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More than just a Carry On?

Carry On cast
Good for laughs, but also for social comment?

Carolyn Quinn
Caricatured as low-brow and smutty, Carry On films were never much rated by movie critics. But do they tell us something more profound about the huge social changes in post-war Britain? The BBC's Carolyn Quinn (right) thinks so.

A few weeks ago on her Sunday morning radio programme, Gabby Logan made an unintentionally saucy comment and referred to having had a "Carry On moment". Without further explanation you know exactly what she meant.

Almost everyone has seen at least one of the films. Most people have a favourite Carry On scene or cringe-making pun.

FIND OUT MORE...
Archive Hour: Carry On Britain is on Radio 4 on Saturday, 26 JULY at 2000 BST
Or listen to it later on the BBC iPlayer

The very first Carry On film - Sergeant - came out 50 years ago this August and its appearance spawned a series of 30 over the next two decades. I decided to put in an idea to make a documentary marking the golden anniversary - not the sort that had been made many times before, focusing on the saucy lines and, at times, the desperately sad story of the troupe of actors who became such familiar faces to us all.

Instead, I wanted to examine the amazing social changes society underwent over the 20 years during which Sid James, Charles Hawtrey, Joan Sims, Barbara Windsor and the rest were Carrying On.

Think about it. When Carry on Sergeant, a low budget black and white movie came out in 1958, National Service - the core of its plot - still had a couple of years to run in Britain.

AUDIO SLIDESHOW
Carry On Constable

By the time the last film of the main series, Carry on Emmannuelle, was released in 1978, life was very different - the permissive age was in full swing and the post-war era of deference had gone, replaced by the desire to escape the duties and limitations that most of those living in the 40s, 50s and some of the 60s accepted as part of their "lot" in life.

From 1958 to 1978 the Carry On films held up a mirror to British society, its institutions and its rapid changes. National Service ended, the National Health Service expanded rapidly, the sexual revolution arrived, the country faced bouts of industrial strife and working-class families started to holiday abroad.

'Proto-feminist'

Amid the slapstick, the innuendo and the corny puns, the Carry Ons reflected all of this. Derided by highbrow critics, it is only recently that social commentators have come to appreciate them for the unvarnished portrait they paint of a nation in flux.

Take Carry on Cabby (1963) for tentative stirrings of feminism as Hattie Jacques sets up an all-female taxi firm to rival that of husband Sid.

In the words of Daily Telegraph columnist Simon Heffer, Cabbie is "certainly what Germaine Greer would call a proto-feminist film".

By the time of Carry on Girls, 10 years later, bra-burning feminists disrupt a beauty contest in the seaside town of Fircombe.

While the humour may have been upfront, any social commentary was more subtly conveyed, says Andy Medhurst, lecturer in film, media and cultural studies at Sussex University.

"They weren't films that set out to have an explicit social message but in a paradoxical kind of way that gives them more meaning," says Mr Medhurst. "They capture the way people living humdrum lives with limited horizons found a release in comedy. They seem to encapsulate an everyday life in Britain of that time."

Earnest people

Indeed, the makers of the Carry Ons had no serious ambition for them other than as easy entertainment in the best music hall tradition. The man behind the scripts for the first six Carry Ons, Norman Hudis, had no idea he was being "significant". Now in his 80s, and living in America, he recalls he was simply reflecting life at the time.

From the patients' point of view, you can see the Carry Ons are a bit of a rebellion against that idea
Former nurse Julia Hallam

"For the most part," says Hudis, "it was earnest people in circumstances where they were being tried or pushed to the limit, almost giving in but eventually coming through and doing what they were supposed to do and doing it well."

For Simon Heffer, these early Carry Ons reflect a "sense of social cohesion which was really important before an age when individualism became as highly prized as it is now".

"I think that was the predominant sociological current and the films very accurately reflect that."

Where Hudis drew on his own wartime service for Carry On Sergeant, he also plundered his wife Rita's memory for Nurse. She had been a state-registered nurse and provided him with many a juicy story of life on the wards.

Yet again, there was more to 1959's Nurse than the saucy one-liners.

Former nurse Julia Hallam, now a film lecturer at Liverpool University, says Nurse provides a patients' eye insight into what was really going on in hospitals.

Sexy stereotype

"One of the things that you can think of them as representing is the first wave of consumer critique of the health service, particularly in the hospitals which were very authoritarian.

Barbara Windsor
Barbara Windsor - no friend of the nursing profession

"Patients often felt too terrified to ask questions of people. They felt hospital was a very demeaning process and robbed you of your identity. From the patients' point of view, you can see the Carry Ons are a bit of a rebellion against that idea."

In 1959's Nurse, the NHS seemed novel and egalitarian. The nurses were cool and professional - and the patients fell in love with them.

By Carry On Doctor, eight years later, Barbara Windsor had introduced the saucy nurse to the nation - much to the chagrin of the Royal College of Nursing, which was horrified by the portrayal of the "sexy nurse" and fought the image for years, says Ms Hallam.

All across the Carry On canon, the rich entertainment was suffused with broader sociological comment.

