Infamy, infamy…

A new book about the Carry On films gives Stephen Griffin a novel way to earn the scorn of his former friends and colleagues...

Thursday, 2nd June — By Stephen Griffin

Carry On Cleo poster

Detail from a poster for Carry on Cleo, 1964

OK, I’ll come clean: my name is Stephen and – whisper it – I like Carry On films.

Yes, I may appreciate Coward, Shaw, Wilde, Frasier and Jim Hacker but (albeit with caveats) I confess I have a soft spot for producer Peter Rogers’ and director Gerald Thomas’s 30 double entendre-laden farces.

Not all 30, of course; the worst (England, Emmannuelle, Columbus) are quite rightly seen as a low watermark in British cinema, but the best (Spying, Cleo, Screaming, Up the Khyber, Camping) remain a joyous celebration of this country’s delirious sense of the ridiculous.

For two decades from 1958 to 1978, the Carry Ons were a fixture on the Odeon booker’s spreadsheet. Delivered at roughly two a year – filming took place in spring and autumn due to the cast’s panto and summer season commitments – they held up a mirror to our nation. Carry On preserved the morals, attitudes, mores and even the furnishings of this country in aspic, freezing in time a Britain that never was.

The first six (mostly monochrome) Carry Ons took aim at various British institutions – the Army, the freshly hatched NHS, the constabulary, education – and were the work of former Ham&High hack Norman Hudis. After he exchanged Pinewood for Hollywood, ending up writing The Man from UNCLE and Hawaii 5-O, Crazy Gang gag writer Talbot Rothwell assumed the reins. He wrote the next 20 (yes, 20!) titles and it was he who was chiefly responsible for what we now think of as “Carry On” humour – animated Donald McGill postcards punctuated by the occasional Swanee whistle.

When Rothwell was piped aboard, the films eschewed sentimental comradeship for full bed and bawd. The early Hudis titles had run their course and the Carry Ons would never have carried on but for Rothwell’s new direction. Arguably, his departure – understandably he had a breakdown due to overwork – was more keenly felt than the loss of any cast member.

Many books have been written about the much-loved but often much-reviled franchise, but there’s never been an attempt to chart their social relevance.

Until now. Enter journalist and broadcaster Caroline Frost, whose new book Carry On Regardless: Getting to the Bottom of Britain’s Favourite Comedy Films, takes a look at the series through the prism of a more enlightened lens.

She argues, quite persuasively, that the Carry Ons were far less sexist, racist, bigoted and homophobic than their reputation would have you believe. I doubt she’ll sway dyed-in-the-wool haters, but on rewatching them she concluded they were cleverer, subtler and more progressive than she remembered. And she makes a decent case for the defence.

As ever, she observes, we have to see the films in the context of the time in which they were made – it really was another world. Clearly the Carry Ons would not (and should not) be made today but if you look at them with an open mind they were relatively forward thinking, far more so than their rivals.


Cleo – among the best of the best of the Carry Ons

Other comedies of the time often relegated women, for example: Carry On gave equal weight to its female cast members and invariably the weak, impotent or priapic men were the butt of the joke.

I doubt one could argue that Carry On Cabby, in which Hattie Jacques sets up a rival all-female taxi firm to challenge her husband Sid James’s, is a great feminist polemic but it’s certainly on the women’s side.

And although it took 11 years before a person of colour (Up the Jungle, not, as suggested, Kenny Lynch in Loving) made an appearance, it’s interesting to note that even Kenneth Williams’ turn as The Khasi of Kalabar has not prevented endless bank holiday repeats of Up the Khyber.

Often cited as the best of the bunch, Khyber, says Matthew Sweet, is “one of the most interesting films about de-colonisation ever made”. And he has a point. The film mercilessly rips it out of the Raj and the ludicrousness of the stiff upper lip. It’s also – and this is Carry On’s trump card – extremely good natured. No wonder therefore it was a hit in India and in 1999 even made the BFI’s top 100 best British films. Sweet succinctly sums it up: “We lost the empire but we kept the bum joke.”

Playwright Terry Johnson makes the point that the Carry On actors were resolutely working class – Sid James was a hairdresser and stevedore in his native Johannesburg, Williams was the son of a King’s Cross hairdresser, Joan Sims the daughter of an Essex stationmaster – and so their audience recognised them as fellow grafters. None were film stars, none were that well remunerated (Rogers, the benign dictator, kept wages and expectations low by stressing that the real star of the show was the title “Carry On”) so the team were regarded as “one of us”.

One of Rogers’ rare misfires was Carry On at Your Convenience, which took a pot shot at union action at the WC Boggs sanitary ware factory. The punters stayed away in droves. For once, the usually canny producer seemed to forget who his audience was. Apparently Frost spent lockdown suffused in Sid, Kenny, Charlie and Babs, and it was well worth the sacrifice.

I’m not sure I completely buy into the “progressive” argument but this is a well-written, entertaining yet thought-provoking read, quite simply the best book about the Carry Ons… if you like that sort of thing.

Carry On Regardless: Getting to the Bottom of Britain’s Favourite Comedy Films. By Caroline Frost. White Owl, £20

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