Magazine article The Spectator

What a Carry On

Magazine article The Spectator

What a Carry On

Article excerpt

Recently, we've been hearing quite a lot about how the winds of revolutionary change blew through Britain in 1968.

Which doesn't really explain why, in 1969, the highest-grossing film at the UK box office wasn't Midnight Cowboy, The Wild Bunch or Easy Rider -- but Carry On Camping. (It didn't get any better for British cinéastes, incidentally: in 1971, the nation's favourite movie was On the Buses. ) Not that the film in question completely ignored the turbulence of the times. Towards the end, you may remember, the presence of hippies on a neighbouring field caused the solid schoolgirl-chasing yeomen of Britain to come together and drive them out.

Then again, perhaps the bit you remember best from Carry On Camping has nothing to do with 1960s' cultural wars at all.

Instead, it may involve the pinging off of Barbara Windsor's bra -- just one of the many Carry On scenes that's become part of our collective national memory, along with such moments as the Brits calmly finishing their dinner under fire in Carry On Up the Khyber, Wilfrid Hyde-White with a daffodil up his bottom in Carry On Nurse and (all together now: ) 'Infamy, infamy, they've all got it in for me' in Carry On Cleo.

But, in a way, that's the trouble with the Carry Ons -- which began 50 years ago this August with the release of Carry On Sergeant. Because we know them so well, we can sometimes forget just how peculiar these films are. In my experience, the best solution for this problem is to watch one or two with any educated Americans of your acquaintance. Only then do you have the sudden revelation that maybe not everybody in the English-speaking world understands the innate hilarity of words like 'it', 'one', 'pair' and 'bullocks'. You also realise afresh what an utterly weird collection of movie stars the films produced.

In most countries, Kenneth Williams would surely be the campest actor imaginable. Here, he's not even the campest actor visible -- at least not when Charles Hawtrey's around. Then there's the fact that the romantic lead is often played by Sid James, a battered-looking Jewish bloke in his fifties whose past life -- vigorously hushed up by James himself -- included many years as the finest ladies' hairdresser in Johannesburg.

The acme of female desirability, meanwhile, is represented by Barbara Windsor.

Even so, these were the movies that packed out the cinemas during Britain's years as the swingingest nation on earth.

Of course, in trying to explain their success, it's traditional to point out what a workingclass country Britain was until Mrs Thatcher got her hands on it -- and to stress their seaside-postcard origins. Of course, too, both things are true. In preparation for this piece, I read several academic articles on the Carry Ons -- many of them containing the word 'transgressive'. Nonetheless, the sharpest insight into the films' appeal comes in an essay written 17 years before the first one was made. In The Art of Donald McGill, George Orwell famously paid tribute to the greatest seaside-postcard man of them all.

Yet, if you substitute the words 'Carry On films' for 'McGill postcards', the essay still makes eerily perfect sense.

Here's Orwell, for example, listing some of the conventions of the postcards' jokes about sex: 'Marriage only benefits the woman.

Every man is plotting seduction and every woman is plotting marriage. …

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