End of an Era?

Jonathan Sothcott, for Carry On Line, 1997

A few months ago, I sat in a bar in a Manchester Hotel getting slowly sozzled with film producer Richard Gordon. Like myself, Richard has a great interest in British films, so after we'd exhausted such diverse topics as the Hammer Horrors, Richard's own films ('Old Mother Riley Meets The Vampire', 'Bizzare Secrets of Sex' and the seminal 'Horror Hospital' amongst many others) and that legendary last orders poser "so who was the best James Bond?" (He went with Connery, I with Moore) our conversation turned to comedy. I said that I was a great Carry On fan and he surprised me with his thoughts on them - "They're okay for what they were, but only the early black and white ones are of any reasonable standard." He thought that the series had reached its creative nadir in the Seventies.

Any reader scanning the Carry On Line film poll would probably concur that this is the popular conception of the films. Sadly they'd be right. My purpose is not to change your mind, but perhaps instead to consider why you hold this opinion.

Discounting TV specials, stage revues and those popular impoverished pastiches, there were 30 Carry On films produced between 1959 and 1992. The greatest number were produced in the sixties (14), followed by the seventies (11) and the general consensus is that the series peaked in the late sixties with 'Up The Khyber' and the supreme 'Camping'.

By the time the sixties gave way to the seventies, much had changed in the British film industry since 'Carry On Sergeant'. With the release of 'Blow Up', full frontal female nudity had become acceptable. By the time Henry VIII Carried On, it had become de rigueur. When Emmanuelle went Love Crazy, we were confronted by the fact that sex and nudity had become the very raison d'etre of domestic British films. The fate of the Carry Ons was decided ultimately by their refusal to update their formula. Hammer Films suffered for the same reason. If they had released 'To The Devil ... A Daughter' 10 years earlier than they did, they'd probably still be in active production. If Rogers and Thomas had taken a gamble and shot 'Confessions of A Window Cleaner' instead of 'Carry On Behind', we'd probably have been spared 'Emmanuelle' and the indescribable 'Columbus'. But before you groan and read something else, think again about 'Confessions of A Window Cleaner'. It really isn't anywhere nearly as bad as you remember. The humour is slick and jolly, the performances surprisingly sincere and convincing and the direction effectively measured. The nudity itself is pretty minimal and, if not endearing, certainly rather innocuous. Watch 'Alfie, Darling' and 'Confessions of a Window Cleaner' again and see which you consider to be the logical successor to the '65 Michael Caine classic. You might just be surprised.

Nipping briefly back to Hammer, Michael Carreras, during his tenure as Managing Director noted that you "Mustn't ever mess with people's conceptions of scenarios and characters". Sadly, it was this type of thinking that secured the downfall of the British film industry.

What follows is my take on the 70s Carry Ons. I've never seen any of these at the cinema - I was too young. I saw them indiscriminately on TV in the eighties and can, perhaps offer a different perspective to many critics who saw their conception of the series change.

'Carry On Up The Jungle' stuck to Michael Carreras's philosophy. Although it looked even cheaper than normal, it was essentially a variation of the 'English abroad' theme extolled to far greater effect in 'Up The Khyber' and 'Follow That Camel'. The contribution of Sid James aside, the performances are flat and rather dull. Charles Hawtrey's already-tedious "Oh Hello!" running gag is horribly forced and Joan Sims is playing a role patently 20 years her junior (let's face it - would you climb a tree to see her in the shower ? Thought not.). Even Terry Scott has a struggle on his hands to maintain control. Frankie Howerd "Oohhs" and "Mmms" for all he's worth, but its the script that's the main culprit and it's something without which Connor in particular cannot operate.

'Carry On Loving' was next up - basically an update of the ineffectual (and inexplicably titled) 'Carry On Regardless', this, for once, proved that it is possible to surpass a model film. The film introduced Richard O'Callaghan as Jim Dale's bumbling replacement and he proved a valuable asset to the series. After years playing threatening foreigners, big Bernard Bresslaw was, perhaps, trying to prove a point. His caricatured wrestler, Gripper Burke, is outstanding and, tellingly, Peter Rogers kept the boot polish aside in the future. 'Loving' moves at such a cracking pace that it manages to gloss over its inconsistencies and remain wholly satisfying, due entirely to its sharp vignette style.