Soft porn

From Teacher (1959) which seized on the ethics of corporal punishment in schools - eventually outlawed in 1986 - and the strains between traditional and progressive teaching methods, to 1971's Carry On at Your Convenience, with its undercurrents of industrial unrest.

That was the year a new Industrial Relations Act was passed, aimed at cutting numbers of unofficial strikes; the previous 12 months had been the worst in terms of days lost in industrial disputes since 1926.

Yet by the mid-70s Carry Ons' knack of feeling the pulse of British mass entertainment was fading.

By 1978 and Carry on Emmannuelle - in which the eponymous "heroine" manages to step outside a lot without her clothes - the Carry Ons were dying. Soft porn was readily available in British cinemas in the form of the raunchier Confessions films and even the original Emmanuelle.

The time for nudge-nudge-wink-wink, innuendo-laden comedy had passed. Somehow the Carry Ons seemed old-fashioned and naive.

But as the decades have passed, the pendulum has swung back, allowing us to view the Carry Ons with affection. Even if you think they are corny/cheesy/horribly dated you may at least appreciate them for their nostalgia value and their reminder of more innocent times.


Below is a selection of your comments.

In several ways, the Carry On genre seemed to me to continue and build upon the 1950s' Doctor series of films with James Robertson Justice, Joan Sims, Dirk Bogarde, Donald Sinden et al. All jolly good fun and, only with hindsight, a cutting social commentary!
Hugh O'Neill, Chichester

I have always rather fondly viewed the Carry On films as the cinematographic equivalent of the good old British saucy postcard. They were great fun and entirely harmless.
Roving Minstrel, Malvern

The Carry On films have long been a part of my entertainment life. The mad humour, double meaning jokes, the classic "Infamy! Infamy! They've all got it in for me!" from Cleo, all reveal the British sense of humour. The saucy roles played by Barbara Windsor, Sid's dirty old man characters and everyone are as fresh today as when new. Yes, they may have been a means of highlighting the social changes of the time, but they also allowed us to laugh at ourselves a lot. Long may they reign.
Peter Hodge, Skelmersdale

I went to watch Carry On Sargeant when it first came to the cinemas, and have seen all the rest - also often when first released - and I was always conscious that although they were ostensibly from a working class perspective, they were always embarrasingly "Daily Mail" - in other words staid and reactionary. Carry on Camping with its herding of hippies and Carry On At Your Convenience with its deriding of unions being two good examples among many. But I am an avid - almost fanatical - fan of Carry-Ons though!
Steve Clark, March

My favourite, "Carry On up the Khyber" is certainly a double-edged sword. On one hand a creasingly funny patriotic english farce somewhere up there with Dad's Army, on the other a subtle yet incisive anti-war statement. A classic.
Steve, Ripon

The thing about the Carry On genre is that they are an explicitly British style of film making. They were made by an British cast with British money and for an British audience, with no thought that they might have an appeal beyond these shores. That is quite refreshing in this day and age when every British director has an eye on Hollywood, when even nominally British films have yanks in them to appeal to the international market, when remakes are unceremoniously (and often clumsily) transplanted to American locations and any Brit employed in an American film is guaranteed to be the bad guy. Carry Ons were simple, silly and fun. They have not presumptions to art, no expectation of longevity and no claim to be important. They were simply what they were, an affectionate sideways look at Britain, and all the eccentricities and quirks that make us who we are.
Tony Nicholls, Swindon

Carry On films at their best are the great British pantomine: you have to be British to understand the unique sense of humour contained in the innuendo and slapstick - perhaps the Government should use them to determine who is eligible for citizenship!
Tim Fox, Beckenham

I think perhaps you are giving the Carry On movies more credence (and exposure) then they actually deserve. They were intended to be comedy and nothing more, I don’t believe the audience will see past the corny, cheesy innuendo laden comedy when watching these films, and why should they, that would defeat the point of consuming the Carry Ons in the first place. Only academics who have a genuine interest in film history and theory would bother reading into and discussing such things, and those interested in resurrecting the dead to speculate about what its hidden nature might have been. There are much better examples of film from the 1950s to the present that demonstrate social change in Britain. Carry On movies are well past their sell by date. Nostalgia is good innovation and originality is better!
John Cain

The Carry On films do exactly what is said on the tin. They are not meant to be high-brow or thought provoking, just good honest easy-to-watch fun. Out dated, perhaps, but who doesn't enjoy watching stuff from thier past. It's like your favourite cardigan.
Francis Pitts, Pocklington

I sometimes wonder whether Carry On nostalgists have actually seen any of the films. Watching them 30 or 50 years later, I find many of them tacky, slow and unfunny - Carry on Sergeant is especially dire. Only a handful of them, such as Cleo and Doctor, have the wit, zip and budget to raise a laugh.
Martin Platt, London

I attended a Round The Horne Christmas special and when the man playing Kenneth Williams ad libbed "Infamy, Infamy" and threw his arms in the air the whole audience shouted "They've all got it infamy!" Carry on Cleo I think. Some of the lines have passed into legend, everyone has a favourite.
B J Nicholson, Manchester, England

Film mirrors social change over the course of 20 years. Who would have thought it.
JB, Manchester


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