Gender & Class as issues dealt with by the Carry On films

Joanne D'Arcy for Carry On Line, 1995

The development of the Carry On films from the early to the late period, in particular the way in which the films deal with issues of "gender" and "class".

Joanne D'Arcy's in depth analysis of gender and class in the later films formed part of her university degree.

The Carry On films are unique for their time and the formula for these films, remained virtually the same, for more than twenty years. The same producer and director team, with an ensemble of actors, playing similar roles, produced films which remain an important part in British cinema history. However there were arguably a number of adjustments over the period, both in the films scriptwriters and the transformation of society in the sixties. This attributed to the change in the Carry On films through the period and perhaps it could be suggested that these changes also brought about the decline of the films. The issues of gender and class are important here as the films attitudes to both changed over time.

The first six films, starting with Carry On Sergeant in 1958, were scripted by Norman Hudis. They dealt with a number of individuals all put together in varying institutions, be it army, hospital or police. These individuals "disrupted and destroyed" the smooth running of these institutions, "by a mad collection of comic situations, misadventures and memorable characters". This was similar to the Ealing comedies of the late forties and early fifties such as Passport to Pimlico, which dealt with the disruption of an institution and the restoring of its order, which the early Carry On films conform to. Hudis’s first six films are concerned with different sections of society, rather than direct parodies of other films which were used in the later period. The issues of gender and class are also dealt with but again in a very different way to later films. Women never played an important role in the early films, merely being used as counter balances to the male stars. There function was as objects of desire to men and these men were generally unable to fulfill this desire because of their situation, being trapped in the Army on National Service as in Sergeant or bed ridden in Nurse. There was no one dominant female in these early films, perhaps with the exception of the Matron in Nurse, who was dominant in a non sexual way.

Differing classes, in Hudis scripts were always dealt with by stereotypes and they were often of the derogatory kind and aimed at the middle class. The focus was on their education, they used this as a way of criticising the institution they were contained in. In Sergeant, Kenneth William’s character Bailey refuses to obey the Sergeant’s wishes until he has his uniform, claiming he still has civilian rights. In Nurse he plays a "big - headed bookworm" who uses his education to attack the rules of the hospital and more so the rules of the matron.

However whenever one thinks of the Carry On films, there recollection of them is of those scripted by Talbot Rothwell. Rothwell developed Hudis’s style and ribaldness, but broadened, "the basic concept... particularly British bawdiness and use of double entendre". The same slapstick, farcical elements remained in Rothwell’s scripts as they had done in Hudis’s. Along with this change in scriptwriter came the change of the portrayal of women in the films. For the first time women were seen to be the major players in the film’s text. They could have power and pleasure and should not be afraid to express it. Arguably the first six films Rothwell scripted were although, parodies of other films, such as Hammer Horror, Cleopatra and Cowboy films, all showed women gaining the upper hand and remaining in control.

Carry On Cabby, Rothwell’s first script dealt with "the moving portrayal of a marriage on the rocks". It was in some ways very much a move towards the ‘kitchen sink’ realism, dealing with alcoholism and sexual desire, of the New Wave films which were popular at the time. However, the main element of the film is the change in the role of women, enabling them to use their sexuality to show that, they need to be and should be taken seriously. Hattie Jacques character, Peggy Hawkins is aware "of her sexual and romantic needs". This character is an exception to the stereotypical image of women, especially married women. Sexual desire is most commonly seen as male territory not female and that marriage was actually a "regulation of sexual desire". Wives were not meant to be portrayed as sexually appealing. In particular the portrayal of married women. In Carry On Cleo, Hengist and Senna Pod’s marital relationship continues the stereotypical image of marriage, the bickering and fighting. This image of marriage is carried on in subsequent films such as Carry On Screaming. The relationship between Detective Sergeant Bung and his wife, is one of contempt for each other. Their altercations take place between them in the bedroom and involve the wife continual nagging and the husband complaining about the lack of sexual relations between them, "It’s been so long since I had anything from you, I’ve forgotten whether its worth having". The films show how the wife is not appreciated, but it is showing to the audience that the wife should not be appreciated and in marriage, the wife is seen as sexually undesirable. In contrast the audience is also aware that they should find females, other than married ones as desirable, because of the emphasis on "their breasts or bottoms".

Within Rothwell’s scripts, gender roles were always specific. Male roles were made up of three main types: a young man generally shy and romantic, a middle aged man seen as sexually insatiable and what Margaret Anderson calls the "gay fool". These were almost always played by the same actors and this arguably helped the audience’s conceptions of scenarios and characters. Therefore Carry On films were a known quantity to the audience it was targeting. They knew exactly what to expect as the same actors played the self same characters. The gay fool played in general by Kenneth Williams or Charles Hawtrey, throughout the films was arguably to counteract the, "sexual desire and potency" of the male, played almost always by Sidney James. Williams and Hawtrey’s homosexuality within the films was further emphasised by their personas outside of the Carry On genre. Indirect references throughout the film text to their physique, by making the characters wear oversized clothes for example, further accentuated the characters homosexuality. The effeminacy of male characters also crosses over into the stereotype of women, they were "fussy, hysterical, petty and prudish", comparable to the "nagging" wife stereotype.