'Carry On Henry' is perhaps guiltier of my charge than any other film produced in this decade. It creaks along, lurching spasmodically from gag to gag, knowing only too well that it is 10 years out of date, but desperately attempting to convince us that it is a smart historical romp. Even Sid James looks bored and tired. Charles Hawtrey is trite and ineffective. In fact the only positive contribution that the film makes is to restore Barbara Windsor to her rightful place : as King Sid's Queen. Hawtrey and Williams had been bitching over this moniker for far too long.

'Carry On At Your Convenience' was like a breath of fresh air. Originally announced as 'Carry On Round The Bend', the title was changed so as not to offend those considered as such (oh please!). Fortunately, Talbot Rothwell's script was sharp enough to make fun of the very thinking that induced such a title change. As Britain teetered on the verge of Union dictatorship, Sid James and Richard O'Callaghan raised two proud fingers for England. Kenneth Cope, whose comedy star was on the ascent, convinced as the imbecilic unionist, governed by ridiculous regulations and obsessed with his football. The Conservative ethos adopted by so many stars of this time (I'm sure that you all saw Barbara Windsor on Election night) showed the way forward for the country - it's a shame that the film industry had to suffer in the interim. Top stuff then, this remains one of the best in the series, achieving a perfect balance of cheeky slapstick and insightful political comment.

'Carry On Matron', was another in the lucrative hospital-based series, following the ok 'Nurse', the excellent 'Doctor' and the banal 'Again Doctor'. This one comes off poorly compared to the '68 release, purely because the hospital and it's inhabitants are rather dull (it is left to Sid and his gang to enliven the proceedings, which they do with suitable aplomb). The basic premise is closer to 'Camping' if anything, with a collection of very different characters drawn to a particular location. Of the hospital-based cast, only Terry Scott is allowed to shine - Barbara Windsor's role is poorly written and Charles Hawtrey hits absolute rock bottom (Dr. F.A. Goode - spare us, please!). Kenneth Williams, playing virtually the same character that he did in 'Loving' fails to evoke any sympathy whatsoever - his gooning with 'brother N.E.W.T.' Hawtrey is painful to behold. The other characters though, more than compensate - Sid is brilliant ("Oh definitely a baby - I don't like what's") and is supported admirably by Kenneth Cope, allowed a surprisingly contrasting role to the one he played in the previous film. The supporting cast holds a few surprises too - Valerie Leon, Wendy Richards and Madeline Smith can all be seen fleetingly. A definite mixed bag this one - by no means one of the very best, but certainly heading the top of the second division.

'Carry On Abroad' was very good : another study of the English abroad, this one chose not to impose our heroes on history, instead letting them loose on contemporary Pinewood ... erh, Spain. Having lost his way in a series of spiteful, unmemorable cameos, Kenneth Williams returned to form, once more playing his 'likeable villain' role. Charles Hawtrey too was excellent, though it didn't take Inspector Bung to realise that the ever-present bottle was more than a prop. Barbara Windsor was back too - like Sid she always worked better in modern dress and here she is excellent. Sadie is easily her best part since 'Camping' (no, not just for the shower scene, though that would be enough). Sadly the juvenile leads fail miserably to make the grade - bug-eyed John Clive is genuinely annoying and even the usually dependable Sally Geeson fails to rise to the standard of the material. But the old team managed to hold this one together - the magic is there in the delivery, the twinkle still in the eye, but the script, rather like the hotel, was clearly beginning to crack. The triumphant fade-out is one of the series euphoric highs, but as the credits rolled, it was really time for a change.

