frazer, who was already an established comic actress thanks to roles in the Peter Sellers films I’m All Right Jack and Two Way Stretch. And although the double entendre involved in the film title Carry On Cruising would probably have been lost on an early sixties audience not yet familiar with the terminology of the gay community, there is no doubting that Williams and Hawtrey would have got the joke.
Kenneth Williams’ acidic diaries reveal his ambivalence towards the Carry Ons; dismissive of their increasingly formulaic plots and recycled gags, his insecurities would always drive him back to what was familiar and comfortable.
For Williams the Carry On team was like a surrogate family. Personally close to Barbara Windsor, who made her debut in the 1964 Carry On Spying, as well as Joan Sims (to whom he once half jokingly proposed) even Williams’ well documented antipathy to Sid James and his contempt for Charles Hawtrey and his alcoholism belied the deep need he seemed to feel to be a part of the team.
Another Carry On regular, Jim Dale, made his debut in the 1963 Carry On Cabby, and would return the next year for Spying and the brilliant Carry On Cleo.
While the early Carry Ons were rooted in everyday life, Carry On Spying and Carry On Cleo saw the subject matter of the films widened to include cinema inspired parodies.
This already popular cocktail choice had been given an English twist for the Royal Wedding! Freshen up a Tom Collins with fresh cucumber and pair with a local craft gin, recently crowned as Britain’s favourite spirit.
Spying was a much more successful take off of the James Bond movies than the later, bloated, Casino Royale while Cleo- one of the most memorable in the series- included the timeless line “infamy, infamy, they’ve all got it in for me”. A parody of that overcooked cinematic turkey Cleopatra, it even used costumes and some of the sets from the would-be blockbuster, giving its traditional low budget values a glossy, Hollywood sheen.
What’s more, so quickly was the production turned round that it appeared in cinemas before the infinitely more expensive target its humour.
More cinematic parodies, of Hammer horror (Carry On Screaming) and westerns (Carry On Cowboy), followed Cleo, while Don’t Lose You’re Head and Follow That Camel (for legal reasons the Carry On moniker was only added to both films alter) continued the trend.
Joining the regulars or the three weeks of filming for Follow That Camel on Camber Sands (the longest location shoot in Carry On history) was Phil Silvers, playing a role similar to the scheming Sgt Bilko that had made his reputation. Silvers did not make himself popular on set and constantly moaned about the weather with good reason; in one scene when Carry On stalwart Peter Butterworth was buried up to his head in sand he had to be supplied with blankets and brandy to keep him warm.
The producers had hoped that the presence of Silvers, who dominated the film, and not always to its benefit, would launch the Carry Ons in the United Stated but as it turned out the film did no better or worse than its immediate predecessors. Perhaps the Carry On humour was just too parochial to appeal to American tastes, although Benny Hill, whose saucy humour had much in common with the Carry Ons, proved to be a big hit in the United States.
After Follow That Camel, the producers returned to the everyday comic subjects of the early films, and from 1967 to 1978 most of the Carry Ons were set in present day England. Budgets were no doubt a factor, but they also appeared to resonate more readily with audiences.
Because of their contemporary settings early Seventies Carry Ons such as Abroad, Behind, and At Your Convenience, have perhaps fated more than the ‘historical hystericals’ of the Sixties, but they are also among the most evocative, capturing the everyday realities of life in the late Sixties and early Seventies Britain, a world of cheap package holidays, strokes and the not so permissive society.
The Carry Ons also tapped into the tradition of hospital set comedies that had begun with the Doctor films (and later TV series) based on the books by Richard Gordon. And when injected with a healthy dose of seaside postcard humour Carry On Doctor, released in December 1967, became the third highest grossing film of 1968 after The Jungle Book and Barbarella.
Frankie Howard joined the cast for the first of his two Carry On appearances, and Barbara Windsor was back for her first Carry On since Spying. Setting the action in a hospital suited Sid James, who had suffered a heart attack and been advised to take plenty of bed rest. But that left Charles Hawtrey to steal the show as a husband suffering the pangs of a sympathetic pregnancy.
Mixed in amongst the more contemporary Carry Ons of this period, the team came up with one of the best of the series, Carry On Up The Khyber. In fact no less an authority than Colin McCade, Professor of English at the University of Exeter, cited Carry On Up The Khyber as one of the best films of all time, along with Carry On Cleo.
What appealed to McCabe about the Carry On series was its regular puncturing of authority, and the films’ “continuous outpouring of derision at class pomp and pretension.” In particular, Carry On Up the Khyber’s “thorough debunking of very myth of Empire nevertheless managed to celebrate British sang-frois and savoir-faire.”
The 1972 Carry On Abroad was the last of the series to feature Charles Hawtrey. His role, that of a mummy’s boy let off the leash on a holiday abroad, who proceeds to drink himself senseless was perhaps a little too close to the truth for comfort and the producers had simply grown tired on trying to manage him on set.
Hawtrey had begun drinking heavily during the making of Carry On Cowboy, in 1865, shortly after his mother died, but the final straw came when, hoping to gain higher billing, Hawtrey withdrew from a television programme, Carry On Christmas, giving just a few days notice. Peter Rogers explained: “He became rather difficult and impossible to deal with because he was drinking a lot. We used to feed him black coffee before he would go on. It really became that we were wasting time.”
Hawtrey never made another film and died alone in a nursing home in Walmer, near Deal, in 1988. On his death bed he reputedly threw a vase at a nurse who asked him for an autograph.
By the time of carry On Girls in 1973, the first film to feature neither Hawtrey or Kenneth Williams (who was appearing in a West End play) the pace of production had slowed to one a year and the series was starting to show signs of wear and tear.
The desperately unfunny Jack Douglas, whose act seemed to comprise of dropping things and falling over, made the third of eight Carry On appearances, and the sexual references were becoming more explicit.
Robin Askwith, future star of a series of dreadful British sex comedies that managed to be both unfunny and unsexy, also features in Carry On Girls, an ominous sign of what was to follow. As was the title of the next film, the 1974 Carry On Dick, which was actually based on the legend of the highwayman Dick Turpin.
Dick marked the final appearances of Sid James, Barbara Windsor and Hattie Jacques (although all three would appear in the spin off TV series Carry On Laughing), and things could only get worse.
Carry On Behind was a lame re-run of Carry On Camping, and the least said the better about the final entries in the series Carry On England and Carry On Emmanuelle. At a time of increasing explicitness on screen these final Carry Ons tried to be sexy but just looked dated, and the scripts were poor. Talbot Rothwell, who had scripted 19 Carry Ons, had departed after Carry On Dick, and it showed.
There were no Carry Ons produced from 1979 to 1992, when the series was briefly revived for Carry On Columbus. Jim Dale, Jack Douglas and June Whitfield (who had appeared in Nurse Abroad and Girls) provided a link to the previous films, and Gerald Thomas returned to direct, but this was a Carry On in name only, and it was distinctly odd to see among the cast several ‘alternative’ comedians, whose careers had been built on criticising the sexist nature of the Carry Ons, among them Alexei Sayle, Rik Mayall, Nigel Planer and Julian Clary.
Today the Carry Ons are rightly regarded as not so much belonging to a lost golden age of British film, but rather, almost single handedly keeping the home-grown industry going.
Although deeply rooted in a particular time and place they remain strangely timeless, and Colin MacCabe offered an explanation of the Carry On films’ enduring appeal: “In many ways the Carry Ons are like the Wodehouse novels: they produce an imaginary and coherent vision of an England that never existed, in which we can feel at home.”
(Article source: Choice)