THREE YEARS ago, Andy Medhurst, a lecturer in media studies, wrote in Sight and Sound magazine: "If I had to think of one reason why the Carry Ons matter so much, it's because they really aren't recuperable for proper culture... They display a commitment to bodily functions and base desires that will always render them irreducibly vulgar, inescapably Not Art."
He should have known better. Wherever there are bodily functions and base desires, there is someone (probably carrying a copy of The Canterbury Tales) ready to bestow Art status upon them. In the case of the Carry On films, that someone is Robert Rider, Cinema Programme Consultant of the Barbican Centre. Thanks to him, the London home of the Royal Shakespeare Company will thrill to the sight of Kenneth Williams' nostrils, Sid James' wrinkles and, of course, Barbara Windsor's assets. We've had the Gerard Depardieu season, the Powell and Pressburger season; now the Barbican is giving the Carry Ons their first ever full retrospective: all 30 films, one after the other. "There on the screen is the cream of British comedy talent of the post-war era," says Rider.
Tragically, most of the Carry On regulars - Sid James, Kenneth Williams, Kenneth Connor, Hattie Jacques, Charles Hawtrey and Bernard Bresslaw among them - are no longer around to enjoy their critical reappraisal. But one person who is, is the man who dreamt up the series in the first place, and went on to produce the entire Carry On oeuvre. Does Peter Rogers, now 81, think that Carry On's welcome into the art house is long overdue? "No, I don't feel that at all. I feel flattered," he says.
We meet in his office at Pinewood Studios, the home of Carry On. Though he no longer has film projects in the pipeline, Rogers still comes in regularly, in blazer, tie and cufflinks, to answer mail and look after the Carry On legacy. His speech is considered, gentlemanly. As I settle into an armchair in front of his desk, he asks: "You know those things the Sunday Times are doing in their supplement, '1,000 People Who Have Done Something for the Cinema'? Extraordinary the number of people they've left off. They've left me off - not that I worry about that - but they've also left off my wife, who got an OBE for making films in India. Anyway, I'd rather have three weeks at the Barbican than a mention in the Sunday Times ..."
Rogers' wife is Betty Box, producer of the Doctor in the House films, among many others. Working for her in the early Fifties was a young editor called Gerald Thomas. "I said to Betty, 'I think I'm going to make your editor a director'," remembers Rogers. And he did: Thomas, who died in 1993, went on to direct all 30 Carry On films.
Rogers himself had come to the business from journalism via stage and radio plays. His big break on the big screen was as far from Carry On as you can get - religious films. "I used to write a thing called Thought for the Week for J Arthur Rank. He told me what he wanted said, and I put it in dialogue for him. Dr Goodfellow used to lean over a farm gate and tell the audience to behave themselves. One night the audience at Edgware threw tomatoes at the screen - and they were rationed."
Some time after Rogers had established himself as a producer, and Thomas as a director, he obtained an RF Delderfield script, The Bull Boys. To avoid any tomato-throwing, he had it rewritten as a comedy: Carry On Sergeant. It starred William Hartnell and a youthful Bob Monkhouse, but the show was stolen by Kenneth Williams, Charles Hawtrey and Kenneth Connor as three useless privates: a snob, a wimp and a hypochondriac. Sergeant was the third-biggest British box-office success of 1958. Rogers, inevitably, agreed to reunite the comic trio with Thomas and screenwriter Norman Hudis. Top of the box-office chart in 1959 was Carry On Nurse.
Could Rogers have imagined we'd still be watching Carry Ons in 1995? "I thought they would last a long time because there's something enduring and endearing about them. They're like the poor. They will always be with us." He encapsulates the films' appeal in the epigram "familiarity breeds affection": "I used to say to Gerald that it's like running a sweet shop. If the kids want Liquorice Allsorts, give them Liquorice Allsorts. Don't try to sell them Turkish Delight."
