AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
CARRY ON -
CARRY ON UP
by Harlan Kennedy
COLUMBUS (Kenneth Williams)
I can see land! I can see land!
'BOOBS' THE CABIN GIRL
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.
Massing, I said, not messing.
INDIAN MESSENGER climbs on board and approaches
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
Enter Philip, King of
PHILIP (Sidney James)
In the name of
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
blue jokes, innuendo. That
But political incorrectness – or the new backlash
against "correctness" – may also explain the glee with which the Carry On phenomenon has been
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
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' comedies – they turn everyone and everything into highly colored cardboard and then blow rude noises at them.
It may not be Shakespeare – but 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
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,
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 (
• 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-theater – R.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-cinema – those movies where everyone is "on stage" and hunt-the-subtext becomes a truly underground activity – the 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
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 neurosis – usually impersonated by Hawtrey and Williams – are 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's – and 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 down – just like the doors to that hygienic fortress called a hospital – and 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 indecency – or 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 country – is 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 films – send 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 Hawtrey – now, 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 exploration – while 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
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-entendres – Barbara 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
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE JAN-FEB 1993 ISSUE OF FILM COMMENT.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.