Last Friday 1st August 2008, marked the 50th anniversary of the screening of the first ‘Carry On’ film, Carry on Sargeant.
The Carry On films were a long-running series of low-budget British comedy films that seemed to capture a very real and possibly somewhat lost sense of what it was – possibly more so than what it is – to be British. Spanning five decades and incorporating a total of 31 films – with another allegedly in the pipeline – the films were a mixture of both the sublime and the ridiculous, taking in parody, slapstick, social commentary, farce, innuendo, and double entendre. For me, they were examples of that quintessential British humour: the screen equivalent of the British seaside postcard.
Many of the films poked fun at distinctly British institutions such as the NHS (Carry on Nurse and Carry on Matron), whilst others focused on key historical events and periods (Carry on Henry and Carry on Up the Khyber). Some mocked British culture and customs (Carry on Camping and Carry on Abroad), whilst others parodied serious films, including Hollywood blockbusters (Carry on Cleo). A few combined some of these distinctions such as Carry on Screaming that was a pastiche of the British Hammer Horror series of films.
Across the series, the changes and developments of British culture could also be identified as with more explicit sexual jokes becoming more commonplace in the 1960s and 1970s and with Carry on Abroad for example and its recognition of the ‘Brits abroad’ phenomenon through the emergence of package holidays to Spain in the early 1970s. Other less successful attempts such as Carry on at Your Convenience saw the series critique the trade union movement.
Despite the fact that many of the films were slated by critics, most of the films were – and indeed remain – extremely popular. This doesn’t stop the film academic Professor Colin McCabe from suggesting that Carry on Cleo and Carry on Up the Khyber are in the Top 10 best British films ever made.
Directed by Gerald Thomas and produced by Peter Rogers, the films were made at Pinewood Studios. The films were dependent upon a cast of fine British comedy actors that included Kenneth Williams (star of 26 films), Joan Sims (24), the wonderful Charles Hawtrey (23), Sid James (19), Kenneth Connor (17), Hattie Jacques (14) and Bernard Bresslaw (14). Despite being one of the best known and most loved stars of the series, Barbara Windsor only starred in a total of 10 films. Other notable stars included Frankie Howerd, Bob Monkhouse, Jim Dale, Terry Scott, Patsy Rowlands, Peter Butterworth, June Whitfield and Wendy Richard. The American star of Sergeant Bilko, Phil Silvers, also appeared in one of the films – Carry on Follow that Camel – in an unsuccessful attempt to break the American market.
In opposition to those that are possibly too ‘discerning’ for the Carry On series – they are without doubt an acquired taste – the films are as much a part of British culture as indeed the novels of those such as PG Wodehouse. Whilst Wodehouse and others would undoubtedly sit firmly in what might be described as highbrow and so attributed credence, the Carry On films are distinctly lowbrow and because of this, not afforded the rightful recognition that they should in capturing and documenting a period of time that saw the British cultural landscape undergo a rapid and hugely important change. For this reason, their significance should not be underestimated despite their deliberately lowbrow aspirations.
Watching many of the films today, half a century on from the first, they are without doubt extremely dated and remain ‘of their time’. Nonetheless, they represent a significant and wonderful documentary body of work about how Britain was from the 1950s through to the 1970s. For many, they represent a bygone era, possibly even a more innocent time. For others, they were bigoted and misogynistic, founding much of their humour upon a limited array of stereotypes particularly about women and gays. However, commentators have suggested that it was only when this public naivety no longer existed that the comedy eventually dried up.
Irrespective of criticisms and concerns, in many ways the films captured an imaginary and coherent vision of what Britain was: a place where we could all feel comfortable or at home but at the same time, where we knew never really existed. And isn’t that indicative of and speak volumes about where we are today in terms of defining what it is to be British…?
What a carry on…!!!