The recipe of the films changed over the decades, particularly when Norman Hudis, whose scripts had a dash of romance and drama, was replaced by the innuendo-obsessed Talbot Rothwell. But by and large the audience knew what to expect. And who to expect. "We tried to keep everybody together as a sort of repertory company - but a lot of it was availability. We tried to get in between pantomimes and summer shows, when the artists were all busy." What of Rogers' place in the team? "As far as I'm concerned the producer is the person who thinks up the idea - I thought of the title in the bath in the morning. Then you get your scriptwriter in. I'd polish the script myself, and go to the distributors and interest them in financing it. I had a caravan on the floor while we were shooting, too, so I knew exactly what was going on." The set, Rogers says, was famous for its fun- filled atmosphere. "People used to come off other sets on to ours for a relief."
Rogers continued simultaneously to produce other comedies, such as the spicily titled Please Turn Over and Watch Your Stern. "Having made nearly a hundred pictures, I'm only known for the Carry Ons," he admits. "But on the other hand, I'd rather be Mr Carry On than Mr Hundred Films." In the early days of the series they were releasing three Carry Ons a year, cutting and shooting each film in under six weeks - a phenomenal rate? "No. Normal working. Today's films take too long, and cost too much."
If audiences liked films that were familiar, the reactions of the press were just as consistent - even if they were the opposite of what you might have expected. "The quality papers liked them, the others didn't. I often said to some of the critics, 'I'll write your review, I know what you're going to say.' Papers like the Mirror called it 'fat-headed farce'." (Times change. The Barbican season is co-sponsored by the Mirror.)
Unfortunately, "fat-headed farce" became an increasingly accurate description during the final Carry On years. The mid-1970s saw the deaths of Sid James and scriptwriter Talbot Rothwell. The emergence of sex comedies made nudging and winking redundant, and prompted an unwise move towards the overtly lewd and crude. Charles Hawtrey had retired, and even Kenneth Williams had lost his youthful gleam. Williams' disenchantment with the series is recorded in his posthumously published Diaries. I start to mention this to Rogers and he interrupts with a quick, exasperated laugh. "You can't believe anything that man writes. He says some things in his Diaries about me in my wellington boots. I've never worn wellington boots on location in my life... 'Turned up in a Rolls-Royce with bottles of wine for the artists' or something ... I've never done such a thing. Ridiculous!
"And in his Diaries it may say, 'Carry Ons, what a load of rubbish, I'm not going to do any more,' but he still came to do them - and he enjoyed them. He was almost schizo in that respect. He was meeting up with the Maggie Smiths of this world, and they probably said, 'Oh God, Ken, you're not doing another bloody Carry On, are you? They're terrible films.' He'd go home and write it in his diary - and then go on to make another one of those terrible films."
The series finished in 1978 with the truly terrible Carry on Emmanuelle. Rogers carried on working, on TV compilations of highlights from the films. Then in 1992, a proposition came from John Goldstone, producer of Monty Python's Life of Brian. "He thought it would be a good idea to cash in on the anniversary of Christopher Columbus. But the financiers wanted new names, like Rik Mayall and so on, which I thought was terribly wrong. It wasn't their type of comedy at all. Comics these days seem to want to shout, and I think it's quite coarse, some of the stuff they do."
Rogers confesses that he hasn't been to the the cinema in years. And, incidentally, he has never been to America in his life - which may account for the undiluted Britishness of the Carry Ons. "I'm not a great traveller - I don't like leaving home or my dogs." His office is a gallery of canine portraits. When he is not at Pinewood, he is with his pet alsatians, or composing music, or writing unpublished novels: "It's a nervous tic. That's what I used to say about the Carry Ons. People would say, are you doing another one? Yes, can't help it, it's a nervous tic ..."
Kenneth Williams starts as a relaxed, imperturbable young man with a condescension that befits his Stephen Fry-ish intelligence - he studies nuclear physics in Nurse, and speaks 16 languages in Regardless. But this persona wavers after the first three Carry Ons, and by the eighth (Jack) he has developed into an extremely perturbable, unrelaxed fool.
