What A Carry On

Fifty years ago this week production started on a British institution that kept the nation laughing for an amazing 30 years. Arts Editor Andrew Clarke wanders back though our comic landscape to revisit the world of the Carry On film.

Andrew Clarke

Fifty years ago this week production started on a British institution that kept the nation laughing for an amazing 30 years. Arts Editor Andrew Clarke wanders back though our comic landscape to revisit the world of the Carry On film.

“Oh Matron, No!” Close your eyes. You can hear Kenneth Williams agonised cry - you can see his flared nostrils and panicked face in your mind's eye as he tries to prevent yet another comic calamity. That phrase along with Williams brilliant line from Carry On Cleo: “Infany, Infamy they've all got it infamy…” has helped turn the cheap and cheerful Carry On films into one of the cornerstones of British cinema.

This weekend sees the 50th anniversary of the Carry On series which started life as a one-off National Service comedy starring a gang of unknowns brought together by a young producer and director who were taking their first steps as independent film-makers.

Production started on March 16 1958 and cameras started rolling a week later on Carry On Sergeant - a low budget comedy designed to recapture the appeal of TV's popular sitcom The Army Game on the big screen.

To this end producer Peter Rogers' cast William Hartnell who was the tough platoon sergeant in the series to play the tough platoon sergeant in the film. He also cast Charles Hawtrey, one of the hapless recruits, to reprise the role in the film - to give it a degree of comfort and identification.

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In the end the script and the performances were strong enough not to need these insurance measures. For the rest of the cast director Gerald Thomas blundered the world of radio and West End revue.

It is surprising how many of the regulars were in place right from the first film. Kenneth Williams was a well known theatre performer and also had a huge following as the funny-voice man in Hancock's Half Hour on radio alongside larger-than-life comedienne Hattie Jacques, who was recruited to play the fiercesome army doctor.

Kenneth Connor, who was also an experienced theatre and radio star - being a regular in Ray's A Laugh opposite Ted Ray, was also a key element of that first film.

The straight man was, bizarrely enough, the young Bob Monkhouse who, at the time was best known as a stand-up comedian and a high respected script-writer. The love interest role went to Britain's big screen sweetheart at the time Shirley Eaton who later went onto achieve cinema immortality as the Bond girl who was sprayed in gold paint in Goldfinger.

Supporting players included Bill Owen, who went onto play Compo in Last of the Summer Wine, as the corporal, Eric Barker who made a career of playing stuffy bureaucrats was the company commander while Dora Bryan was the love-lorn canteen manager.

The screenplay was adapted by Norman Hudis from a book The Bull Boys written by RF Delderfield. The film had a checkered pre-production process with the script being offered to Spike Milligan and Eric Sykes and then to John Antrobus before it eventually landed on Norman Hudis' desk.

The story was simple. Hartnell's gruff army sergeant was retiring without ever had a prize-winning platoon. This is his last chance for success - unfortunately he's landed with the carry on gang - the most inept soldiers to have ever put on a uniform.

In among this band is Bob Monkhouse who has been called up on his wedding day and desperately wants leave in order to consummate his marriage to the lovely Shirley Eaton.

Inside this magical mix - comedy gold was spun. The film was a huge hit and immediately meant that a sequel would be inevitable.

The follow-up Carry On Nurse was an even bigger success than Sergeant with super-smooth Leslie Phillips replacing Bob Monkhouse as the film's straight man and a big name in Wilfred Hyde White playing a mischievous old Colonel trapped in a private room off the main ward.

Leslie Phillips made an immediate impression when he coined one of his trademark catchphrases. Strolling onto the ward a young nurse catches his eye: “Hello, who are you?” he inquires. “Nurse Bell” is the reply: “Ding, dong you're not wrong,” is the inevitable follow-up.

Written on paper, it looks clunky and old fashioned - on screen it remains pure comic magic. He continues to trade on that line even today when he's a well respected character actor with Shakespeare and Spielberg roles under his belt.

If all the regulars were back from the first film there were a few adjustments made in the supporting cast. Dora Bryan was replaced by a youthful Joan Sims as an accident-prone student nurse while Rosalind Knight came close to stealing her thunder as an owl-eyed trainee.

This second entry in the series not only topped the box office charts in the UK but was also the only entry in the series to become a big hit in the US.

Carry On Nurse also confirmed the mould that the early Carry On films would take. Under Norman Hudis' guidance all the early Carry Ons would be contemporary comedies satirising institutions - similar to the Boulting Brothers comedies starring Peter Sellers also being made at this time.

From 1958 to 1962 the Carry On team tackled the army (Sergeant), the NHS (Nurse), the police (Constable), education (Teacher), job agencies (Regardless), holidays abroad (Cruising) and taxi firms (Cabby).

The cast also had distinct personas which they rarely strayed from. Kenneth Williams in these early years was the aloof, intellectual - far removed from the outrageous, camp performer who made such a strong impression in the later films. Charles Hawtrey was the camp eccentric whose entrance in each film was greeted with an effete “Oh, hello”. He produced a brilliantly stylised performance which he always delivered with a wicked sparkle in his eye.

Sid James, who joined the cast for Carry On Constable in 1960, always played the crusty, salt-of-the-earth type compared to his lusty old reprobate persona in the later years. In these early films he is always gruff but kindly.

Hattie Jacques was always the fiercesome wife or stern authority figure while Joan Sims in these early entries played the niave young girlfriend - frequently paired opposite Liz Frazer as her more streetwise competitor.

