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A steaming pile of popular art

Don't pretend the Carry Ons were any good, says Robin Buss: Carry On night Channel 4
"Why don't we stand up and say it's crap, and then forget it?" Ken Russell wondered at the end of C4's tribute to the Carry On films. He evidently had not watched the other programmes in this homage, in the course of which one talking head after another agreed that the films were crap - and then insisted on how much we ought to adore them. From the first programme, where Barbara Windsor and various other experts set out to define the essence of Carry On, it became clear that low budgets, low production values, repetitive scripts, flat characters, idiotic slapstick, excruciating puns and a pre-adolescent attitude to sex were being held up as motives for admiration. "Infantile, facile, puerile ..." said Richard O'Brien. "Crap - but it's good crap." Oh, yeah?

It was Janet Street-Porter who gave the game away. "You can't call them art films, but to me they are popular art," she said, with a dismissive aside about how it annoyed her to hear Powell, Pressburger and Kubrick held up as the luminaries of British cinema. Again and again, we were told how "popular" and how "British" the Carry On films were: British as seaside postcards, British as pantomime, "a broad expression of English vulgarity", according to Malcolm Bradbury. Philip Dodd found that the use of variations around a theme reminded him of Bach.

The most British thing of all, however, was the one that wasn't mentioned: class. Unlike the Boulting Brothers comedies, or the early Doctor films, the Carry Ons were essentially about working-class characters and appealed to a working-class audience, which knew it would not be intellectually challenged or made to feel excluded. Above all, its innate conservatism would not be offended by the treatment of sex, which was guaranteed to remain on the level of flying bras and splitting pants and puns about "big ones", and never venture into the disturbing territory of human relationships. The off-screen reality, as Carry On Darkly, reminded us, was that the stars of these films were plagued by addictions and traumas: all three documentaries used the same clip of Charles Hawtrey and Kenneth Williams dressing up in women's clothes, from Carry On Sergeant, because it takes on a new meaning in the light of the actors' persona1 lives.

The mixture of sexual innuendo and prudishness which characterised the series was unable to survive the change in attitudes during the Sixties. The Carry On continued; but even the documentary Carry On Snogging was unable to pretend that they kept pace with their times. Attempts to adapt the formula, to include actual nudity and sex, failed because they violated the code that the films themselves had established; the Carry Ons were carried off by social change and should have been decently buried. If they keep on coming back to our screens, it is probably to give television pundits a draught of nostalgia and the illusion of being in touch with popular taste.