Carry Ons: Phwoar! What a lovely set of hits

Grim, funny glimpses of a Britain in decline

In Praise of Sacred Cows

This article is taken from the November 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

In Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, it is decreed by the contrarian history master, Irwin, that “if George Orwell had lived, nothing is more certain than that he would have written   an essay on the Carry On films”. 

We are invited to take Irwin’s instructions that the Carry On films represent a valuable insight into British social history with suitable detachment. (The precise, suitably pompous quote is that “while they have no intrinsic merit, they acquire some of the permanence of art simply by persisting, and acquire an incremental significance if only as social history”.) 

Yet Irwin (or Bennett) was almost certainly right that, had Orwell survived into the Sixties and Seventies, he would have found the Carry On film series both repellent and fascinating. It is literature’s, and history’s, loss that we do not have an account of Orwell’s thoughts on the antics of Charles Hawtrey, Kenneth Williams, Barbara Windsor et al. 

In 1941, Orwell wrote of postcards by the cheerfully lowbrow artist Donald McGill that “your first impression is one of overpowering vulgarity” and that “what you are really looking at is something as traditional as Greek tragedy, a sort of sub-world of smacked bottoms and scrawny mothers-in-law which is a part of Western European consciousness”. He goes on to say that “jokes barely different from McGill’s could casually be uttered between the murders in Shakespeare’s tragedies”. 

Two decades later, almost exactly the same thing could be said of the Carry On films, which began in 1958 with the William Hartnell and Bob Monkhouse vehicle Carry On Sergeant and continued until 1978, with the lamentable sex farce Carry On Emmanuelle; the series was resurrected, poorly, in 1992 with Carry On Columbus, supposedly because Emmanuelle was thought to be so bad that it was a low note for a once-beloved franchise to end on. 

The Carry On films are somewhere between unexceptional and weak

Judged by any conventional cinematic standards, the Carry On films are somewhere between unexceptional and weak. The director, Gerald Thomas, never once shows anything like flair in his staging or general mise-en-scène of the action, and the scripts — generally written by Talbot Rothwell, with some of the earlier ones courtesy of Norman Hudis — alternate between lowbrow smut, genuine wit and tired filler, seemingly designed so that all the regular actors can come on   and do their bit. 

For every deathless and quotable line (“Infamy, infamy … they’ve all got it in for me!”; “I’m a simple woman with simple tastes! I want to be wooed!” “You can be as wooed as you want with me!”) there are at least a dozen that don’t land, or feel strained even as the actors deliver it. 

Several of the films are unwatchably poor. And, at their worst — especially in their Seventies decline — there is something genuinely depressing about the world depicted, where the actors are clearly miserable and hackneyed jokes about choppers cannot make up for an evocation of a Britain in deep decline, where the clowning cannot conceal the desperation underneath. Beckett, one feels, would have loved the late Carry On films, even though few others did. 

But stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before. It is easy to attack the Carry On series for its penny-pinching, its lack of ambition or vision, and the repetitive nature of its jokes. But this is to ignore the astonishing breadth of comic talent that the films featured. 

Of the central troupe of Williams, Windsor, Hawtrey, Joan Sims and Hattie Jacques, with regular guest appearances by Bernard Bresslaw, Jim Dale, Kenneth Connor and Peter Butterworth, it is surely the finest array of comic thespian talent regularly assembled in the twentieth century. 

The ensemble was as finely honed as the Hallé; whether it’s James’s creaky bassoon, Hawtrey’s tremulous oboe or Williams’s acidic first violin (“fiddle” would be too obvious a joke), the Carry On cast worked beautifully together — despite apparently loathing one another off set, if Williams’s splenetic diaries are to be believed — and, when on song, elevated the often indifferent material to the level of art. 

At its best, the Carry On series fits within a tradition of English humour that has, in our offence-conscious age, been marginalised, if not ignored altogether. 

Characters such as Sidney Fiddler, Gladstone Screwer and Sir Sydney Ruff-Diamond have their origins in the bawdy and cheerily incorrect humour of Chaucer, Ben Jonson and Fielding — if not quite Shakespeare — and, at their best, Rothwell’s scripts even summon up the earthier moments of Dickens, in their creation of indelible comic characters. 

It is not too much of a stretch to imagine Martin Chuzzlewit’s Mrs Gamp appearing, essentially unaltered, in one of the Carry On films, probably played by Joan Sims, just as it is relatively easy to imagine Hawtrey portraying a superannuated Herbert Pocket from Great Expectations, or James giving his finest Sergeant Buzfuz from The Pickwick Papers. 

The joy of watching the Carry On films, then, is twofold. On the one hand, the hackneyed stories, two-dimensional characterisation and laboured puns and innuendo can be enjoyable, on a purely basic level, but hardly threaten to aspire to the levels of great art. 

Yet on the other, the cheerfully Rabelaisian sentiments of the pictures — in which all men and women are defined purely in sexual and scatological terms — exist on a level of reductio ad absurdum. 

The best Carry On films contain a vein of social satire

It is no coincidence that the best Carry On films contain a vein of social satire in their mocking of great British institutions, whether it be the NHS, MI5, the army or the Raj, and the final set piece of Carry On Up The Khyber — in which the stiff-upper-lip British occupiers ignore the Afghan invaders while taking formal dinner in black tie — rises to a level of surrealist genius that would have made Buñuel proud. 

There is occasional talk of making another Carry On film, but with all the principal cast (save the ever-sprightly Dale) now dead and with the world a very different place, it is impossible to imagine that we will ever see, say, Carry On Tweeting or the like. 

There is every possibility that a really top-notch cast could be assembled, if there was any serious intent behind it — I would love to see Andrew Scott, for instance, offer a more dynamic take on the kind of roles that Williams essayed, because he would do so brilliantly, and if the script could be written by the award-winning likes of Patrick Marber or Richard Bean, it could be a thing of innuendo-heavy beauty. 

But then the Carry On series never was a thing of beauty. In its grim and hilarious way, it took every British national stereotype, pulled its trousers down, and gave it a hearty slap on its bare buttocks. Some might find this offensive; others might mourn its loss from public life. 

In either case, we shall not look upon its like again. Dr Nookey, Francis Bigger, Professor Inigo Tinkle, Vic Flange: your services are no longer required. To which unkind cut we must solemnly say: “Ooh, matron.”

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