Sunday, 5 April 2015

Comedy Spotlight - Carry On....

The "Carry On.." series comprised of 31 feature films, a TV series and a number of stage productions that were immensely popular in the UK starting from the late 1950s up until the late 1970s.

Everyone, and I mean everyone, who has lived in the UK since the beginning of the 1960s will have seen at least one of the Carry On films. In more recent years the films seem to have become a staple of bank holiday and weekend schedule fillers for the ITV network, although the BBC has shown some of them at some point.

Once regarded as the epitome of home grown British comedy offerings, recent years have seen the Carry On films being regarded somewhat unfavourably amongst critics, although it must be said that most of the complaints about the films seem to stem from criticism of the franchises later entries, which mainly favoured jokes based on bodily functions, sexual innuendo and objectification of women, as well as some elements of absurdest humour.

I, like most people of my age, first discovered the Carry on films via television, as the final film in the original series "Carry On Emmanuel" was released in 1978, a full two years before I was born, and the attempted reboot in the form of "Carry On Columbus" was released when I was 12, and being as it had a 15 Certificate, I was not able to watch it until it was released on video.

I have to say that my opinion of these films has changed somewhat over the years. When I was younger, I found the films to be somewhat hilarious due to their cheeky and titillating nature, however as I have gotten older, their constant repeats on TV has hammered home the fact that the films are a relic of a bygone age, and now many of the jokes in them are extremely dated,  and with many of the films bordering on being little more than poorly written soft core porn films.

For what they are, they represent a series of cheaply produced comedy films hailing from an era where cinema was still a strong entertainment medium and required film studios to come up with large amounts of commercial output for profit. As Television began to overshadow cinema, the quality of production on the films was noticeably much lower, and the films format changed in order to continue attracting adult audiences, with varying degrees of success.

Most of the films' humour comes from them pretty much being a feature length "sitcom" style format, characters are introduced, along with their foibles, fun is poked at them, stuff happens, there is a happy ending.
Some films produced in the mid 60s also attempted to parody popular film styles of the day, Carry On Spying lampooned the numerous spy films of the 60s, while Carry On Cleo mocked big budget historical epics, however they never really strayed from the tried and tested "sitcom" format.
The films also drew heavily from the vaudeville theatre circuit, and featured many stock characters familiar to theatre audiences such as the nagging wife and her henpecked husband, the dirty old man, the naive young promiscuous woman etc.

The films themselves can be broadly categorised into four "eras"...

1958- early 1963 - The "Family Entertainment" Era.
Films made in this era - Sergeant, Nurse, Teacher, Constable, Regardless, Cruising, Cabby

In the 1950s, television had yet to supplant radio and cinema as the preferred entertainment medium of the masses. So, as it stood, on a night time or on weekends, whole families would make their way to cinemas expecting to receive several hours of entertainment for the cost of only a few shillings. This, coupled with the decline of the theatre, meant that film companies were struggling firstly to produce material to fulfill audience expectations, and secondly to make material that would reap a reasonable return on their investments.
The 1950s saw an explosion of the so called "B-movie" genre, which more often than not would end up being a cheaply produced bit of filler produced in order to provide an afternoons entertainment to mainly working class families. As these films were cheaply made, they more often than not featured very simple and unchallenging plot lines on subjects that the audience could relate to. Westerns, sci-fi, war films and dramas were all made that fit in this category, however it wasn't until 1958 that producer Peter Rogers and director Gerald Thomas who had already worked together extensively on other films, teamed up to produce the first film in the Carry on series, "Carry On Sergeant". This first film set the format for nearly all the films that followed, as it cast B-list (ie, cheap) comedy performers into roles and made use of their talents by having them act in material that was relatable, in this case, young men doing national service and all the pitfalls and problems that came along with doing the two year mandatory military service required by the state at the time.
It also set the standard for writing for the remainder of the series, in which the producers assembled a large team of gag writers and required them to quickly churn out scripts that could be made on a modest budget and be entertaining without being too corny. Using this format, it enabled at least two films to be written and shot in a year, ensuring that audiences would have something to watch and the producers would be able to quickly sell their films to distributors.
The film was a great success and was soon followed up with Carry On Nurse, which was themed around the goings off behind closed doors in a hospital. Again, this film was successful as it managed to balance light entertainment style comedy with a romance story.
The successes kept coming in the form of  "Teacher" and "Constable", however the next film in the franchise, "Regardless", marked a change in the format.
"Carry On Regardless" departed from the usual sitcom style in favour of a series of related sketch comedy set pieces, centering on people who worked for an employment agency. The film itself ended up being successful, although as it didn't follow anything resembling a set plot line, much of it ended up on the cutting room floor for timing reasons.
The next film in the series "Cruising", was the first film to be made in colour, and returned to the traditional sitcom format, following the misadventures of two young women who go on a Mediterranean cruise looking for a change in lifestyle and also looking for love.
The final film in this era was "Carry On Cabby", which returned to being filmed in black and white, as the previous film had many cost over runs due to the expensive colour film it used. "Cabby" was a simple story about the owner of a taxi firm who neglects his wife and then ends up having to compete with a rival taxi firm who enjoys much success due to the fact that it only employs attractive women as drivers. It was at this point that the "light entertainment" style humour began taking a back seat to more adult oriented humour....

