Celebrating 60 years of laughter with Kenneth Williams and the Carry On movies
- Credit: Contributed
The Carry On films celebrate their 60th anniversary this summer. They remain the longest, most profitable comedy series in British film history. Arts editor Andrew Clarke takes an affectionate look at these classic movies
Sixty years ago a cheap, low-key British army comedy slipped out into the nation’s cinemas with the honourable intention of providing a few laughs for audiences during the long, summer evenings.
The film was packed with a clutch of rising stars, which meant that they all had recognisable names but weren’t too expensive, and no-one thought much would come of it. The script, based on a play The Bull Boys by R. F. Delderfield, had been knocking about for years with no-one in a tearing hurry to produce it.
Producer Peter Rogers had bought the rights for the knockdown price of £100 and with directing partner Gerald Thomas decided that this army comedy could be made for next to nothing and would earn them a small profit while working out what to do next.
As the film was about to be released, Peter Rogers made one of the most significant decisions of his career – he changed the title to Carry On Sergeant.
The film was a satire on National Service, which was in the process of being phased out at the time, and was something of a joke during the era of late ‘50s rock’n’roll. While Billy Fury, Adam Faith, Marty Wilde and Cliff Richard were inspiring teenagers to ‘Move It’, their predecessors were learning to march across a parade ground.
This was the premise for the very first Carry On film, a group of non-military types being dragooned into a National Service army camp and being bullied, persuaded, encouraged and cajoled into being half-decent soldiers.
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If you look at the cast-list the foundations of the Carry On team were there from the very beginning. Kenneth Williams was the snooty university type, Kenneth Connor was the diminutive hypochondriac, Hattie Jacques was the brusque army doctor and Charles Hawtry was... Charles Hawtry.
Early Carry On stalwarts, who featured in several films during the black and white years, were also present: Shirley Eaton, who would go on to greater fame as The Bond Girl covered in gold paint in Goldfinger, was the love interest while Bill Owen, Compo in Last of the Summer Wine, was the platoon Corporal, Terence Longdon was the solid squaddie and Eric Barker was the long-suffering Captain.
One-off stars who never made another Carry On were William Hartnell as the put-upon drill sergeant and Bob Monkhouse, who at the time was moving from scriptwriter to stand-up comedian. Dora Bryan also never made another Carry On replaced by Joan Sims, Liz Fraser or the batty Esma Cannon.
William Hartnell’s presence was a piece of opportunistic casting because he was playing a similar character in the hugely popular TV comedy The Army Game and Peter Rogers thought casting him would guarantee an audience.
Carry On Sergeant was never designed to be the start of a long series, it was just a cheap and cheerful programme filler, a one-off, but what catapulted the series into the spotlight was the fact it was a huge hit with audiences.
The cheapness of the production was disguised by the quality of Norman Hudis’ writing and the exuberance of the combined performances. It helped that the majority of the players knew each other from radio and from theatre but when you put this collection of eccentric and stylised together comedy magic exploded across the screen.
Rogers and Thomas immediately put a follow-up into production, Carry On Nurse, which was even more successful than the first entry and for the first and only time also made waves at the US box office.
The classic quartet of Williams, Connor, Hawtry and Jacques were back as were Shirley Eaton and Terence Longdon who were joined by new regular Joan Sims and semi-regular Leslie Phillips.
This was then swiftly followed by a third film Carry On Teacher and then Carry On Constable which added Sid James to the series’ growing list of familiar faces.
The Rogers-Thomas team produced a total of 29 films between 1958 and 1980 with Carry On Columbus being added as a post-script with a largely contemporary cast in 1992. Comparing Columbus with the earlier films gives a clue to their success. The Carry On films benefitted from a stable working environment and a collection of highly eccentric, wonderfully charismatic performers which endeared themselves to their audiences and this affection grew over time.
