ON A RECENT Late Show Ken Russell ran through what he considered to be the Seven Deadly Sins of British Cinema. One of these was its allegedly unfunny comedies. The Carry On films were so unfunny, he complained, that the soundtracks were filled with 'funny' noises to signal where the jokes should be. This was probably news to the millions of people who have laughed at the Carry On films over the years, and continue to do so - they still circulate on television and video. If Russell couldn't spot the jokes, clearly a lot ot people could.
Gerald Thomas directed all 30 of the Carry Ons, including last year's disappointing comeback, Columbus, hardly a fitting tribute. What makes his contribution to the series difficult to assess, beyond the solid workmanship so unfashionable in contemporary British films, was the team-based nature of the films. Peter Rogers produced the series. Most of the scripts were either by Norman Hudis (the early, more naturalistic ones) or Talbot Rothwell (the later hymns to slapstick and slap-and-tickle). But ask most people who they thought responsible for the films' pleasures and they would probably list the performers - Kenneth Williams (23 films), Charles Hawtrey (23), Joan Sims (23), Sid James (19), Kenneth Connor (15), Peter Butterworth (15), Hattie Jacques (14), Bernard Bresslaw (14), Jim Dale (11), Barbara Windsor (9) and Terry Scott (7); later additions included Patsy Rowlands, if you were lucky, and Jack Douglas, if you weren't.
The Carry On films are now seen as part of a tradition that stretched from music hall, seaside postcards and Max Miller to the less critically celebrated end of sitcom (On the Buses rather than The Good Life) and the 1970s Confessions movies starring Robin Askwith. Carry On Sergeant began the series in 1958. Its more short-lived comic contemporaries included the Doctor films directed by Thomas's brother Ralph and the Boulting Brothers satires, such as I'm All Right Jack. All three series were based on institutions - hospitals, the army, the police force - with an anecdotal approach to storytelling; Carry On later moved into generic (Screaming, Spying) and historical (Henry) parody, or just shear carnivals of smut.
I'm All Right Jack is worth comparing with arguably the last great Carry On - At Your Convenience (1971), also about trade unions but set significantly in a toilet factory owned by WC Boggs (Williams). The Boultings' film, seen as a witty satire in its time, now looks like the sort of prissy anti-union, anti- working-class swipe we've grown a little too used to. Convenience also mocks its union rep, but only because he's one of those who think that rule-books are more important than having fun - getting drunk, flirting with Joan Sims, finding rude meanings in everything (when Bernard Bresslaw shouts 'Down with 'em]' at regular intervals during a union meeting, someone is inevitably going to mention trousers).
The lecturer and critic Andy Medhurst finds a telling analogy for the films - the day out at the seaside, a revelling in irresponsibility, a letting down of one's inhibitions. Convenience depicts this very scenario during the work's outing to Brighton. Hawtrey wears an outrageous hat and has a winkle on the pier. Sid gets up in drag as a gypsy fortune-teller. Willlams gets drunk, recites smutty limericks and has to be undressed and put to bed by Patsy Rowlands - 'I've seen men's bodies before,' she reassures him the next day, 'and you're not that different.' Who could ask for more?
Vulgar comedy is very specific about the treacherousness of the human body - it breaks wind, looks ridiculous when sexually aroused and then fails to perform when the opportunity arises. Even the anecdotes surrounding Carry On seemed to testify to this world-view. During a love scene in Khyber, Kenneth Williams's flatulence nearly overwhelmed Joan Sims, and, while making Constable, Leslie Phillips railed against the indignity of having his bottom made up for a brief rear nude scene. Kenneth Connor was having none of this - 'Look, Leslie, these films are on the way up, audiences are up, the takings are up, so get your bum made up.'
The films' appeal is inseparable from their non-PC qualities - infantile, sexist, repressed and very English in their hilarity over bodily functions. But there's something almost militant about this refusal to ever grow up - a recognition that 'sophistication' and 'maturity' are just another form of repression, and one which is much less fun. And if you think that modern comedy has left such smut and innuendo behind, look at an episode of Bottom or any performance by Julian Clary. Gerald Thomas will never be admitted into any pantheons of 'great directors', but he did contribute to one of the most durable and pleasurable mythologies in British cinema.