by Harlan Kennedy



COLUMBUS (Kenneth Williams)

I can see land! I can see land! Hard about,
men! Ooh, once I get my hand on that
route to the East, I'll be the most famous
man in all Spain. Where's the Spanish flag?

(Barbara Windsor)

Over here, sir. Do you want to get it up?


Yes, yes, quickly. I can see the natives massing on the shore.

FIRST MATE (Charles Hawtrey)

Oonghh, well, I hope they clean up before we get there.

COLUMBUS (giving him a look)

Massing, I said, not messing.

INDIAN MESSENGER climbs on board and approaches COLUMBUS. He is about to deliver a message but is dumbstruck by BOOBS 's beauty.


Well, don't just stand there, man, get it out!

MESSENGER (Bernard Bresslaw)

I come to deliver a message from my chief. He say to you on behalf of all Native Americans, "Hello sailor."


Yes, well, and hello to him. And as a spe­cial surprise you may tell him I have brought the King of Spain to parley with him personally.

Enter Philip, King of Spain.

PHILIP (Sidney James)

'Allo, moosh. In the name of Spain my reign now falls plainly on the Main. Hyah hyah! (Jamesian chuckle) Tell your guvnor we're 'ere to take over the Americas and let's be smart about it.


I will tell my chief. If you come in peace, he will have the hostile greeting party off the shore as soon as it may be possible.


Yes, well, make sure 'e 'as it off by the time we get there.


Sexism, classism, funny foreigners, puns, blue jokes, innuendo. That Britain's Carry On films were the most politically incorrect in movie his­tory may explain their demise almost two decades ago after 16 years of non­stop production. Carry On Emman­nuelle ended that run (after a couple of preceding flops): a film vainly trying to import naughty sniggers into the liber­ated early Seventies.

But political incorrectness – or the new backlash against "correctness" – may also explain the glee with which the Carry On phenomenon has been resur­rected in East Atlantic critical discourses recently, cued by a flimsy postscript to the series, last year's Carry On Colum­bus. More on that misfire, and why it did, later. The above extract is from the film – scripted by Harlan Kennedy – that wasn't made but should have been, if only the original Carry On performers were still alive and the series' true spirit still kicking.

In many hearts and minds it still is. Never have so many trees fallen to fur­nish paper for Carry On thesis-writers; never has nostalgia for a bygone movie age so striven to turn celebration into cerebration. The series has even snuck into the latest Top Ten poll conducted by Sight and Sound. One critic voted for Carry On Up the Khyber in his All-Time Ten Best films; one screenwriter, My Beautiful Laundrette's Hanif Kureishi, voted for Carry On Camping. Watch out, Citizen Kane.

The facts: 27 Carry Ons were made between 1958 and 1974. Though some films didn't have the magic bi-vocable in their titles (Don't Lose Your Head, Follow That Camel), all were directed by Gerald Thomas and produced by Peter Rogers, all starred some combination of the same core team of comics, and all subjected an aspect of life past (Carry On Cleo) or present (Carry On Cabby) to systematic farce.

As each movie unrolled, the usual histrionic suspects were rounded up: Kenneth Williams, a small camp tornado with a voice that sneered, minced, or brayed at will; Sidney James, an on-the-make cockney with a face like a traffic accident and a laugh like a drain; Charles Hawtrey, thin, prune-faced, and precious with granny specs and an ooggh-I-say delivery; Joan Sims, a Rubens siren with dimpled-pillow face; and Barbara Windsor, a blonde cockney sparrow with waddling walk and bionic breasts. In addition there were blithe but occasional star performers like Frankie Howerd (camp), Jim Dale (straightish), and Hattie Jacques (think of Joan Sims and multiply by three).

What were they all about, these mov­ies that tickled a whole generation of British moviegoers and a few non-British ones, too? Andy Warhol was a fan; so was Paul Morrissey, who made the Peter Cook–Dudley Moore Hound of the Baskervilles in tribute. Mostly, they were about Britain finding an inspired way in which to slay its postwar, post­imperial demons and to put life, history, and heroic ideals through a wringer of loving lampoonery.

The recent critical raptures have rightly noted the series' outrageous artifi­ciality. If all the world's a stage, in the Carry Ons it's a music hall stage. The films make vaudevillian whoopee with every revered institution or icon they can find. Instead of having the grace to pepper semi-lifelike targets – as in such rival British postwar series as the Doctor films and the Boulting brothers' come­diesthey turn everyone and everything into highly colored cardboard and then blow rude noises at them.

