Mention the Carry On films anywhere in British culture and it instantly brings up a series of thoughts. Thoughts of sexual innuendo and daft tales of working class people. Or farcical historical epics and a series of films that hasn’t really stood the test of time.
Consisting of 31 features between 1958 and 1992 (plus some T.V. specials and plays), the series turned into something of a British institution and remain popular in many circles to this day. Were they any good though? The general consensus, even amongst the fans, is that no, they weren’t. Likeable and fun, but also bawdy, sexist and dated are just some of the words that are associated with them and they don’t adorn many, if any, ‘Best of’ lists.
It is however somewhat harsh to tarnish all the films in the series with the same brush. At one end you have the truly awful late entries into the series. Carry On Columbus (1992) was an attempt to revive the films in the earl 90’s and should serve as a warning to anyone who thinks making a new entry into the canon is a good idea. Fourteen years before that was Carry on Emmanuelle (1978), in which the series crossed the line from innuendo into a sex comedy spoof. That came soon after Carry on England (1974) in which there was actual nudity and a play on the word ‘Focker’ that was cut by the BBFC. The film was also a commercial failure as the public’s taste for the series went the same direction as the box office receipts.
At the other end of the scale, there are some subjectively decent comedies. Carry on up the Khyber (1968), may well be the highpoint and works as an odd satire on British rule in India. Carry on Cleo (1964), Carry on Cowboy (1965), Don’t Lose your head (1966) and Follow That Camel (1967) managed to combine some good laughs with a sense of charm and, perhaps by nature of being historically set, have stood the test of time better than the others.
And then there is Carry On Screaming! (1966) (also set in the past, albeit the more recent Edwardian era), a film whom many would consider to be the smart answer to the question ‘What is the best Carry On film?’. A send-up on another British film institution – hammer horror – its storyline is surprisingly macabre and tapped into the popularity of The Addams Family which was first serialised on television around the same time.
Yet there is another aspect of the Carry On franchise that is often overlooked. There were, and remain, a fantastic example of low budget filmmaking. Woody Allen once stated that in making approximately one film a year, he is bound to make at least one good one every now and then and the same rule can be applied here. They were churned out one after another resulting in some good, some bad, some really bad and some merely indifferent films.
The cast and crew worked with what they had. They made a series that travelled from Ancient Rome to the Wild West. And from India to the Sahara desert to an African Jungle…without ever venturing much farther than South East England.
Cast and Budget
The cast were reportedly not paid particularly well, with Carry On stalwart Kenneth Williams once claiming that he was paid more for a television commercial than any of the films. Yet they tended to be ensemble pieces with recognisable recurring actors playing similar roles from one film to the next.
What’s quite remarkable is that every single Carry On filming schedule went to plan. Well, almost. Only one of the films required any additional shooting days as bad weather on the set of Carry on Cowboy required the shoot to go over by just a solitary day. It was hardly Heaven’s Gate (1980), and serves to highlight the efficiency of the filmmaking at hand. They knew what they had, what they were working towards, what they were doing, where, how and when. Was there ever any need for re-shoots? Was there ever any money is perhaps more to the point, and the cast and crew had to work to tight constraints.
The plot of Carry on Camping (1965) saw the regulars meeting up at a camping site in the height of British summer which could present a problem when filming in late October and November, as they so did. Grass was painted green and crucially elements of the plot centred around the fact that the British summertime is rarely dry and warm. Mud and rain could be excused quite easily thanks to a script that utilised the idea of a British weather to help overcome the filmmaking limitations of making a summer set film in the deep mid-winter.
Yet while making a British film set in Britain presented production hurdles which the cast and crew had to overcome, a film set in Ancient Rome proved to be, ironically, less troublesome. After the production of Cleopatra (1963) moved from London to Rome, the sets and costumers were left behind. A filmmaking team that often worked with what was readily available suddenly had at their disposal some lavish production design. They wrote a comic parody of the Hollywood epic. Shot it in 1964 and produced the best-looking film in the series, in glorious technicolour.
An opportunity was presented, and it was grabbed with both hands. Director Gerald Thomas and producer Peter Rogers knew full well that to make such costumes and sets would far exceed any budget they were likely to obtain. They could never get the budget. However they could get the things that they might want to spend the budget on.
Success & Decline
The success of the films in the 1960’s though did mean they were able to branch out from Pinewood and its surrounding areas – just. The beaches of Camber Sands in Sussex served as a double for the Sahara Dessert in Follow That Camel with the audacity of using the English seaside to make a film set in an extremely hot place wherein the heat is actually part of certain plot points and gags. It’s almost an inverse approach to the one utilised in Carry on Camping but it worked.
Perhaps most famously of all, a gate in Snowdonia was a stand-in for the Khyber pass in Carry on up the Khyber. This remains the furthest afield the productions ever ventured and as has been joked, only the Carry On team could get away with using Wales as a mountain pass in Pakistan. Arguably, it adds to the charm.
With both Khyber and Follow That Camel the budgets were slightly increased due to the films being at the height of their popularity, yet the team didn’t venture much further than the series spiritual home of Pinewood Studios.
By the time it came to Carry in Abroad (1972), some of the cast even joked that they hoped the series would be taking them somewhere actually, well, abroad, but the studio backlot at Pinewood was as far as they got – greater Slough actually doubling for Spain.
In Carry on Doctor (1968) Sid James was recovering from an illness but his appearances were important to the series, so they wrote his character to be largely confined to bed for the films duration.
These tails are but a few of the stories that emphasise the smart ingenuity of the filmmakers to work within their means and to time and budget. By staying close to the studio and the sets that had been built there would have been little to no travel time involved from day to day with the cast and crew able to position themselves in a single location for the duration of filming. And they made it look surprisingly convincing.
It was like a production line of films that were churned out one after the other with 30 of the films made in 20 years span. Even the Bond films haven’t got to that total but then they’re big budget, globe-trotting productions that have been be-set with the sort production issues throughout their history that is par for the course. The Carry On films represent that with little money, a formula that is popular with audiences, some creative thinking and efficient filmmaking practices, an entire series can be produced. It’s well established that of the 31 films, many of them are far from classics with the most popular productions starting in 1964 with Cleo and ending six years later with Carry on Up The Jungle.
They were well loved by audiences and were family-friendly too – innuendoes were occasionally cut to get the film a more accessible rating and increase revenue. Throughout the sixties the films were amongst the most popular of the year in terms of box office returns in the UK.
The decline arguably truly began with Carry on At Your Convenience (1971) which mocked the workers unions of the time – many of whom formed a large base of the series core audience.
The jokes became cruder after that as well, especially in Carry on Girls (1973) and then Carry on Dick (1974) which marked the last appearances of many of the key cast.
They were of their time and, like all film series tend to do, went on much longer than they should have done. Some things are best left in the past, even a British institution, as Carry On Columbus proved.
They don’t even resonate as much as the Ealing comedies which they sort of replaced. The likes of The Ladykillers (1955), Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) and Passport to Pimlico (1949) are darker and more satirical films (especially the latter in the recent political climate) that are still held in high regard and pick up new fans to this day. The Carry On series however serve as a symbol to up and coming filmmakers. You might not have money, in fact that is a given, but much can be achieved with creative thinking, working with what is available, writing with the physical production in mind and a well-run, efficient set.
Words: Phil Slatter
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