The Carry On films can broadly be spread into three ages: the black and white early years which satirised British institutions like the army, hospitals, schools and the police, the colour years which sent up movie-genres like swashbucklers (Carry On Jack), historical epics (Carry On Cleo) Hammer Horror (Carry On Screaming), westerns (Carry On Cowboy) and David Lean-style historic dramas (Follow That Camel and Carry On Up The Kyber), and for their final decade they switched back to contemporary comedies again bringing Frankie Howerd on board for Carry On Doctor and renewing the cast with character-actors Peter Butterworth and Bernard Bresslaw in films such as Carry On Abroad and Carry On Girls.
Sadly, by the 1970s the series had lost its sparkle. Forced to compete with The Confessions films, the scripts lost their cheeky wit and became coarser. Rogers even co-opted the Confessions films star Robin Askwith to star in Carry On Girls. The later films Carry On England and Carry On Behind were pale shadows of the glory-years of the mid-60s. The series came stumbling to a halt in 1980 with the ill-conceived Carry On Emmanuelle which was not only six years late (Emmanuelle was a sensational hit in 1974) but committed the cardinal sin of not being funny. It really was the end of an era.
The Top Ten Carry Ons
1. Carry On Cleo (1964) – armed with sets and costumes from Elizabeth Taylor’s ill-fated epic, this is the best looking Carry On and it comes with the sharpest script from Talbot Rothwell and Amanda Barrie as Cleo.
2. Carry On Up The Kyber (1968) – Last of the classic-era Carry Ons and one that goes out with a bang, literally as the Sid James and Joan Sims host an embassy dinner during a rebel bombardment. Snowdonia doubles as northern India and Kenneth Williams makes a very good Khasi.
3. Carry On Screaming (1966) – Harry H Corbett leaves Steptoe and Son for six weeks to help the Carry On team celebrate the world of Hammer Horror. Fenella Fielding joins the cast as a breathy, pale-faced vamp while Jim Dale shines as Carry On’s leading man.
4. Carry On Constable (1960) – The series really hits its stride with this tale of three trainee policemen (Williams, Connor and Phillips) along with Charles Hawtry’s part-time Special Constable trying to deal with a suburban crime wave during a nasty bout of flu.
5. Carry On Jack (1962) – Unusually expensive-looking sea going adventure which puts Bernard Cribbens and Juliette Mills at the heart of the action. Tales of pirates and Spanish battle fleets gives this a meaty narrative. Kenneth Williams is brilliant as the seasick Captain Fearless.
6. Carry On Cabby (1962) – Women’s lib comes to the cosy world of Carry On as Hattie Jacques decides to start up Glamour Cabs to steal business away from inattentive husband Sid James. Charles Hawtry steals the film as eccentric cab driver Pintpot.
7. Carry On Nurse (1959) – Carry On loved hospitals and did four films there. This is the first and best (just) Joan Sims joins the cast as a put upon trainee nurse. Leslie Phillips is admitted for a bunion operation while Wilfred Hyde White plays a patient who appears to have nothing wrong with him but loves to place bets on the racing. He does get the best gag of the film at the dénouement.
8. Carry On Doctor (1967) – This is the team’s second venture onto the wards with Kenneth Williams as the brilliantly named Dr Tinkle and Frankie Howerd on fine-form as a mind-over-matter evangelist who is admitted with a bad back. The wedding scene between Howerd and a deaf Joan Sims is worth the price of admission alone. This is the film where Barbara Windsor became a regular.
9. Carry On Don’t Lose Your Head (1967) – Carry On takes on the story of The Scarlet Pimpernel. Sid James and Jim Dale steal away French aristocrats from under the nose of Citizen Camembert (Kenneth Williams) The Big Cheese.
10. Carry On Henry (1972) – Carry Ons last hurrah before the rot really set in. Sid James is Henry VIII, Terry Scott is Thomas Wolsey and Kenneth Williams is Thomas Cromwell in this fun romp around the Tudor Court. Charles Hawtry is imprisoned in an iron maiden for trying to seduce garlic-eating Joan Sims.