It may not be Shakespearebut you could call it Ben Jonson with a dash of Rabelais. On the Carry Ons' artfully reductive comic canvas, sex and physical functions loomed ever larger. One way to cope with Britains identity crisis at her postwar turning-point, from V for Victorian empire and Victory to S for postcolonial Self-destruct, was to see man and woman not as the fine-robed evolutionary paradigms of 19th century romanticism but as overgrown caveper­sons, naked to history and destiny and with all their plumbing differences exposed.

Ergo, sex was on, hypocrisy was off. Jokes about bosoms and bottoms super­seded well-dressed Wildean epigrams. Foreigners were, by definition, funny; its world role disintegrating, Britain reached for the nervous laughter of xenophobia, and racial fairmindedness took the hind­most. No surprise that the Carry Ons were born in the late Fifties, when the lid came off British cinema. Hammer bubbled forth with Dracula, Michael Powell boiled over with Peeping Tom, and Jack Clayton steamed up middle-class British spectacles with Room at the Top. It was the time of Look Back in Anger in the theater and Look On in Horror in the political theater (Britain's abortive Suez putsch finally telegraphing to her own people her fall from power). The mild comic medicine of the Boult­ings and Doctor Bogarde had to give way to something ruder and more colic. Offence was duly given by the Carry Ons to any class, sex, or race that could be offended. The champions of Political Correctness, if such a concept had existed during the Carry On heyday, would have quailed in horror each time a new Rogers – Thomas comedy dropped from the breach.


B ut then, the Carry On series is a great rebuff not just to PC crusaders but to CC ones. Cinematic Correctness insists you can't do any of the things this saga did for two decades without taking a breath. From Carry On Sergeant to Carry On Emmannuelle, via Nurse, Teacher, Cabby, Jack, Cowboy, Dick, Up the Khyber, Up the Jungle, and At Your Convenience, the films perpetrated the following insults to pure cinema:

The camera was used baldly and boldly as a recording instrument for stand-and-deliver performances.


*The sets were knocked up as quickly and cheaply as for a school play, and looked it. Either that or they were cannibalized from other film sets at the same studio (Pinewood, England).

The characters were walking stere­otypes used and reused from film to film. The epicene snob (Kenneth Williams), the lecherous spiv (Sid James), the big-bosomed waif (Barbara Windsor), the stentorian matriarch (Hat­tie Jacques) ....

The comic idiom was more stage-than screen-oriented: a rush of exits and entrances (count them in Carry On Matron, more than 80 opening and clos­ing doors in 90 minutes), of recitative and punchline, of "Geddit?" overempha­sis in the performances.

Guilty on all counts. But then we're writing in a time that cherishes guilty pleasures. And just as anti-theaterR.W. Fassbinder – is a great stimulus to defining and redefining theater, so anti-cinema can be a stirrer-up of our thesaurus of definitions about cinema.

Fassbinder proves a felicitous refer­ence point. RWF reinvigorated cinema by injecting theater straight into its bloodstream: explicitly in The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, stylistically in the baroque, artfully attitudinizing por­trayals of players like Hanna Schygulla and Margit Carstensen. Fassbinder attributed his use of this sculptured emotionalism to the influence of favorite Hollywood directors like Douglas Sirk and Josef von Sternberg, but in the king­dom of theater-cinemathose movies where everyone is "on stage" and hunt-the-subtext becomes a truly under­ground activitythe Carry On films deserve pride of place as the collective court jester.

Like a jester they have a formal license and frank intent to deflate pre­tension and democratize human experi­ence. When the Carry On team crash into Henry VIII's England, Cleopatra's Egypt, or Louis XVI's France, it's to prove that base instincts and bodily processes are just as prevalent in a world pseudo-sanitized by wealth, grandeur, or history as in the seaside-postcard con­text that commentators see as the movie saga's matrix. (Note from Europe to American readers: The British seaside picture postcard is a national specialty, usually depicting risqué scenes on holi­day beaches accompanied by lewdly droll captions. Standard ingredients are overendowed women, insufficiently pro­tective bathing costumes, naughty-minded . children, and jokes about bosoms and bottoms.)

And yet the Carry Ons aren't just exercises in licensed postcard-printing or graffiti-writing. The theatricalism that gives them their crazed formality also ceremonializes their perfect algebra of character interplay. That algebra could be expressed as E=MR2. If E stands for emancipation, M for monomania, and R for repression, the squared-and-multi­plied forces of Anglo-Saxon psychosex­ual neurosisusually impersonated by Hawtrey and Williamsare just about equal in energy and effect to the moral and sexual liberation represented by Sid James.

