As a child my grandparents introduced me to the ‘Carry On…’ series of films. From an early age I was as scared by the totally non-scary Oddjob in ‘Carry on Screaming’ as I was amused by Barbara Windsor losing her bra during exercises in ‘Carry on Camping’. Even today, I still laugh at the double entendres and puerile humour of Sid James, Charles Hawtrey, Kenneth Williams et al.
I was both interested and pleased to see a feature in the Birmingham Post last year that asked people to send in their ‘alternative’ English cultural icons. Alongside 1970s football hooliganism and Raleigh Chopper bikes were the ‘Carry On’ series of films.
Then in a separate poll for the BBC, Kenneth Williams’ “Infamy, infamy, they’ve all got it in for me” line from ‘Carry on Cleo’ came out as the nation’s favourite comedy one-liner. It obviously wasn’t just me that held the ‘Carry On’ films so dear.
So what is it about comedy that seems to be able to bring us together, to define – as the polls suggest – who we are?
If there is such a thing as ‘English comedy’ then it has to be said that it hasn’t always helped to increase ‘community cohesion’. Traditionally, a lot of our humour has focused on the ‘us’ and ‘them’: the old “Have you heard the one about the Englishman, Irishman, Scotsman etc” jokes being a case in point.
Look back at old sitcoms and a whole host of other examples become apparent. Take for example the 1970s. As a child I used to laugh at such prime-time TV as ‘Love Thy Neighbour’, a series that pitted black against white in the most politically incorrect ways. Likewise, I can remember watching ‘Mind Your Language’ as a family. Despite its popularity at the time, there is no doubt that it exploited some of the crudest stereotypes.
But go beyond the stereotypes of the ‘them’ and collectively we’re also laughing at the stereotypes of ‘us’ too. So whilst Manuel’s Spanish-ness was key to the success of ‘Fawlty Towers’, so too was Basil Fawlty’s innate Englishness. Que…?
Beyond the 70s and the collective failings and foibles of the English can be seen in a whole raft of other well loved comedy characters: from Del Boy to Victor Meldrew, the Vicar of Dibley to the League of Gentlemen, from Benny Hill to Captain Mainwaring. All are quintessentially English, capturing something that is familiar to us all. Whether because of our love of the underdog, our fondness for old curmudgeons, our longing for the quaintness of John Betjeman’s Middle England, our insularity and dislike of outsiders, our repressed sexuality, or our perceived stiff upper lip, our comedy reflects the characteristics that make us who we are.
And with that comes the fact that as an island nation, we also love to fear – and laugh at – ‘Johnny Foreigner’. At one level, this can be seen in such programmes as ‘Allo, Allo’ and the sometimes satirically misunderstood character of Alf Garnett. On another, it can be seen in the more abrasive – offensive? – style of humour preferred by Roy ‘Chubby’ Brown and his ilk. Amazingly, despite ‘Chubby’ being effectively banned from broadcasting in this country, he still draws tour crowds of around 350,000 each year. We might think we’ve moved on from the Bernard Manning’s but have we?
The ability to laugh at ourselves comes out of a sense of constancy and continuity, not least the conscious or sub-conscious recognition of who we are and more probably, who we think we are: the recognition with the ‘us’ rather than the ‘them’. There is even the possibility that behind the laughter lies a deep desire to preserve values that we sometimes feel are being eroded or lost: something that makes me believe that the ‘Carry On…’ films are funnier than they may in reality be because they remind me of good times in the past.
It’s unsurprising then that the ‘Carry On…’ films hold such a dear place in our hearts: undeniably English, undeniably nostalgic and in their entirety, a cinematic social history of a country that underwent rapid change in the late twentieth century. Don’t believe me, then see ‘Carry on at Your Convenience’ and its critique of the unions in the early 1970s. Social commentary at its best.
And in the best traditions of English comedy, the ‘Carry On…’ films capture all of this via some of the most mundanely stereotypical characters in some of the most mundane of settings: the campsite, the NHS, the army, police force, the workplace et al. Add in a few historical reference points and the encapsulation of all that we associate with being English is near complete. Maybe that’s why the ‘Carry On…’ films had such little success outside our national borders.
Neither the ‘Carry On…’ films nor comedy per se necessarily make us who we are; that would be a bridge too far. But comedy does capture – even when drawing upon the crudest of stereotypes – the nuances and subtleties that are both familiar and particular to us all. And that is exactly what identity is all about, that which is particular and familiar.
As the late Willie Rushton put it: `What would we be if we didn’t have a sense of humour? German’.
This work by Chris Allen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 UK: England & Wales License. Based on a work at www.chris-allen.co.uk.