In Sid James' first four Carry Ons, he doesn't chase a single young woman. After that, he never stops.
William Hartnell, the first Doctor Who, is in Sergeant. Jon Pertwee, the third Doctor Who, is in Screaming, Cleo, Cowboy and Columbus. And incidentally...
Peter Butterworth: Name?
Kenneth Williams: Dr Watt.
PB: Dr who?
KW: No, Watt. Who's my uncle. (Screaming)
Are You Being Served: Wendy Richard (Matron, Girls) and Frank "Captain Peacock" Thornton (Screaming). He's still selling clothes, but this time they're women's.
In Sickness and in Health: Warren Mitchell is the slave trader, Spencius, of Marcus & Spencius, in Cleo.
Last of the Summer Wine: Bill "Compo" Owen is in Sergeant, Nurse, Regardless and Cabby; while Brian "Foggy" Wilde has a cameo role in Doctor.
Steptoe and Son: Harry H Corbett in Screaming and Wilfred Brambell in Again Doctor.
It Ain't Half Hot, Mum: Windsor Davies (Behind, England) and Melvyn Hayes (England).
Dad's Army: Bill "Hodges" Pertwee (Loving, Girls) and Ian "Pike" Lavender (Behind).
Penelope Keith (Doctor), Bob Monkhouse (Sergeant), Kenny Lynch (Loving), Roy Castle (Up the Khyber), Richard O'Sullivan (Teacher), Beryl Reid (Emmanuelle), Phil Silvers (Follow That Camel), Amanda Barrie (Cabby, Cleo)
CHARACTERS NAMED AFTER ACTORS
Frankie Howerd is Francis Bigger, and Jim Dale is Dr James Kilmore in Carry On Doctor. But the most name-sharing occurs in Carry on Camping, which has Sid James as Sid Boggle, Barbara Windsor as Babs, Charles Hawtrey as Charlie Muggins, and Joan Sims as Joan Fussey.
1) HERE TODAY:
Kenneth Williams: Hair today, gone tomorrow! (Spying)
KW: Ear today, gone tomorrow! (Screaming)
2) FREE LOVE:
Hattie Jacques: I don't believe in free love.
Kenneth Williams: Well, you don't believe
in paying for it, do you? (Matron)
Kenneth Connor: Do you believe in free love?
Joan Sims: Well, I'm certainly not paying for it. (Abroad)
Kenneth Williams: Public orator? No, that's an unspeakable business. (Cleo)
Peter Butterworth: It was something unspeakable. Never said a word. (Screaming)
4) FRYING TONIGHT:
Kenneth Williams: Looks like we're frying tonight. (Spying)
KW: Frying tonight! (Screaming) Kenneth Connor: Frying tonight! (Nurse)
Charles Hawtrey: And all I get is the scrubbing. (Jack)
Kenneth Williams: Who's the scrubber? (Regardless)
Sid James: That's all right. I could use a good scrubber. (Cleo)
Joan Sims: That's where we keep the other scrubbers. (Girls)
JS: I don't like washing floors, but I'd rather do that than you get another scrubber. (Abroad)
KW: I have a housekeeper. She does all the scrubbing. (Loving)
6) THE BOTTOM LINE:
Hattie Jacques: Constant reference to your shorts won't get us to the bottom of the trouble.
Kenneth Connor: Getting to the bottom of the trouble, eh? (Nurse)
Frankie Howerd: Well, you've reached the bottom now, haven't you? (Doctor)
Alexei Sayle: That's how I get to the bottom of his enterprises. (Columbus)
l The old itching powder trick, equally hilarious in Teacher and Girls.
l Love potions do their work in Cleo and Abroad.
l Kenneth Williams is afraid he's undergoing a sex-change in Matron (Hattie Jacques brings him his post. HJ: Your mail. KW: YES I AM!); Jim Dale discovers a sex-change formula in Again Doctor.
l Jim Dale crashes through the window of a nurse's bathroom, and into the bath with her, in Doctor. Sid climbs through a nurse's bathroom window in Matron. Kenneth Cope follows, and falls into the bath.
l The patients prepare to carry out surgery in Nurse, and again in Doctor.
l Fenella Fielding tries to seduce a terrified Kenneth Connor in Regardless, and a terrified Harry H Corbett in Screaming.
l Kenneth Williams' trousers fall down in ... most of the Carry Ons.
l There is a comical, sped-up film sequence in almost every Carry On.
