- Kenneth Williams, Carry On Cleo
They're as British as fish and chips, moaning about the weather and losing at international sports. They hold a special place in the hearts of young and old alike. And of course, they're the most successful series of British films ever made. They're the Carry On... films, and if you don't like them you probably had it whipped out at an early age. Your sense of humour, that is...
The Carry On movies hark back to a time when men were only after one thing ('What's wrong with the other one?!'); when women were wooed ('Oh, you can be as wude as you like with me!'); and when the only response to the exclamation 'Oh, what a lovely looking pear' is to chuckle lasciviously and say 'You took the words right out of my mouth!'
The Carry On... collection consists of 31 films (so far) of admittedly varying quality. Few would describe them as 'great', though if greatness in terms of how memorable they were and how they've made successive generations roar with laughter they should be right up there with the very best that cinema has to offer. Thanks to regular repeat runs on television, they've become an essential part of British film history, like Hammer horror and Alfred Hitchcock, while the jokes themselves have since been absorbed into the routines of pantomime that had also inspired the films in the first place.
The series began in 1958 with Carry On Sergeant, an adaptation of the war stories of RF Delderfield (author of To Serve Them All My Days ). The producer for all 31 films was Peter Rogers who, along with director Gerald Thomas, insisted that the productions were made as economically as possible. This thriftiness extended to casting, with ensemble casts ensuring that no one performer would rise to sole star status - though as it turned out, a few of the stars became indelibly connected to the Carry On series: at 26 appearances, Kenneth Williams was by far the company's most regular star turn, followed by Sid James at 19, Charles Hawtrey with 23 and Joan Sims, whose 24 appearances put her well ahead of Hattie Jacques and Barbara Windsor, who made 14 and 10 respectively.
After their parody of National Service, the team went on to examine the worlds of the National Health Service (four times), the London cabbie and the schoolroom before heading for more exotic subjects like espionage and historical farces set in ancient Egypt, Tudor Britain or revolutionary France.
In 1966, after Rogers took his productions from Anglo Amalgamated to Rank, a decision was made to drop the 'Carry On...' tag from the films. This was why, on initial release, Don't Lose Your Head and Follow That Cameldid not carry the Carry On name. The films were, however, bona fide Carry On adventures.
As the British Film industry soared in the 1960s, so it fell in the 1970s. Both the Hammer Studios and Peter Rogers struggled to keep on churning out their traditional fayre and it's significant that both production houses wrapped their final films within a year of each other and both have subsequently traded on their great history thanks to a wave of nostalgia that now includes collectable DVDs, toys and other novelty items.
It would be untrue to say the Carry On films contained a wide variety of characters that stretched their actors' abilities. Each of them was cast with a specific archetype in mind, and generally each of them stuck to that archetype to the bitter end.
The Snob - Kenneth Williams
From his first appearance in Carry On Sergeant to his last in Carry On Emmannuelle, Kenneth Williams flared his nostrils, over-accentuated his vowels and played the role of sexless aesthete to the hilt. In Sergeant, he was a louche college student; in Cleo a paranoid emperor. But in all of them, he was an extension of the depressive, quick-witted, acid-tongued persona familiar to people across the UK from personal appearances and TV interviews.
The Letch - Leslie Phillips / Sid James
Appearing like the wrinkliest of naughty schoolboys, Sid James' battered face was lit up each time he delivered a blast of his filthy laugh. If he wasn't trying to get 'it' with a nubile young woman, he was trying to avoid 'getting it' from his buxom, middle-aged wife. The unlikeliest of romantic leads, his role in later films changed to the nearest thing the series ever had to a villain. He was by no means the sole lusty gent in the movies - in early films, Leslie Phillips recreated his familiar persona of suave lothario from the equably popular Doctor films from around the same time (Doctor in the House, Doctor at Large...).
The 'Bird' - Joan Sims / Barbara Windsor
The object of the letch's affections, the role of the 'bird' was to lead the letch on until the final reel, at which point she might just give in. As Joan Sims matured, her place as the buxom lady went to other actresses, most often Barbara Windsor, while Sims took on another position entirely...
The Battleaxe - Hattie Jacques / Joan Sims
The matriarchal figure in the films, it was the role of the battleaxe to be the butt of many a cruel verbal jibe while ensuring that the heroes were thwarted in their plans for promiscuity and debauchery. Such characters might be the matron of a ward or 'the wife', but they were essential elements in the overall story.
The Fool - Bernard Bresslaw / Terry Scott / Jack Douglas
'Wahey! Geddoff!' The fool was present so that the plot could be explained to him (and the audience) and to give other characters a break from the humiliation. Bernard Bresslaw played the role throughout the films, trading upon public awareness of his character in the popular TV sitcom The Army Game, but occasionally the role would be taken up by others, notably Jack Douglas, whose contribution to the films consisted mainly of a series of twitches and sudden jerks that would be guaranteed to make him spill his drink or knock things over.
The Lad - Kenneth Connor / Jim Dale
The young, sexually eager young man was a staple element of the films. The plots often revolved around a love affair doomed to be trapped in a state of coitus pre-interruptus, the lovers struggling to find time to consummate their relationships while separated by National Service, illness or disapproving authority figures. The poor Lad was also the character most likely to be involved in slapstick, falling into the water, being catapulted down staircases on trolleys and being covered in gunge. While the position of Lad was filled by many young actors over the years, for many the most familiar of them all was Jim Dale...
Innocent naughtiness personified, the rather dashing Jim Dale is a much-loved figure in Carry On film lore. He often played the love interest and there was always a frisson of sauciness wherever he went. Take for example, in Carry On Again Doctor, he gets to 'examine' Barbara Windsor who is scantily-clad in a sparkly heart-shaped bikini:
So Which Ones Come Out On Top?
Of course, any value judgement about an extensive film series like the Carry On movies is likely to be highly subjective - just as everyone has their favourite James Bond film, so most of the Carry Ons will have their supporters. However, going on the ratings given by ordinary members of the public to each of the films (as seen on the Internet Movie Database), the five most popular 'Carry Ons' are:
- Carry On Up The Khyber
- Carry On Cleo
- Carry On Screaming
- Carry On Don't Lose Your Head
- Carry On Sergeant
... with Carry On Camping coming up close behind in sixth place. Way down at the bottom of the popularity stakes are the final three films, Carry On England, Carry On Emmannuelle, and Carry On Columbus.