A joke: A woman walks into a pub and asks the barman for a double entendre. So he gives her one.
This isn’t very funny, but it’s satisfying, a neat joke about jokes. In fact, all good double entendres are satisfying, They preserve the genteel status quo - there could, after all, be a cocktail called a double entendre and that could be what the barman gives the woman. But the gentility is preserved at a cost - we are forced to consider the possibility that he had sex with her. Beneath good manners lies casual, impersonal carnality. It is a poignant discontinuity.
“The sex urge is just an animal instinct,” said the late, great Kenneth Williams, the supreme master of the double entendre, “the bit left over in us from the apes. It is the human heart we should be concerned with, and its intense vulnerability.”
This is a wonderful remark, echoing Pascal’s vision of man in nature as “A Nothing in comparison with the Infinite, an All in comparison with the Nothing, a mean between nothing and everything.” With the insights and sympathies of angels and the appetites of apes, we blunder, giggling, through our lives.
It is all too funny and, in the end, too sad. On 14th April 1988 Williams killed himself with an overdose of barbiturates. The last entry in his journal read: “Oh - what’s the bloody point?”
Forty years ago Williams - along with Kenneth Connor, Charles Hawtrey and Dora Bryan - starred in a desperately low budget film comedy loosely based on the R.F.Delderfield play The Bull Boys. It was called Carry On Sergeant and it was to be the first of 30 Carry On films in which the art of the double entendre and the act of giggling became defining national attributes. The British, it seemed, saw the ape beneath the angel more clearly and more obsessively than anybody else.
The story of the cultural status of these films has so often and so earnestly been analysed that it is almost a cliche. Born in the sexually-repressed fifties, they flowered in the sixties, becoming ever ruder, until, finally in the seventies, social history caught up with them. Sexual frankness rendered the double entendre redundant. Indeed, it became a disgusting symptom of a diseased lack of sexual honesty. What’s so funny about tits, bums and toilets?
Well, if you have to ask, nothing. But then, in the late eighties, came a revaluation. A new generation of comedians acknowledged their debt to the films and, in 1992, the genre was resurrected with Carry On Columbus. It was a disaster.
But now, with this anniversary, we are trying to take them seriously again. Next month Channel Four devotes a weekend to the Carry On series and, in September, Terry Johnson’s play Cleo, Camping Emmanuelle and Dick starring Antony Sher opens at the National Theatre. It is the conclusion of Johnson’s sex and comedy trilogy and it is specifically about the Carry On phenomenon.
This second resurrection is more firmly based than the last. Carry On Columbus was stillborn. It had a poor script and its new stars - Alexei Sayle, Rick Mayall and, surprisingly, even Julian Clary - failed to catch the style. They were, after all, following in the footsteps of giants. Critics at the time may have been appalled at the Carry On films, but, in retrospect, consider the talent that was involved: Sid James, Hattie Jacques. Barbara Windsor, Charles Hawtrey and, of course, Williams himself. Close your eyes and you can instantly conjure fragments of their performances, a sure sign of quality. In addition, the scripts often rose to Ortonesque heights. “I do not object to jiggery, but I do take exception to pokery,” cried Charlesd Hawtrey. And, most famously, Kenneth Williams’s Julius Caesar wailed: “Infamy! Infamy! Tehy’ve all got it in for me!”
But to celebrate this anniversary there is no attempt to make another film, there is simply a new understanding of the originals. This is happening because, from the late eighties, comics started being funny again. Previously “alternative” had meant significant, worthy comedy and it had involved a rejection of the old music hall/theatrical tradition from which sprang Carry On as well as Frankie Howerd, Tommy Cooper and Morecambe and Wise. But then came a new wave led by the inspired Reeves and Mortimer. Smart commentators called this postmodern comedy, in fact it was premodern. Reeves clearly learned everything he knows from Eric Morecambe and he specialises in sniggering, Carry On style jokes. This was a return to comedy about nothing, comedy for the sake of comedy.
A new generation was introduced to the British tradition of the theatrical clown or fool, the ineffectively lecherous buffoon, that stretches back to Falstaff, Bottom, the Wife of Bath and beyond. It restored the primary function of comedy - to be funny. And suddenly, against all the analyses of liberal, progressive commentators, the young started liking the sex and toilet doubles entendres of the Carry On films.
Andrew Davidson is a 28-year-old English management consultant who works in Dallas, Texas. From there he runs a vast, compendious Carry On web site (www.carryonline.com) that is accessed 150 times a day from around 70 countries. One regular, who ought to be taken out and shot, accesses the site from a Pentagon computer. The age range of his subscribers is 25 to 40 and they cannot get enough of the films and any spin-off merchandise Davidson can lay his hands on.