Late 1963 - early 1966 - The "Parody" Era.

Films made in this era - Jack, Spying, Cleo, Cowboy, Screaming

The final five films made in co-operation with Anglo-Amalgamated distribution ltd saw the carry on team depart from their usual send ups of every day life, and instead turn to lampooning popular film types of the era. "Jack" was a parody of period adventure films, "Spying" lampooned the various cold war spy thrillers of the 60s, "Cleo" had a pop at historical epics, "Cowboy" took on the Western genre and finally "Screaming" was an OTT pop at the various gothic horror films that were being pumped out by companies such as Hammer.
It was round about this time that the series' humour started to become much more "bawdy" in nature, becoming very reliant upon double entendres, innuendo and visual gags , losing a lot of its wit in favour of knob/fart jokes and thinly veilled sexual puns, that said, the films still remained popular in the UK, particularly amongst the working classes who had yet to purchase a television set.

Late 1966 - 1968 - The "Middling" Era.

Films made in this era - Dont lose your head, Follow that Camel, Doctor, Up the Khyber

 1966 saw a few changes, first and foremost, Anglo-Amalgamated decided that they no longer wished to pay towards the production or distribution of the Carry on films, mainly due to financial problems but also due to falling cinema audience numbers, but even more so because the new chairman of the board at Anglo-Amalgamated, Nat Cohen, disliked the Carry On films with a passion, and ordered them to be dropped.
With more and more family entertainment coming courtesy of the now much more affordable Television set, cinema began to fall out of favour amongst the film series core audience, so a rethink in format was required.
Having enjoyed some success with switching to a more adult oriented gag format, it was decided that the Carry On films would be aimed squarely at teenage/young adult audiences, thus allowing for more dirty jokes, sexual innuendo and so on.
As Anglo-Amalgamated had stopped distributing the films, a deal was struck with the rank organisation, which aimed to increase viewing figures by going for international distribution, however this came with a price. The first two films in the series dropped the "Carry On..." moniker altogether, as it as felt it would not mean anything to American audiences, plus it was also a moniker associated with Anglo-Amalgamated, who were one of Ranks biggest competitors.
"Follow that Camel" aimed to increase American viewers by including actor Phil Silvers in the cast, and he replaced a role intended for Sid James, who at the time was recovering from a heart attack.
"Don't lose your head" and "Follow that Camel" failed to engage American audiences, who simply didn't get the pun and innuendo laden humour, and they also performed rather poorly at the British box office, as people simply didn't know they were carry on films.
The next film in the series, "Doctor" saw the reinstatement of the "Carry On.." title, but was intended by Peter Rogers to be the last film made in the series. Unfortunately for him though, the film was a runaway success, so less than a year later, the cast was brought back in "Up The Khyber", which again was a runaway success.
By this time though, the films were starting to become laden with not only innuendo, double entendres and other lowbrow humour, they were also starting to show more and more semi-nudity, usually in the form of a scantily clad Barbera Windsor....things began to go downhill...

