The season, which runs over three weeks at London's Barbican Cinema, restores to the big screen some of British film's funniest, if not always most decorous, moments. From 1958's Carry on Sergeant, in which hapless squaddies chortle and leer their way through National Service, to the 1992 swansong, Carry on Columbus, the series ladled out a unique mix of double entendre, slapstick, and brilliant comedy acting from the likes of Sid James, Barbara Windsor, Kenneth Williams and Charles Hawtrey.
The films were firmly in a tradition of British humour that has its roots in music hall and the saucy seaside postcard, admirably catering for our national obsession with sex, class and bodily functions. The plots were slimline, and production expense never a consideration.
Typically, a band of nitwits would blunder and grope around in a parallel universe of randy buffoons, camp cuckoos and big boobs on sets that would claim to be Ancient Egypt, the Wild West or Afghanistan, but looked suspiciously like a shed or quarry somewhere in the Home Counties.
Though most cost less than pounds 200,000 to make, and were completed within six weeks, the films were far from cheap. The mid-1960s "glory period", in which Carry on up the Khyber, Carry on Screaming, Carry On Spying and Carry On Cleo - "Infamy! Infamy! They've all got it in for me!" - took British film-making into uncharted waters, before a descent into smut in the 1970s signalled the end of the joke. The dozen or so "greats" were scripted by Talbot Rothwell, directed by Peter Rogers and produced by Gerald Thomas, and endure as finely crafted skits on British society. "Rothwell created the situations impeccably," recalls Jack Douglas, who graced the later films as the lumbering, twitch-afflicted Alf Ippititimus. "The characters were a most unlikely bunch, all dreamed up by Rothwell. There was no filth or four-letter words, just a few double entendres. Families could watch them."
So, with Kenneth Williams' trousers dropping before a new generation of cinema-goers, is it time for a scholarly reappraisal of the Carry On oeuvre? Can we view Carry on up the Khyber as a critique of a nation struggling to come to terms with the loss of Empire, or Carry on at your Convenience (strife at the WC Boggs lavatory factory), as a study of labour relations under the Heath government? Probably not, but the films do say something about changing attitudes in Britain since the 1950s.
"Carry On was perfect for its time," says Morris Bright, a director of the British Comedy Society. "But by the 1970s, with a more permissive society, people became open, and Carry On's brand of humour went out of fashion and films became more up-front. The strength of the films was the script and the performance, something that vanished with the rise of alternative comedy in the 1980s.
"The films were quite moral. There was lots of lusting and chasing, but characters never ended up in bed together."
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