“It’s just a non-challenging way to get a laugh,” he says, “political correctness went too far, people just wanted a good, honest laugh whether it was a bottom joke or a toilet joke. The Carry Ons are the best best of English humour that goes right back to the music hall.”
Davidson’s wonderful web site reveals, among many other things, that Carry On Smoking was never made because it was set in a fire station and the producer, Gerald Thomas, feared that a disaster at the time of the opening might lead to accusations of bad taste. Carry On Dallas - a lampoon of the TV series - was never made because of a threatened law suit from the American production company Lorimar. Luckily, however, we did get Carry On Cleo, an infinitely superior and much cheaper film than Taylor and Burton’s absurd Cleopatra.
But the point about these new fans from Davidson’s generation is that they prove that to like the Carry Ons is not simply to wallow in nostalgia or camp cultishness, it is to find them genuinely funny. And, of course, they are. The reason, apart from the brilliant performances, is that they were born of a cultural moment that was, in retrospect, timeless. The Carrys Ons were contemporaries of Round the Horne and Beyond Our Ken, radio programmes that, again with the aid of Kenneth Williams, took the double entendre to delirious new heights of madness. The show created a monstrous cast whose sole raison d’etre was the double entendre and the appalling pun. The characters sprang fully-formed from the comic possibilities of mangled English - there was folk- singer Rambling Sid Rumpo, the gaily chattering Julian and Sandy with their vast collection of swatches, the alarming Dame Celia Volestrangler and, best of all, Williams’s sublimely apocalyptic butler Spasm. “Doomed, doomed,” Spasm would cry, “we all be doomed.”The Carrys Ons also shared their time in the sun with Joe Orton, a playwright who used lust and greed to subvert everything, his own life included.
Kenneth Horne, when his shows were accused of indecency, simply muttered that it was all in the mind. That was the deep truth of the double entendre. Horne’s shows were indecent but they were all in the mind. Indecency is always in the mind. That cultural moment in the late fifties and early sixties was not, as was later claimed, the precursor of liberation, it was a point of exact balance. Then the language and the culture teetered on the brink of total frankness, but they still required the fig leaf of gentility. As a result, it was possible to set ape and angel against each other and to laugh as they fought it out.
Then, for a brief period, both the apes and angels gained comic ascendancy. The apes attained sexual liberation and the angels embraced political and social correctness. Both became unfunny. One the one hand if you know anything can be said and will be, then there can be no comic tension. On the other hand being harangued about the evils of Thatcher by Ben Elton was neither satire nor wit. Everybody knows that jokes are killed by explanation and the problem in the seventies and eighties was that most jokes were explained either by gross sexual frankness or by politics.
Now, thanks to Reeves and Mortimer and even the hilarious but joke-free Eddie Izzard, we are back with the real thing. Through some strange cultural process we have escaped the comedy-free zone of liberation and correctness and returned to the merely funny. In fact, it was inevitable. For the simple truth is that sex and toilet double entendres are not funny because we are temporarily repressed, they are funny because we are always repressed. However liberated we may think we are, the organic realities of human life will always subvert our pretensions. It is, as Horne said, all in the mind because it is in the mind that we secretly know that we are not as good, pure, clean and free as we pretend to be.
And this is where we get to the true meaning of this real, timeless comedy. Yorick is the authentic ancestor of all these comedians. He was the “fellow of infinite jest” whose skull Hamlet contemplates at the edge of a grave. “Where be your gibes now?” asks Hamlet, “your gambols, your songs? your flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar?” A dead comedian is infinitely pathetic because, somehow, the contrast between the jokes and the silence of the grave are unbearable. Laughter is a memento mori - it makes us feel immortal and therefore reminds us that we are not. Vladimir Nabokov observed that the first creatures to know they would die were also the first creatures to laugh. All true comedy and all laughter are, as Hamlet saw, graveside pirouettes.
We should be very grateful to these merely funny people. They keep our eyes fixed on the last things. Death is the ultimate double entendre, an indecent guffaw beneath all our gentilities. That’s why the last words in Kenneth Williams’s journal - “what’s the bloody point?” - are so moving. Once the laughter stopped there was nothing. And it is why it is so strangely consoling that when Betty Marsden, that brilliant veteran of both Carry Ons and Round the Hornes, died last week, she was at a bar with a double Scotch in her hand. And finally it is why those 30 ridiculous and timeless films were so brilliantly titled - Carry On - because - ha, ha - we don’t.