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, Wilfred 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 working-class 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. No woman ever remains unmarried voluntarily.” Elsewhere, he notes that “the Suffragette, one of the big jokes of the pre-1914 period, has reappeared, unchanged, as the Feminist lecturer” – which can’t help but remind some of us of Augusta Prodworthy (June Whitfield) whose Operation Killjoy wrecks the beauty contest at Furcombe in Carry On Girls.
Orwell’s central argument, though, is that McGill’s postcards essentially undermine all attempts at human grandeur. What might seem merely an obsession with bodily functions actually represents “the voice of the belly protesting against the soul”. They also blow “a chorus of raspberries” on behalf of “the millions of common men to whom the high sentiments” aimed at them by politicians and social reformers “make no appeal.”
In the case of the Carry Ons, the targets for such grandeur-undermining raspberries are especially wide-ranging. The first few films systematically took on all the institutions designed to control Britain’s citizens, from National Service (Carry On Sergeant) to the police (Carry On Constable). After that, as the series headed into its Sixties Golden Age, more or less everything was fair game – including the British Empire (Carry On up the Khyber), the British Navy (Carry On Jack) and the heroes of antiquity (Carry On Cleo, where Mark Antony, Julius Caesar and Cleopatra become “Tony”, “Julie” and “that bird who rules Egypt”). As for the grandeur of religion, Carry On up the Khyber has a celebrated raspberry for that too – The Khasi: “May the radiance of the god Shivoo light up your life.” Sir Sidney Ruff-Diamond: “And up yours.”
Even the way the films were made could be said to have blown a raspberry at the supposed grandeur of cinema itself, with the strict six-week shoots enabling the same producer/director team of Peter Rogers and Gerald Thomas to knock out 30 titles in 20 years – before the ill-advised coda of Carry On Columbus in 1992. Nor, needless to say, is the sex ever of a solemn Lawrentian kind. After all, no male character in Lawrence ever makes love in the approved Carry On way – by saying “Phwoar!” and taking a running jump, fully-clothed, to join his partner on a bed which then collapses. Furthermore, as Orwell also spotted, “The McGill postcard is not intended as pornography but, a subtler thing, as a skit on pornography.”
Orwell’s essay may even hold the key as well to the much-debated question of why the Carry On films declined so markedly in the 1970s. Various, largely true theories have been advanced for this: that they were eclipsed by the more explicit Confessions films – co-starring, let’s not forget, Cherie Blair’s dad as Sidney Noggett; that Sid James finally began to look too old to be chasing young women; that the later films were rubbish. Yet, surely the main reason is that by then the whole Carry On world existed in a vacuum. “All societies,” wrote Orwell innocently, “have to insist on a fairly high standard of sexual morality.” In that context, “a dirty joke is not, of course, a serious attack upon morality, but it is a sort of mental rebellion, a momentary wish that things were otherwise.” Once things had actually become otherwise, no such rebellion was necessary and the Carry On jokes were left looking not so much unfunny as entirely pointless.
James Walton is a contributing editor to the Reader’s Digest. He was previously the television critic for the Daily Telegraph and has been the writer and presenter of BBC Radio 4’s books quiz, The Write Stuff since 1998. His books include The Faber Book of Smoking and Sonnets, Bonnets and Bennetts: A Literary Quiz Book.