Top espionage tip: the way to invade enemy territory unnoticed is to put on women's clothing. Kenneth Connor dons a dress to infiltrate the rival, all-female taxi firm in Cabby, and Bernard Bresslaw disguises himself as a pregnant woman to get into a maternity hospital in Matron. He is hiding explosives in his swollen false stomach.
Charles Hawtrey is the first cross-dresser in the series, wearing a nurse's uniform in, of course, Nurse (1959). He is also the most consistently convincing woman, particularly in Constable and Again Doctor. Bernard Bresslaw, at 6ft 7ins, is the least convincing, especially in Doctor, when his bald head and hairy chest are showing. Mind you, no one sees through the disguise. More feminine is the gorilla in women's clothes in Up the Jungle.
Belly-dancing costumes are a particular favourite for men, but women can wear them too: Lis Fraser and Dilys Lane do in Cruising; as do Bernard Cribbins and Barbara Windsor in Spying; Sara Crowe in Columbus; and Hawtrey, Butterworth, Roy Castle and Terry Scott in Up the Khyber ...
Again, a perfect way to infiltrate / escape the enemy camp, cf Liz Fielding in Regardless, Angela Douglas in Cowboy, Sara Crowe in Columbus. In Jack, Juliet Mills steals Bernard Cribbins' uniform, and takes on his identity as Midshipman Poop-Decker. In a scene worthy of any Shakespearian comedy, the sailors have to disguise themselves as Spaniards. Mills dresses as a woman, so is in effect double cross-dressing. "I must say, you make a remarkably good woman," comments Kenneth Williams, although he thinks that he / she has padded his / her chest a bit too much.
Another surefire disguise is the false beard, as worn by Kenneth Williams' undercover agent in Spying, his undead scientist in Screaming, Sid James's criminal in Matron, Charles Hawtrey's detective in Loving and Sara Crowe's Turkish agent in Columbus.
The Carry Ons are proudly multi-racial, featuring Indians (Up the Khyber), Africans (Up the Jungle) and Native Americans (Cowboy). However, they all tend to be played by Bernard Bresslaw in different coloured make-up.
LITTLE BITS OF POLITICS
Never exactly dripping with satire, the series none the less contains some topical gags.
Kenneth Connor: Your Majesty, the Queen is in labour.
Sid James: Don't worry, they'll never get back.
Kenneth Williams: They will die the death of a thousand cuts. The British are used to cuts.
(Up the Khyber)
POLITICS - UNIONS AND STRIKES
As the series finished in 1978 (the year before Margaret Thatcher's arrival), trade unions were still high on the comic agenda. There is a militant shop steward in Cabby, and union unrest in At Your Convenience. The best of the many union jokes are ...
Kenneth Connor (as a railway guard waiting for his wife to have a baby): I've got to be back at work on Monday. We're starting a strike, then. (Matron)
Charles Hawtrey: There's another strike on. It's the eunuchs. They're complaining about loss of assets. (Cleo)
POLITICS - EUROPE
Terry Scott (referring to the baby of an overdue mother-to-be): He just seems to be reluctant to put in an appearance, that's all.
Joan Sims: Oh, well, when you look at the world today, there's nothing worth coming out for, is there? You take the common market ...
POLITICS - THE HEALTH SERVICE
There are crowds of nurses, if not many doctors. All staff have plenty of energy and spare time, and patients can stay in hospital for weeks with no real illness. Still ...