'Carry On Girls' hit British screens early in 1974 and, together with 'At Your Convenience' marks a definite high point in the series. Like the earlier film, it manages to convincingly poke fun at its detractors (here militant feminists) and shifts its focus entirely on to Sid James. With the departure of Hawtrey and Williams (supposedly for good, though the latter would return to Pinewood within a matter of months), Sid took centre stage. Previously he'd managed to make the scripts revolve around him with his screen presence, but here the script was tailored to his talents. The rest of the cast were exceptional - by teaming Windsor and Bresslaw with Sid (and adding the indescribably gorgeous Valerie Leon to the mix) the film evoked memories of 'Camping', made all the more potent by the bevy of bikini-clad babes and the ever-silly Peter Butterworth. The film did, however, give reasonable roles to two rising comedy stars : Jack Douglas (who'd had an unpaid cameo in 'Matron' and had top and tailed 'Abroad') and Robin Askwith. It was nice to see June Whitfield (who'd previously been one of the Glam Cabs drivers in 'Cabbie') as Augusta Prodworthy (no, really) - the leader of the Fircombe feminists. Faced with Sid James she never really had a chance.

'Carry On Dick' marked for many the end of an era. It was the last Carry On to feature Sid James, who, for over a decade had been Britain's favourite comedy actor. True to form, Sid made this a memorable film, overcoming an unoriginal script ('Dr. Syn Alias The Scarecrow' anyone ?), delivering a power house central performance never bettered in the following films. The film also marked the departure of Barbara Windsor (though she popped-up to link the dire 'That's Carry On' compilation) and she too went out with a bang. Excellent support was provided by Jack Douglas, Peter Butterworth and Kenneth Williams. Bernard Bresslaw's role was pretty dull - it was the same one he'd been playing 5 years earlier with boot polish. But at the end of the day this was Sid James's last film, making it a milestone in British cinema history anyway. It was time for a rethink.

'Carry On Behind' was filmed while James was still very much alive. Indeed, the two central roles were written with he and Bresslaw in mind, but with Sid's unavailability, the opportunity arose to test the water with some new stars. Jack Douglas had successfully made the transition from cameos to feature roles and here he delivers his very best Carry On performance. Windsor Davies commendably fills-in for Sid James (both had played minor and leading roles in straight films for many years before they Carried On) and makes one wish the series had allowed him to do more (he did appear in 'Confessions of a Driving Instructor', however). As with Phil Silvers in 'Follow That Camel', Elke Sommer was intended to add an international flavour (and, perhaps, induce American sales, which since the tail end of the sixties had veered from flagging to non-existent) to the mix, but the weak script (a trite rehash of 'Camping') prevented these talented newcomers from updating the formula really successfully.

Despite poor reviews (though in point of fact they were no worse than usual) and a dip in profitability for 'Behind', Rogers and Thomas went back to first base for 'Carry On England'. Whether or not this was a conscious decision on their part to start again fresh we don't know (though the widely touted sequel was to have been 'Carry On Again Nurse'.). In the 20 years since its (brief and spectacularly unsuccessful) release, 'England' has taken an incredible amount of flack. Robert Ross, in his excellent 'Carry On Companion' suggests that "the major mistake on Peter Roger's part was to recruit a host of new actors to take on the leading roles." Upon reflection, this seems a little naive - this is exactly what had to happen to ensure the series' continuation. Sid James was dead. Barbara Windsor wasn't coming back. Bresslaw, Butterworth and Sims were all far too old to be playing the same roles that they had done so well ten years previously. Jack Douglas noted his concern regarding a scene with topless girls. 'Confessions of A Window Cleaner' had been the highest-grossing British film the previous year - it was time for the Carry Ons to conform or die the box office death. Comedy was enduring a transitional period at that time - soon they would split into two very different genre extremes - shameless nudity fests (which Thatcher's abolition of the Eady tax forced into oblivion) and Monty Python flick, which lasted only a few years anyway. Recruiting fresh talent was a brave move on Peter Rogers' part - it is such a shame that by this stage, the 'Carry On' prefix was one synonymous with an out-dated style of comedy.

By the time 'Carry On Emmanuelle' lurched across the screen, financial necessity had forced the producers' hand into an old fashioned farce. In 1979, there was no place for this style of comedy at the cinema. It was a critical and financial disaster and rightfully so. Although a classic Carry On in nothing but name, it certainly offered nothing new.

So, here endeth my thoughts on the seventies Carry On films. Some were extremely good and some were ineffably bad. Hopefully I've suggested why.