The perfect playoff is in Carry On Matron. Sid is the smart-alecky crook trying to break into a hospital to steal its supply of contraceptive pills, aided by two gormless henchmen (Bernard Bresslaw, Kenneth Cope). Opposite the James gang are chief surgeon Kenneth Williams and matron Hattie Jacques. Jacques is a frustrated spinster of tentlike proportions, Charles Hawtrey a campily dotty shrink, and Williams a psychological stretcher-case: he is afraid, amid other hypochondrias, that he is changing sex. "Your mail," says Jacques, handing him his letters. "I know I am!" he screams. But he keeps looking up books on gender mutation, in between checking that he doesn't have lung cancer or leukemia.

Meanwhile Jacques, frustratedly in love with Williams, forms an innocent TV-and-cocoa friendship with the minc­ing Hawtrey. When all three converge in Hawtrey's room, in a climactic mayhem of dropped trousers and double-enten­dres, it's like watching a Feydeau farce played out in a friary. We know nothing carnal will happen. More Britishly, noth­ing carnal could happen. For Williams and Hawtrey are the film'sand in Wil­liams's case, the series' – hothouse blooms. Crazed by celibacy, they either hyperbolize their sexual responses to the world by "Ooh!"ing and "Aah!"ing at every hint of Eros, or channel their unspent energies into other, wilder monomanias.

Sid James's role in Carry On Matron couldn't be more symbolically apt. He's the robust, priapic male to whom moral caveats are put up to be knocked downjust like the doors to that hygienic fortress called a hospitaland for whom "hidden treasure' is a cache of sex aids. James in the Carry Ons is the New Man banging on the door of a British tradi­tionalism past its sell-by date. (South African-born, the actor himself is the only non-Briton among the series regu­lars.) As Henry VIII in Carry On Henry, his quasi-cockney street vernacular van­dalizes moral prudery as surely as it van­dalizes costume-pie linguistic protocol. 'After six months' married life, the only thing I'm 'aving off is 'er 'ead," he com­plains to Williams's Cromwell. Later he climbs into bed alongside his new wife (Windsor) with a cursory, rumbustious "'Ere we go then!" Shakespeare couldn't have put it better.

But Shakespeare might have blue­printed the Sid James character. James is Carry On's answer to the unfettered moral commentator the Bard wrote into his plays as the "common man": Launce­lot Enobarbus in Antony and Cleopatra, the Gravedigger in Hamlet. By putting him center screen as period royalty hybridized with modern antihero, the Carry On films found an ingenious way to foreground swaggering anachronism and lèse-majesté even in His Majesty.

The Carry On movies couldn't always function, though they functioned best, through the camp counterpoint between James and Williams. But the leitmotif of involuted eccentricity tussling with extrovert appetite gave the films the har­monic unity they have. On our left, the seedy, energetic carpetbagger; on our right, the casualties of a world now strewn with not just postimperial, but post-Freudian, terrors. No wonder every sentence becomes a double-entendre and every century a virgin world ripe for deflowerment by jokes about sex, bath­rooms, and the human anatomy. Antony and Cleopatra, the French Revolution., the winning of the West ... the land­mark episodes of history are duly rav­ished. Indeed, so often are great reversals of power the subject of the "Carry On History" films that it's hard to doubt that one of the series' aims, even if unconscious, is to take Britain's own loss of Empire and exorcize that histori­cal trauma by satirical reenactment.


Though all Carry Ons crusadingly debunk, the costume specimens have a subtle difference from the mod­ern-dress ones. Carry On Matron, Doc­tor, or Teacher are upwardly spiraling farces about chaos invading institutional life. The history films are downward spi­rals aimed at sending history and its pre­tensions into a comic tailspin.

What goes up must come down, including inflated scenarios of human heroism. Hence the pinpricking plethora of puns in the series. These provide ideal double-take deflation. We think we are hearing decent elevated dialogue; we suddenly realize that idiocy or indecencyor just inspired linguistic bathos – has snuck into the soundwaves. Who could forget the moment when Kenneth Williams's Caesar runs from an assassination bid in Carry On Cleo cry­ing, "Infamy! Infamy! They've all got it in for me!"

It's the role of the pun in turning the rare and refined into the rude or risqué that gets us to the heart of the Carry On series. In the peerless Carry On Up the Jungle the Great Tradition of Victorian exploration – that age when no English­man could get on a boat-train without ending up in a pith helmet discovering a new African countryis dismembered in a sendup of the Stanley-Livingstone story. The entire dignified lexicon of exploration is here up for grabs. Show the camera an elephant gun and you get this exchange. Joan Sims: "That's a big one." Sid James: "Yes, I'm going hunt­ing." Sims: "Game?" James: 'Any time you are." Show the camera a couple of exotic monkeys and you get this. Sims: "Would they come if one threw them some peanuts?" James: "Would you?"