Frankie Howerd: If this is the National Health Service, take me back to the leeches. (Doctor)
l Cruising is perhaps the most learned Carry On, with ...
Kenneth Williams: Who do you think I am, Cyrano de Bergerac?
Kenneth Connor: Who's that? What cabin's he in?
Sid James: This bloke Freud knew what he was talking about. Then again, I'm no Jung man.
Kenneth Williams: Well, as long as you're Jung at heart.
l Cleo opts for Asterix-style Latin and Shakespearian jokes:
Kenneth Williams (unwell on a galley trip): Just a little sic transit, Gloria.
Kenneth Williams (looking at the knife sticking into his stomach): Is this a dagger I see before me? It is!
Cleo also names Kenneth Connor and Jim Dale's characters Hengist and Horsa - who were the fabled leaders of the Jutes.
l Up the Khyber, meanwhile, paraphrases Kipling ...
Kenneth Williams: You're a better man than I am, Bungdit Din.
DRESSES TORN OFF
Dresses were flimsy and poorly sewn in the Sixties and Seventies, and are always being torn off. Kenneth Williams hardly has to look at Patsy Rowlands' dress in Matron to remove it.
l In Matron, Barbara Windsor's boyfriend is a criminal. "That's all very well, but I don't fancy being a gangster's moll!" she complains, disingenuously. She had been married to Ronnie Knight for eight years by this time (1972), and had been associated with the Krays before that. Just to prove that truth is more Carry On than fiction, Kenneth Williams accompanied Knight and Windsor on their honeymoon.
l In Up the Jungle (1970), Tarzan and Jane become Ug and June. This joke gained extra resonance nine years after the film, when Terry Scott, who played Ug, starred in Terry and June.
l In the first hospital Carry On, Nurse, Wilfrid Hyde-White guest stars as an annoying patient in a private room. The film's final joke is that two nurses use a daffodil instead of a rectal thermometer when taking his temperature. (Thankfully, we don't get to see the daffodil in situ.) Audiences of the day thought this was side-splitting, so the second hospital Carry On, Doctor, was subtitled Death of a Daffodil. In it, Frankie Howerd guest stars as an annoying patient in a private room. When a nurse brings in a vase of daffodils, Howerd blusters: "Oh no you don't! I saw that film!"
l Harry H Corbett stars in Screaming. Among the incidental music of the film is the theme tune to Corbett's Steptoe and Son.
Until the arrival of the tiffing gay couple in Abroad, homosexuality tends only to be hinted at. Kenneth Williams' first line in Cleo is: "Oh, I do feel queer." But he, Caesar, has a wife, and lusts after Cleopatra.
In Jack, Bernard Cribbins kisses Juliet Mills, who is still in her sailor's uniform disguise:
Kenneth Williams: I may like to run a happy ship, but this is ridiculous.
Also in Jack:
Nelson: Kiss me, Hardy.
Hardy: Are you mad? What will they say at the Admiralty?
In the fashion of Shakespearian comedy, most Carry Ons have an engagement or marriage near the end. With the odd exception (Sid James and Hattie Jacques in Loving, Frankie Howerd and Joan Sims in Doctor), this is seen as a good thing. But once you're married ...
Wives always nag, husbands always chase younger women. Kenneth Williams names a cow after his wife in Jack, and Sid James stays in hospital to avoid his rabbiting spouse in Doctor. Joan Sims is so busy squawking at her husband in Screaming, she fails to notice that he has become a werewolf. Hattie Jacques' husband cares more about his taxi firm than about her in Cabby. Liz Fraser's man is just as bad: "Put me and an old engine side by side and I'll give you one guess which one he starts to strip down."
Kenneth Williams: It ain't safe for decent folk to walk the streets at night. I have to send the wife out for everything. (Cowboy)
! Carry On Up the Barbican, Silk St, London, EC2 (0171 382 7000), 11- 31 Aug.
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