Meanwhile the frequently overlooked Kenneth Connor specialised in nervy, superstitious little heroes who normally had to overcome mountains of doubt in order to win the object of his affection. Moments of panic were characterised by brilliantly improvised malapropisms.

Along the way the cast slowly evolved both Leslie Phillips and Shirley Eaton left after three films to be replaced by Sid James and Liz Frazer - all seemed to be sailing smoothly and very profitably until in late 1962 there was a minor revolution in this script writing department which had a dramatic influence on the future development of the series.

Stalwart writer Norman Hudis had left Britain to pursue a new career in the United States. He was replaced by experienced writer Talbot Rothwell, whose sense of humour was a lot bawdier than his predecessors.

Although Carry On Cabby followed the Hudis template, the next film Carry On Jack witnessed a fairly major change in style and look.

Suddenly the humour was bawdier, the characterisation broader, the look of the film more epic and the subject matter more cinematic. This was the start of the Carry Ons middle period - the movie send ups - which many fans regard as the series highpoint.

Pirate movies were lampooned in Carry On Jack, swiftly followed by the James Bond films in Carry On Spying, the historical epic in Carry On Cleo, westerns in Carry On Cowboy, the Hammer horror film in Carry On Screaming, the foreign legion movies in Follow That Camel, a send-up of the Scarlet Pimpernel in Don't Lose Your Head and the tales of the Raj in Carry On Up The Kyber.

The team's characterisation changed along with the films. As the scripts got faster, the roles got bigger. If Charles Hawtrey stayed a camp eccentric Sid James and Kenneth Williams quickly metamorphosed into sharper, funnier characters. The gentle satire of the Hudis films was now abolished in favour of big, bold and brassy humour.

Kenneth Williams opening line, as a flu-suffering Julius Caesar, in Carry On Cleo neatly sums up his new persona: “Oh, I do feel queer.”

If Sid and Kenneth played faster, brighter roles than in the past - the series balanced this out with the addition of Jim Dale as a kind of bumbling, luckless everyman while Kenneth Moore's wife Angela Douglas replaced Liz Frazer and Shirley Eaton as the leading lady of choice.

It was also during this time that the rotund comedienne Peter Butterworth became a regular member of the team - making his first arrival in Carry On Cowboy before almost stealing the show as Constable Slowbottom in Carry On Screaming and playing a nervous missionary Brother Belcher in Carry On Up The Kyber.

It was also during this period that the Carry Ons started recruiting guest-stars to give their movies that extra pizzazz. This had the effect of making the films seem bigger than they already were but served to underline the fact that none of the guests could outshine the regulars. It brought home to audiences the fact that although the Carry On cast were all highly eccentric performers they were also brilliant actors in their own right and were blessed with an incredible sense of comic timing.

If they had a so-so script (Carry On Spying for example) then they could still create a highly enjoyable movie. But if they were blessed with a very good script (Carry On Cleo, Screaming or Kyber) then they would cheerfully create a timeless classic.

Among the guest stars which helped populate the Carry On movie spoofs from this middle period were Harry H Corbet (Screaming), Phil Silvers (Follow That Camel), Roy Castle (Kyber) and Frankie Howerd (Doctor).

At the end of the 1960s, there came another gear change which, in the long-run, didn't prove as successful as the previous change in direction. In 1967 the movie spoofs stopped and they reverted their attention to contemporary society.

After the first couple of successes with Carry On Doctor and Carry On Camping the inspiration started to flag. The tone of the films became cruder and less funny. With the arrival of the 1970s, Peter Rogers and Gerald Thomas started to learn the wrong lessons from the wrong films.

This was the era of the cheap sex comedy. The Confessions and Adventures of … films were beating the Carry Ons at their own game. Whereas the Carry Ons were always about double entender and honest innuendo, these new films on the block were only concerned with smut and bearing breasts.

Sadly with the dawn of Carry On Loving and Carry On Matron, the Carry Ons decided to take on the Confessions films and play them at their own game. They even hired Confessions star Robin Askwith to appear in Carry On Girls.

Only the two historical romps of the 1970s Carry On Henry and Carry On Dick managed to capture the feel and tone of the earlier films. One by one the Carry On regulars dropped by the wayside. Charles Hawtrey ended his association with the films in 1972 with Carry On Abroad while Sid James dropped out in 1974 as did Barbara Windsor and Hattie Jacques after Carry On Dick.

Only Kenneth Williams, Joan Sims and Kenneth Connor soldiered on through Carry On England and Carry On Behind but increasingly they were supporting players in their own films with the bulk of the parts being taken by younger stars like Patrick Mower, Judy Geeson and Windsor Davies.

By the time of Carry On Emmanuelle in 1979 the days of Carry On were well and truly over. If proof were needed Carry On Columbus, which married Cary On old stagers like Jim Dale and Leslie Phillips with newcomers like Rik Mayall, Richard Wilson and Julian Clary, died a shameful, laugh-free death at the box office. Plans to pursue Carry On London should be shelved immediately. Let us treasure the memories because sadly the current crop of performers it seems do not have that special eccentric quality to allow us to carry on laughing.

BLOB/PANEL

We have two sets of Carry On books to give away to celebrate this historic anniversary. The Official Carry On Quiz Book, The Official Carry On Book of Facts, Figures and Statistics and No Laughing Matter - the autobiography of Carry On scribe Norman Hudis. To win these all you have to do is answer the following question: What year was Carry On Sergeant released? Answers on a postcard to Carry On Competition, EADT, PO Box 355, IP4 1QL

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