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.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

    They fled war in Syria...

    ...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
    From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

    Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

    Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
    Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

    Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

    Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
    From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

    Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

    From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
    Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

    Kelis interview

    The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea