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The Carry On Legacy

An analysis of what kept Carry On carrying on

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The series of Carry On films began in 1958, the year that saw the release of the last Ealing comedy. Although it now seems improbable, the first half dozen or so comedies in the series initially came across as a sharper, more brazen continuation of the ethos of those earlier classic films, albeit with smaller budgets and with stories and actors recruited from radio and television.

This new series began with a screen treatment by novelist and playwright R.F. Delderfield entitled The Bull Boys. Its story of a pair of newlyweds having to defer their honeymoon because the groom has to do his National Service languished in the files unmade, until producer Peter Rogers decided it could be turned into a comedy. In partnership with director Gerald Thomas, he set about making a comic look at conscription, using as inspiration the ITV sitcom The Army Game (1957-1961). As scripted by Norman Hudis (after a first draft by John Antrobus), the film took the familiar route of looking at how a disparate and disorganised intake of conscripts are finally whipped into shape by their Sergeant, emphasising the virtues of consensus, team spirit and harmony, themes heavily reminiscent of the postwar comedies popularised by Ealing Studios. Hudis would subsequently return to this theme and structure again and again, moving on from one well-known institution to another. Eventually released as Carry On Sergeant, the film proved unexpectedly popular and led to a follow-up film, Carry On Nurse (1959), that made even more money.

Of course, this was not the only home grown comedy series flourishing at British cinemas. The Doctor series, based on Richard Gordon's bestsellers, was made by Gerald Thomas's brother Ralph and Peter Rogers' wife Betty E. Box, and resulted in seven films released between 1954 and 1970, before successfully switching to television. At the same time, Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliatt were making the St Trinians films based on the Ronald Searle cartoons (five were released between 1954 and 1980). The main difference lies in the fact that unlike these, the Carry On comedies were not a series of sequels based on recurring characters and locations, but distinct comedies made by a small production team featuring a repertory troupe of actors, each one built around a specific theme, but with no connection from one title to the next, barring very occasional in-jokes such as the reference to the daffodil gag from Carry On Nurse in Carry On Doctor (1967).

Norman Hudis left the series after writing the first six films, all of which were markedly gentler and more sentimental than those that followed. The classically trained composer Bruce Montgomery (a.k.a. novelist and critic Edmund Crispin) also departed at this stage, and was replaced by Eric Rogers, who wrote scores that were much more obviously comedic and populist, injecting them with a number of musical jokes, using well-known pieces as counterpoint. Talbot Rothwell took over as screenwriter with Carry On Cabby (1963), which immediately saw a ratcheting up of the sexual politics that helped bring the lecherous persona of Sid James to the forefront of the series. In addition, the humour would get progressively bluer over the years, as would the reliance on sexual innuendo, puns, silly names and film genres as a rich source of inspiration.

After making twelve Carry Ons for Anglo-Amalgamated, in 1966 Rogers moved over to Rank for the remainder, which included some of the most popular films in the series. They peaked commercially with Carry On... Up the Khyber (1968) and Carry On Camping (1969), although the series continued to attract large, predominantly working-class audiences for several years. A notable flop was Carry On at your Convenience (1971), which made fun of trade unions and thus alienated its core viewer base. The series' last real commercial success was Carry On Dick (1974), which was also the last to feature series mainstays Sid James, Barbara Windsor and Hattie Jacques and the last to be written by Talbot Rothwell, who retired due to ill health.

The following year, the Carry On series was more visible than ever, with the transmission of two series of the ITV spin-off Carry On Laughing and the end of the extraordinarily successful 18-month run of Carry On London at the Victoria Palace Theatre in London. That year's new film was a remake of Camping entitled Carry On Behind (1975), with Elke Sommer drafted in to appeal to a more international audience. Subsequently the level of nudity was increased to try and compete with continental imports, as well as the popular British-made Confessions and Adventures series, but to no avail. The series proper ended with Carry On Emmannuelle (1978), made for Hemdale after Rogers left Rank, which sums up these attempts at keeping up with the times. However it actually did less well than the compilation film That's Carry On (1978), for which Barbara Windsor had returned to shoot one day's worth of linking sequences with series stalwart Kenneth Williams.

In total 30 films (including the compilation film) were released between 1958 and 1978. To this one should add five television specials made between 1969 and 1973 and the thirteen episodes of the two Carry On Laughing series, which featured such regulars as Sid James, Barbara Windsor, Kenneth Connor and Joan Sims.

Always produced on the tightest of budgets, the films' continuing popularity can be ascribed to a number of factors. While much of the credit must go to the cast, the films, in their simplicity and an essential coyness about love and sex, can also exhibit a liberating sense of directness and immediacy of effect, combined with ancient music hall routines served up at an often frantic pace. Another feature is their topicality, which was partly the result of the reduced shooting schedules (usually six weeks) and a production turnaround that saw the films go in to the cinemas often only 10 weeks after the end of principal photography.

In 'The Art of Donald McGill', his classic 1942 study of the saucy seaside postcard, George Orwell mounts a devastating critique of their sexism and lavatorial humour. However, he concludes with the plea: "I for one should be sorry to see them vanish". The Carry On series has remained popular through video and DVD re-releases, compilation programmes and constant TV repeats, although this unfortunately tends to privilege the later colour films at the expense of some of the best of the early black and white entries like Cabby and Spying. In 1992 Carry On Columbus proved to be a belated and commercially unsuccessful attempt to extend the series, although in 2003 Rogers announced production of Carry On London, which would make it the thirty-second in the series.

Sergio Angelini

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