With discussion on male effeminacy, there also has to be some consideration of the portrayal of characters in drag. It was consistently almost male to female, and they were always forced into situations where they must undress or be discovered. In the case for women, they only adopt masculine type, unfeminine clothing. The only film which has a female character dress up in male dress is Carry On Jack. Juliet Mills steals a naval uniform enabling her to get to sea. However to conform with the male characters dressed as females, she is forced into a situation of undress. Censorship was very strict over overt sexual behaviour. Both sex, whether between married or unmarried couples and references to homosexuality, were only referred to by double entendres and innuendo, which made the films popular. The films were never obscene and although sexual innuendo and its reactions to it, were throughout the films, they never lost any innocence. However this innocence was to contribute to the films decline in the seventies.

Class is dealt with differently in Rothwell’s scripts, Hudis concentrated on the working and middle classes. Whereas upper class portrayals feature as well in Rothwell’s film texts. The working class were seen in terms of the nagging, vulgar wife and a sexually voracious, work shy husband. The middle class are always seen as educated, whilst the upper class are layabouts who partake in such "country pursuits" as "hunting, shooting and fishing". Both English and French aristocrats in Carry On Don’t Lose Your Head show, "English righteousness and bravery" and the "pompous elitism" of the French. However the actors who play these upper class characters, would normally be portrayed in more working class roles. An example of this is in the scene in Don’t Lose your Head. English aristocrats, Sir Rodney Ffing and Lord Darcy find out about the French Revolution and what is happening to the French aristocrats. This shows the upper class element at its strongest. The two characters converse in upper class dialogue and tone ending by dropping their accents and reverting back to type as the scene finishes. As Medhurst states, the audience knew what they were expecting. Therefore rather than alienate the audience, upper class accents and roles are dropped to place the actor back into their normal stereotyped role.

In Carry On Up the Khyber, an emphasis is placed on the "British stiff upper-lip", which is evident throughout the film and romanticises British rule in India. This is shown in the final sequence where despite the dining room falling down around the characters and the attack of the building by the natives, everyone remains calm and accepts it as part of being British. Earlier in the film Captain Keene and Brother Belcher, are trapped and the essence of being British is portrayed by the Captain in his remarks, "I was about to say remember we’re British....Then I was going to say keep a stiff upper lip".

The representation of women changed again in the scripts, after Carry On Camping in 1968, there became more emphasis on the male desire for women. Sexual innuendo was arguably in decline, with changes not just in film but also in society. The chasing of women in Camping was setting a precedence for what was to come. Medhurst argues in relation to Camping, in the infamous scene where Barbara Windsor’s bra comes off, "that after the bra had at last burst, where was the humour in teasing about the possibility of such an occurrence." I am inclined to agree with this statement, the innuendos and double entendre did not work as well after 1968.

With the introduction of liberal censorship in the film industry. Coupled with the demand for nudity and sexual explicitness, more violent and action based films, the Carry On films were in decline from the 1970s. Why suggest something sexually when films such as the Confession films were more preoccupied with nudity rather than the suggestion of it? Despite an attempt to update their formula to keep up with the changing times, such as Carry On England and more so in Emmanuelle, the Carry On films could no longer maintain position with others. Audiences liked Carry On films because they "were a known quantity, there’s no risk, no danger, no threat of disappointment". The comfort and predictability of these films, arguably gave them their success in the sixties and attributed to their demise in the seventies.

When discussing the development of the Carry On films some consideration has to go to the production of them. The films were produced and directed by Peter Rogers and Gerald Thomas respectively. Carry On films were released with regularity at one or two a year. Shooting schedules were tight a film could be produced in six weeks. Budgets ranged from £70,000 to £80,000 and started at £74,000 in 1958 with Carry On Sergeant. It was not until the 1960s that the budgets increased to £100,000. Reaching £320,000 by the end of their run with Carry On Emmannuelle in 1978. The revival in 1992 of the series with Carry On Columbus with a budget of £2.5 million, went on the "splendid boat set and the colourful parade of costumes". Only the historical films concentrated on the lavishness of costumes. The other costumes, were mainly everyday clothes, that the audience could identify with and were used to draw attention to either male inadequacy or effeminacy such as oversize shorts. Or to female attributes, such as tight shirts or skirts, over emphasising size of breasts or curvaceous figures.

However, the main Carry On films did not rely on such large budgets and luxuries. Along with tight budgets and shooting schedules was the reuse of a number of sets and costumes. Carry On Cleo being an example of borrowing sets and costumes from Burton and Taylor’s Cleopatra. Location shooting was also limited, many exteriors are used in more than one film, the exterior and area around Pinewood studios was used extensively. Audiences knew the stars and therefore knew what they would be getting from the film. Arguably the loss of these well known faces in the later films of the seventies may have also contributed to their demise.

The Carry On films use of gender and class changes over the period. Women’s roles within the film text altered throughout the cycle, and while there was a period of liberation of them in the early sixties films, they reverted back to a suppressive stance in the later films. By the end of the Carry On films, the subject of class had changed very little, there was still a balance between the working class and the middle class portrayed in the films. Their rise to success in the sixties relied on sexual innuendo and double entendre. However with the change in attitudes in the seventies, this resulted in contributing to their demise. Alongside this was the loss of many of the regular stars and the introduction of newer, younger stars faces the audience could not identify with. There was after Carry On Dick a change in the scriptwriter, no longer was there the consistency to the film texts that Rothwell and Hudis had brought. Peter Rogers claimed his "aim has been to make commercially successful comedies, not great films...", arguably he achieved this. The films form a sub-genre within British comedy. And despite their decline in cinema from the late seventies the same format was used successfully on television programmes and stage shows. The popularity of these films remains, with availability on video and television showings enabling them to have become a phenomenon unique to British film.