Sunday, August 6, 2017

Jolly Good Fun: England's 'Carry On' films

The British Invaders Blogathon is an event dedicated to films made and/or produced in Great Britain, hosted by A Shroud of Thoughts. For a complete list of participating bloggers, visit the link at the host site.

Somewhere in-between the absurd verbosity of Monty Python and the bawdy sexual hijinks of Benny Hill lie the "Carry On" films, a film franchise almost sixty years old, mostly unknown in America but adored in its native Great Britain. 31 films and counting, from 1958-92 (plus assorted television and theatrical spin-offs), they were all produced and directed by the team of Peter Rogers and Gerald Thomas, respectively, made at Pinewood Studios, the birthplace of the cinematic James Bond, workplace for such legendary British directors as Laurence Olivier, David Lean and Powell & Pressberger, and launching pad for film franchises such as Superman, Alien, Star Wars and The Hobbit.

Carry On Sergeant
It all began in 1958 with the low-budget (£70,000) army comedy Carry On Sergeant, based on a play and adapted by Norman Hudis, who would go on to write five more films in the Carry On series. Think Bill Murray's Stripes with a British flavor (or should I say, flavour). The title was a spin on an earlier film called Carry On Admiral. Sergeant went on to become the third-highest British moneymaker for 1958. Here's more about the film from a fan.

With the advent of the Swinging Sixties, the movies started to reflect the changing mores and took on a naughtier bent, reveling in innuendo, double entendres, and of course, pretty girls showing lots of skin. The movies depicted either aspects of contemporary British life, or were period pieces of some sort, usually from a blue-collar point of view.

Carry On Dick
In time, Rogers and Thomas used certain actors again and again, and a Carry On repertory of sorts was formed, featuring players such as Sid James, Kenneth Williams, Charles Hawtrey, Joan Sims, Kenneth Connor, Peter Butterworth, Hattie Jacques, Terry Scott, Bernard Bresslaw, Barbara Windsor, Jack Douglas and Jim Dale. Many of them appear in the 1998 documentary What's a Carry On?

I watched three Carry On movies for this post: Carry On Camping, Carry On Abroad and Carry On Columbus. Of these three, I think I liked Abroad best: a bunch of vacationers go to this foreign country but are forced to stay in an unfinished hotel. While the staff goes nuts trying to keep the place in one piece, the residents get to know each other and start bed-hopping.

Naturally, the sex stuff is tame by today's standards, but it's still amusing to see these broadly-drawn characters interact. I remember watching The Love Boat as a kid and having a general sense of what the adults on the show were up to, though of course you could only do so much on television. I think if some of the restraints had been lifted, the result might resemble Abroad. In either case, the humor relies on the chemistry of the actors and their willingness to be bawdy in the name of comedy.

Carry On Loving
Camping was in a similar vein, only set at a camping park for RVs. I thought that one had some gentler character moments as well. Columbus was a spoof of Christopher Columbus, not unlike a Mel Brooks movie. I liked how the Indians saw Columbus and his men as rubes and tried to con them. Overall, I thought the films were okay; a pleasant way to spend time, but nothing particularly exciting, either. I didn't connect with them the way I would with, say, a Kevin Smith movie.

Last year, it was announced that the franchise was being revived, with fresh writers but without any of the familiar faces from the previous incarnation that are still alive. Whether they'll succeed as well in a more politically-correct 21st-century environment remains to be seen, but they have a chance to attract a wider international audience as well, especially depending on casting. It might be worth keeping an eye on.

Other British-produced films (an abbreviated list):
Brief Encounter
Attack the Block
The 39 Steps
The Gorgon


  1. Excellent piece on a legendary franchise. I haven't seen a "Carry on" movie in ages. I was a kid and most of the stuff went over my head, but they still conveyed that sense of loony fun and I got to know a lot of those familiar British character actors.

  2. I would still take Python any day of the week, but these films weren't too bad. Even the naughtiness has a kind of innocence to it that you don't see today.

  3. I always enjoyed the "Carry On" movies. They're not necessarily the best in British comedies, but they are good fun. And they had fantastic casts! I have to say it was fitting you made the post yesterday, as it was Barbara Windsor's birthday! Anyway, thank you so much for taking part in the blogathon!

  4. I wish I could take credit for the timing, but I never even heard of Barbara Windsor until a few weeks ago!

    Thanks for having me.

  5. Matron take them away!!! LOL I've often wondered what the Americans would make of the Carry On films 😉

    Kenneth Williams is now considered one of the foremost gay icons of the 20th century in the U.K. An extremely complex individual, his diaries outline his struggles with his sexuality pre-decriminalisation in 1967. The diaries is one of the best books I've ever read, very emotional and actually brought more respect and love to Kenneth Williams in death. They have never been out of print in the U.K. and I heartily recommend you give them a read. They're also full of hilarious and bitchy showbiz gossip!

  6. That's interesting. Thanks.

    It occurs to me Carry On is considered a franchise, but it's connected only by a handful of actors and a title, which is quite unusual.

  7. As Terence said, these are not really the best of British comedy, but they are fun in their own way. Part of the appeal is that everyone knows the jokes are ancient and the puns mostly terrible.

    The three you watched come as the series was in decline. Camping is a fairly popular one, but even Carry On fans usually disown Columbus. The series was probably at its best in the mid-1960s when it went through a phase of historical/film genre spoofs (Cleopatra, Beau Geste, Hammer Horror, Scarlet Pimpernel, etc).

    There's always someone claiming they're going to bring them back, but they never do because they're just too old fashioned and the main appeal was always the actors. Williams, James, Hawtrey, Sims, Jacques, etc were all much better than the material they were given and without them there's really no point.

  8. I would imagine a successful revival would hinge heavily on the writing, because like I said, beyond those actors, nothing really connects these movies other than a vaguely-defined spirit that was a direct result of the times in which they were made - and times, needless to say, have changed.


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