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Perfect 10: Carry On Campery — Pride Special

The Carry On films are a strange bundle of affairs – 31 films (the largest number of any British series, surpassing even 007) tapping into old school homophobia, misogyny, and casual racism, to name a few. 

They’re fascinating in how outdated and cheekily offensive they are, and yet, ironically, often hilarious. It goes without saying that the series has a complicated relationship with the LGBT+ community, with gay actors such as Kenneth Williams and Charles Hawtrey featuring prominently in an era when their sexuality could have easily seen them thrown into prison. 

At its best, the series offered sympathetic and well-written queer-coded characters. At its worst, as the 1970s became ever more sex-obsessed, and the writing deteriorated, the films became downright cringeworthy. While New York was ablaze with the Stonewall riots at the end of June 1969, Britain saw Carry On Camping as its number one box office attraction the very same week our very own Steve Pafford entered the world. The past really is another country! 

In his second feature for stevepafford.com, author Ian Fryer presents ten of the best (and worst) examples the Carry Ons have to offer. Take them away, Matron…

Carry On Constable (1960) 

As a younger man, Charles Hawtrey was a renowned, and extremely convincing, female impersonator on stage. We are fortunate to have one example of this on celluloid, in the 1940 comedy Jailbirds, which is available on DVD. The older Hawtrey would occasionally cross-dress when a Carry On plot demanded it, but the most joyous example of this occurs in 1960’s Carry On Constable, when his hapless PC Gorse has Kenneth Williams’ PC Benson to bounce off, when the pair go undercover to catch shoplifters. In contrast to the normal embarrassment when male characters don female attire in these films (see Carry On Girls and Carry On Matron for examples), Gorse and Benson throw themselves into their roles and are clearly having a whale of a time, until they get arrested!

Carry On Spying (1964)

The series’ quick-off-the-mark response to the success of the James Bond films, features a villain named Dr Crow whom today we would describe as non-binary. Crow was played by one of the most interesting, and sadly mostly forgotten actresses Britain had to offer. Judith Furse (whose voice was dubbed by John Bluthal) was physically huge and most definitely lesbian, her physicality preventing her from breaking away from cartoonish battleaxes, but she did have the occasional memorable part, such as the kindly Sister Briony in Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus (1947) and a memorable turn as the vampiric Bela Lugosi’s assistant in Mother Riley Meets The Vampire (1952).

Carry On Abroad (1972)

By 1972 Charles Hawtrey was reaching the end of the line with the Carry Ons, his on-set drinking and demands for more money and star status proving too much for the producers. His final film role in the series was clearly written as a portrait of the star’s life by then. His character, Eustance Tuttle, is a mother-dominated, bowler-hatted city businessman who goes wild, adopting a completely different personality as soon as he sets foot on the Spanish resort of Elsbels, spending the entire holiday getting as drunk as possible on everything from the local plonk to a bottle of suntan lotion. And who among us hasn’t had a holiday like that?

Carry On Girls (1973)

The Carry Ons were still operating at full steam in 1973, when the team made Carry On Girls, based on the attempt by a women’s liberation group to disrupt the 1970 Miss World competition in London. In terms of LGBT representation this saw the series at both its best and worst: with Charles Hawtrey having departed the series, the role clearly written for him, a camp photographer named Cecil Gaybody (ugh!) was played by a clearly embarrassed burly Scots comedy legend Jimmy Logan. On the other hand, Pamela Franklin’s lesbian-coded character Miss Bangor, along with the absolutely fabulous June Whitfield in charge of Operation Spoilsport (the script knew which side it was on, even if modern audiences might disagree), comes across today as both fantastically stylish and instantly likeable.

Carry On Dick (1974)

Perhaps the last hurrah of the Carry On series as a viable source of laughs was 1974’s Carry On Dick, in which we not only get to see Sid James’ Big Dick Turpin, but a genuinely hilarious sequence in which Kenneth Williams’ Captain Fancey has to explain to his assistant, Sgt Jock Strapp (Jack Douglas) that Turpin can be identified by a birthmark on his… well, I’m sure you can imagine. Cue a huge number of names for Turpin’s equipment, and some comedic misunderstanding in the gents lavatory at the local watering hole.

Carry On Emmannuelle (1978)

The Carry Ons never really recovered from the loss of scriptwriter Talbot Rothwell, who suffered a breakdown during the writing of Carry On Dick and never worked again. Subsequent writers pushed the series somewhat unwisely into the then popular Smutcom movie genre (a term I may just have invented), culminating in the rather mean-spirited Carry On Emmannuelle. In one particularly toe-curling scene, sex-obsessed (cos she’s French, innit) Emmannuelle Prevert tries to gain the interest of a guardsmen by flashing her bits at him and waving her knickers. He proves more interested in the mincing gay stereotype who happens along next. Possibly the low point of 1970s British cinema.

Carry On Again Doctor (1969)

One of the greatest pleasures in the Carry On films is seeing Kenneth Williams’ clearly gay-coded characters being irresistible to women whom he had no interest in whatsoever. The greatest example the series has to offer of this is in Carry On Again Doctor (1969) in which Williams’ Chief Surgeon Dr Frederick Carver’s endless supply of self-regard is almost drowned by a tsunami of female desire in the shape of Hattie Jacques’ formidably amorous Matron. Memorably, she finds herself sexually obsessed with a man who only loves himself – by this point Williams was nationally famous for his Julian & Sandy radio sketches, and clued-in audience would have been able to read between the lines.

Don’t Lose Your Head (1967)

Always a comedic standby of the Carry Ons, series star Sid James was very much a man’s man (in the traditional sense of the phrase). Famed for his lecherous laugh, he loathed performing in drag, and his obvious discomfort when kitted out in dress and make-up for Don’t Lose Your Head (1967) makes, if anything, the whole scene more cherishable. Obviously nobody spots the obvious deception of a crinkly old South African trying to pass as female.

Carry On Matron (1972)

The same bad drag gag was repeated five years later in 1972’s Carry On Matron, when cuddly Kenneth Cope dons nurse’s attire in an attempt to steal a batch of contraceptive pills from a hospital. This charade would reach a peak of absurdity in the following year’s Carry On Girls (1973), when the hulking 6ft 7 inch Bernie Bresslaw is incongruously entered in the Miss Fircombe beauty contest, obviously bringing new meaning to the word beauty.

Carry On Henry (1971) 

The franchise’s 21st entry saw it reach new heights of campers with Kenneth Williams’ Thomas Cromwell and Terry Scott’s Cardinal Wolsey as a twittering gay couple attempting to deal with Sid James’ Henry VIII and his constant attempts to arrange a divorce with the blade of an axe. 

While Scott was a notoriously grumpy right-wing heterosexual, described by his frequent co-star as being like dealing with “a 17 stone baby”, he feeds off Williams’ natural exuberance and queer energy to produce a memorable performance. The on-screen partnership was picked up on by the designers of Films And Filming magazine, who used a picture of the pair on the cover of their June 1971 edition, yet didn’t even feature the film inside!

Now that’s what I call camp.

Ian Fryer

Carrying On: The Carry Ons and Films of Peter Rogers and Gerald Thomas is published by Fonthill Media 

 

 

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