1969 - 1978 - The "Adult Comedy" Era

Films made in this era - Camping, Again Doctor, Up the Jungle, Loving, Henry, At your Convenience, Matron, Abroad, Girls, Dick, Behind, England, Thats Carry On!, Emmanuelle

The beginning of the 70s saw the film series hitting its lowest ebb.
On the one hand, the films were still enjoying a moderate amount of success at the box office, however on the other, critics of the carry on films had begun to notice the lower quality of the material, and the shoestring budgets the films were being made on.
The first film of this era "Camping", is probably the best known of the entire film series, not because it was a laugh a minute comedy fest, but simply because it was in this film that contains the infamous scene in which Barbera Windsors bra flies off, briefly exposing her breasts, other than that, the film is a simple low quality comedy about two men who are desperately trying to get their girlfriends to engage in sexual intercourse with them, but failing due to the girlfriends mothers. Sid James plays Sid Boggle, a role obviously intended for a much younger man. also, the film, which was supposed to show people on a camping holiday, was shot in winter, so most of the time the field that doubled as the camp site was swimming with mud and rainwater, and it was freezing cold...the cast weren't too impressed.
The films went on, producing more tired old gags, mostly revolving around sexually frustrated men in some fashion, however with the making of "At your Convienence", the "Carry On.." team dropped a massive bollock.
The mid 70s saw the beginnings of a few changes in British society. First and foremost, trade unions began to become an increasingly powerful force amongst the working classes, so, when "At your Convenience" decided to portray trade union members as lazy and dimwitted, the films core audience was none too impressed, leading to calls to boycott the film.
The producers quickly churned out "Matron" as a way of trying to gloss over the hideous insult they had just laid at the doorstep of their core viewership, returning to poking fun at the middle classes and the NHS, "Carry On Abroad" saw them poking fun at silly foreign people and ex-pats, who by the 70s had begin to flock to live overseas to escape the rapidly declining social conditions in the UK.
Another bollock was dropped when the film "Carry on Girls" mocked the concept of beauty pageants, but instead ended up insulting feminists and equal rights campaigners by basically being an excuse to have a film which spends most of its time having old and ugly men ogling scantily clad young women.

In 1972, it was decided to see if the concept of the films could be transferred to television, mainly as a way of breathing life back into the franchise but also as a way of getting some viewers back who had deserted the cinema. The series, entitled "Carry On Laughing" ran for 12 half hour episodes and starred many of the Carry On.. regulars in some form or another. Each episode would be in a different setting and would attempt to make fun of whatever time period or setting it was in, however due to the strict censorship requirements of TV, the crude gags were scaled back in favour of slapstick and carefully crafted double wasn't a success, especially when held up against other sitcoms of the time, all of which had been specially crafted for TV by experienced writers used to working in the genre.

1974 saw the departure of many of the gag writers who had been with the series since the beginning, one of whom, Talbot Rothwell, actually suffered a nervous breakdown as the pressure to write more and more gags got too much for him.
1975s entry in the series "Behind" attempted to recapture some of the popularity of "Camping" by having the film based around a holiday camp type theme, again, it ended up being a dismal failure.

"Carry on England" followed in 1976, and pretty much abandoned the concept of "comedy" in favour of being little more than a soft core porn film, with numerous scenes of gratuitous female nudity throughout and with a young Patrick Mower playing a role intended for the recently deceased Sid James. The film was based on an unfilmed script left over from "Carry on Laughing" and featured hardly any of the usual Carry On regulars.

"That's Carry On!.." came along in 1977 and ended up being the final nail in the coffin for the Carry On.. series, as it was little more than a feature length clip show, with links done by Babs and Kenneth Williams, with all the jokes in those bits revolving around Kenneths urgent need to urinate, which he finally manages at the end of the film by pissing up a door.
Peter Rogers finally called it a day and decided that was enough and it was time to put the series to rest...but then one year later, a private investment company offered him £349,000 to make a film capitalising on the success of soft core comedy porn films such as the "Confessions of..." series, the end product of this venture being the truly awful "Carry on Emmanuelle", which manages to fail spectacularly as a comedy film by not being in any way funny, and fails as a soft core porn film as, oddly, there is no nudity on screen whatsoever, instead, the film rehashes numerous old double entendres and crude puns and reduces all of the Carry On regulars to being B characters, although it could be argued that this was a good thing being as that by now, most of those still featuring in the Carry On.. films were all somewhat old.

"Emmanuelle" was the last film in the series, although "Carry on Columbus" came along in 1992 and featured many alternative comedians as well as some who had appeared in the original films. The film wasn't terribly well received and since then numerous attempts to reboot the Carry On.. series have all ended in failure.

The Carry On.. series as a whole offers a window into the changes that occurred in British society over the course of nearly 30 years, but whereas they started off as being quite well written genuinely funny comedies, they soon devolved into little more than offensive smut.

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