The boomerang technique of the Carry On history filmssend your char­acters out into a death-or-glory context and then bring them spinning back to earthy banality – is defined by plot strat­egies as well as puns. The Livingstone character in Carry On Up the Jungle turns out to be no mythic missionary but merely Charles Hawtrey as a gone-native English nutter. Sims's longlost husband, Hawtrey has found a new name (The Great Tonka) and a new home amid the flowered skirts and free­love tribal culture. Likewise in Carry On Cowboy we cross whole continents, leap whole cultures, and at journey's end find Hawtrey and his physical needs and functions. Who else should the all-pow­erful Indian chief, much talked of during plot buildup by Judge Kenneth Williams and outlaw Sid James, finally turn out to be? "Oh Hull-o!" Hawtrey minces, emerging from a call of nature in his porta-wigwam. And when his visitors try to converse with him in fluent Indian, he merely says, "Ooh you do talk funny."

In this world of imploded imperial­ism, all you find at the far edge of the world is the same people, the same pat­ter, and the same elementary or alimen­tary concerns you left at home. It's a deft comic formula, and the failure to re­exploit it in the new Carry On Colum­bus accounts for that pic's misfire. What Jim Dale as C.C. should have discovered on reaching the New World is the Old World all over again: if not in the exoti­cally clapped-out form we knew and loved in Hawtreynow, alas, along with Williams and James gone to the great carry-on in the skies – then at least in a suitably potty and parochial equivalent. Instead there was lame comedy with Brooklyn-accented Indians led by Larry Miller and Charles Fleischer.

Carry On Columbus offended in another way. It reeked of sexual right-mindedness. The old Carry Ons made a virtue of their honest vices. Every woman of whistleable age became a magnetic field for the films' daft lubric­ity. This was so winking-nodding-and-chuckling that it bypassed offensiveness and entered a zone of childlike inno­cence. To call a character the Reverend Flasher (Sid James in Carry On Dick) and have him utter lines to Barbara Windsor like "I'd like to get my organ in use again" is as morally censurable as a child doing a naughty drawing in his schoolbook.

Fact is, the "naughtiness" of the Carry On films was less politically incor­rect than politically essential to their (probably unconscious) thematic thrust. In these movies the world is a play­ground in which semi-retarded adults spend their lives mimicking great ideals  – the profession of medicine, the aspira­tions of empire or explorationwhile constantly being brought back to rude reality. Carry On Columbus threw out all hints of busty women and confined its sexual innuendoes to the ghetto safety of gay jokes.

The other great political unmentionable, at least in modern Britain, is class. It is nowhere in sight in Columbus, with its blanded-out cast of "alternative comics" (Alexei Sayle, Rik Mayall, Julian Clary) pretending that diverse accents reflect no social divergences. Class difference underpinned every scene ever played between Kenneth Williams, typically the aristo or beleaguered authority figure, and Sid James, typically the self-made spiv putting a foot in your door or, when necessary, inserting it even further up your privacy. If James is all barrow-boy putdowns and lewd chuckles, Williams is all barmy hauteur and flared nostrils. Williams and his team of fine-tuned fussers – Hawtrey and Howerd, some­times supplemented by Peter But­terworth or Kenneth Connorare overbred products of nurture who've turned into mishaps of nature. Sid James is the arriviste turned Darwinian survi­vor. His anachronisms signal his ability to adapt. His deliriously rumpled faceare they dimples or wrinkles? – is the route map of someone who has Been Through It All and still found time to laugh at it all.

Time to laugh at it all again our­selves. The Carry On series is a jewel in the crown of British camp. It began as a product of blessed coincidences: the right director-producer duo, the perfect jigsaw cast, the moment in national his­tory. It then rolled on, gathering mantric mannerisms as it went. Today, when we laugh at names like Bungdit Din in Carry On Up the Khyber or Citizen Camembert ("He's the big cheese around here") in Don't Lose Your Head, or when we giggle at the Pelion-on-Ossa double-entendresBarbara Windsor: "My mother says drink inflames the ardor"; Sidney James: "Yes, the more you drink the 'arder it gets" – it's with the nervous rapture of rediscovery.

Did we really once think these films were bad/silly/trivial/demeaning? And even if they are (give the devil's advocate his due), don't they get points for tonal consistency, bawdy honesty, metafictive artifice, comic rhythm, and Joycean ver­bal gymnastics? Let alone for being a voice crying in the wilderness of right-on politics. For this was a movie series that ululated Tarzan-like for the virtues of pri­mal response in such primal areas as sex, race, creed, and class. And it was a series that helped Britain get out of its post-imperial blues with, if not grace, then at least a healthy taste for the disgraceful.







©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.