Saturday, June 16, 2012

What a carry-on

Abroad. Doctor. Cleo. Dick. Henry. Screaming. Regardless. Emmannuelle. Cabby. Teacher. Nurse. Matron. Behind. At Your Convenience. Again Doctor. By now, most readers must be suspecting a production error, but a minority (whether a lucky one I don’t know) will be nodding in recognition – every item in that list appeared in the title of a long-running series of British comedy films, preceded by the words “Carry on…” There were 29 of them in all (all produced by Peter Rogers and directed by Gerald Thomas), made between 1958 and 1978, and when I was growing up in Britain during their heyday, I doubt you ever had to wait more than a few weeks for one of them to pop up on TV (and I’m talking about the time of three channels). I’m pretty sure I’ve seen them all at some point, some of them multiple times. If you were a kid in that era, how could you not have?

Have you had it yet?

The series is best summed up, I guess, as proud British smut, in which a phrase like “Have you had it yet?” will always be misinterpreted as a query about whether you’re in a post-coital state. As you can see from that partial list, they sometimes parody other genres and films, sometimes run riot with familiar institutions. By my count, four of the films were set in hospitals, which sums up the affinity for easy pickings – leering male patients, randy young doctors, repressed old doctors, overbearing (but secretly sex-starved) matrons and, of course, nubile young nurses in short uniforms which may not always stay on.

The early films, starting with Carry on Sergeant, were fairly innocent (those were my parents’ favourites as I recall) but the formula started to crystallize in the mid-60’s, driven by the sort-of genius of writer Talbot Rothwell. “Formula” almost understates it – Kenneth Williams appeared in 26 of the films, Joan Sims in 24, Charles Hawtrey in 23, and so on, all of them basically doing the same thing from one film to the next, as if the whole span of British experience amounted merely to changing the backdrop on the same dirty postcard. By the early 70’s they included glimpses of bare breasts, which must have briefly seemed like a dizzying height, but everyone (and everything) involved was creaking, if not falling off, if not dying off. Still, the series just about survived into the era of Jaws and Star Wars, which is more than you can say for some of the other pillars of post-war Britain.

Writing a few years ago in The Guardian newspaper, Peter Bradshaw said it’s “long been compulsory to say you adore Carry On films, just to show you're not stuffy or priggish or politically correct. But when we say Carry On films, we mean the clips played on TV…When was the last time you actually sat down and watched a Carry On film all the way through? It isn't possible without a great cloud of irritability, restlessness and depression descending on you.” He went on to refer to “the milieu of sadness and second-rateness that pervaded these films.” Well, on the rhetorical question, it had indeed been years, maybe twenty or so, since I last saw any of them. So I recently put on Carry on Loving, the twentieth in the series, made in 1970 (this was a random choice – the consensus peak is 1969’s Carry on…up the Khyber, which once even made it to 99th place on a British Film Institute list of the top 100 British films, just above The Killing Fields).

Carry on Loving

I found myself agreeing with Bradshaw about the sadness and second-rateness, but without the great cloud descending on me. Set in the town of “Much-Snogging-on-the-Green,” it has the perfect set-up for the Carry On bag of tricks – a dating agency, or in other words a magnet for an endless fount of sex-starved men and women. In a plot strand that sums up a lot about the series, Williams plays Percival Snooper, a marriage guidance counsellor who gives consistently lousy advice because the idea of sex repels him (he’s a “confirmed bachelor,” if you know what they mean). When his boss orders him either to get married to boost his direct knowledge, or else be fired, he signs up, rapidly becoming a target for the agency’s female co-owner (her male partner and long-time boyfriend, of course, is occupied chasing the female clients).

Characters like Snooper pervade the series: authority figures who insist on their dignity despite their complete ineptitude; repressing their true natures to the point of becoming grotesque human gargoyles, but still oddly appealing to predatory (usually much larger) women, the prospect of which fills them with fear and disgust. Their plight (although maybe it’s only in our more enlightened times that we can recognize it as a plight) is all the greater for having to move within a world defined by one thing only: Carry on Loving might be the apex of this vision, presenting an environment where you can’t take the bus or enter a phone booth without tripping over a couple “doing it”. It’s hardly idealized – the women, even the ones presented as prime objects of desire, seldom have the looks or dimensions of models (even the models of that era, let alone of ours), and the men are a uniformly ghastly lot. And it’s all too obvious what would drive this obsession: people live and work in authentically ugly settings, with all the prospects of laboratory mice (the cast members themselves were famously badly paid). If I didn’t find the film as depressing as Bradshaw describes, it’s perhaps mainly because it’s so grimly analyzable.

Carry on England

I also watched Carry on England, made in 1975, the second last of the films. The premise here is a gender-mixed WW2 military unit; the recruits are too busy sneaking into each other’s barracks to absorb any discipline, driving their new commanding officer to near-madness. Anyone who doubts Talbot Rothwell’s facility (he’d retired by then) should suffer through the truly tired dialogue of this film; the crazy relish of Loving has evaporated, leaving a sense of dazed zombies who keep going through sex-obsessed motions long after their erotic drives have rotted away. The film was a big flop, withdrawn from some locations after just three days. And after a final futile attempt to become more, uh, mature (Carry on Emmannuelle), that was it, except for a one-off revival (Carry on Columbus) in 1992. And a whole array of books, websites, TV compilations and so on.

It would be crazy to make excessive claims for the films, but the most full-blooded Carry Ons provide a better portal for investigating the horrendously screwed-up British psyche of the time than the country’s more obviously ambassadorial creations. As you watch them, try to keep in mind, this was the time when they still talked of a British Empire.

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