What a Carve Up! (1961)

When it’s on: Sunday, 5 April (6.00 am)
Channel: Movies4Men
IMDb Link

The best novel I’ve ever read is What a Carve Up! by Jonathan Coe. It’s a tale about the horrible people who benefited most from Thatcher’s Britain, all condensed into one deliciously odious family, and chronicled by the man who’s writing a book about them. The story parallels, to an extent, a film the writer remembers from his childhood, the broad British comedy What a Carve Up! (or No Place Like Homicide! as it was oddly titled in the USA, though it’s nice to see the exclamation mark was retained) and it’s for that reason I tracked down the DVD some years ago and have watched it numerous times since.

The film has none of the book’s depth and meaning and is, as the novel’s narrator understands, nothing more than a light farce. The fact that the events in the book start to echo those in the film just adds to the dramatic irony, and of course have just as much of a mixed fortune at the end. But just because 1961’s What a Carve Up! is an easy sub-ninety minutes of pseudo-Carry On comedy doesn’t make it bad. It turns out to be very good fun, albeit containing absolutely no substance and played entirely for laughs.

It started life as a crime novel by 1928 British pulp fiction writer, Frank King, called The Ghoul, which was filmed five years later in a Boris Karloff feature. Made as a horror feature, when it came to be redone in 1961 it was converted into a broad comedy starring Sidney James and Kenneth Connor, with even less of the source material’s contents retained.

Connor is Ernie Broughton, a proof reader of mystery paperbacks. He finds out from a mysterious solicitor, Everett Sloane (Donald Pleasence), that his rich uncle has died and he’s to go to Yorkshire in order to be present for the reading of the will, so off he travels with his friend Syd (James) in tow. When he arrives, he finds the entire family assembled, and a grotesque, greedy bunch they are. Dennis Price plays his hard drinking cousin, Guy, and Michael Gwynn the demented Malcolm. Esma Cannon is Aunt Emily, whose mind is stuck in 1914. There’s also Shirley Eaton, who takes on the role of Uncle Gabriel’s former nurse, Linda. Hearing the will reading, they learn that they’ve been left precisely nothing, with the exception of Linda who has bequeathed some medical supplies. And then one of them is found dead.

Ernie is warned by the house butler (Michael Gough) that it’s just the beginning, and sure enough further family members are dispatched over the course of a night during which they’re all trapped in the house during a typically stormy night, all methods of communication down and the village unreachable due to all the nearby bogs. Ernie is suspected, then he isn’t. The house is discovered to be riddled with secret passages. Doubts emerge over whether Gabriel is dead at all, and if he isn’t then one of the characters is working with him to perform the murders.

The actors all play up to the stereotypes they developed over the course of their careers. No one did nervousness for comic effect like Kenneth Connor and he brings all his jumpy, gibbering shtick to the film as the anxious Ernie, getting steadily more frantic throughout. As his more hard-headed friend, James gets the best gags and reins in the lewdness that would define him more in later years. Price plays the posh gentleman that he did so well, and then there’s Shirley Eaton, undeniably lovely as Ernie’s unrequited love interest and in the picture for no better reason than to provide one (an uncredited Adam Faith pops up right at the end as her boyfriend). The film’s ominous overtones are provided by Donald Pleasence, of course, leaving me to wonder if there was ever a time when he didn’t come across in his roles as creepy, middle aged and softly spoken. He’s introduced as he walks up the stairs to Ernie and Syd’s flat, moving very slowly, deliberately and in complete silence, staring straight at the camera, which sets the uneasy tone for his character instantly.

What a Carve Up! is an easy film to enjoy, briskly weaving its story and doing a great job of setting up the house as a place of suspense and mystery, filled with dark recesses and bookshelves that can be opened to reveal a passage to surprise locations. The sinister air it generates is subservient always to the laughs, blowing apart the atmosphere in favour of pratfalls and funny likes, which usually hit the mark.

What a Carve Up!: ***

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Carry On Up the Jungle (1970)

When it’s on: Sunday, 26 August (2.05 pm)
Channel: ITV3
IMDb Link

I’m flabbergasted! My gast has never been so flabbered!

The 1970s are seen as a downturn for the fortunes of the Carry On franchise, with the humour becoming courser and the budgets tighter. Considering it’s a film that simultaneously parodies all of Tarzan, Hammer’s prehistoric output and Mogambo, the sets created for Carry On Up the Jungle were done on the cheap. With considerably less invested in the project than the series’ high point, Carry On Follow that Camel (a significant portion of which went on Phil Silvers’s wages), any possibility of filming on location was abandoned for interior sets at Pinewood, and it shows. Jim Dale (not at all happy with being offered the role of Ugh, the Jungle Boy) and Kenneth Williams (filming The Kenneth Williams Show) were unavailable, and that shows too.

All of which said, with so many plot strands crammed into the sub-90 minute running time and the usual quickfire gagsmithery from Talbot Rothwell, it’s very entertaining stuff and never gets dull. Frankie Howerd fills in for Williams as Professor Inigo Tingle, an ornithologist who’s in Africa with his assistant, Chumley (Kenneth Connors). Sid James is their grizzled guide, Bill Boosey, and along for the ride is expedition investor Lady Evelyn Bagley (Joan Sims) and her maidservant, June (Jacki Piper). Boosey employs the obligatory team of African retainers, led by Bernard Bresslaw in black face. On the way, they have encounters with jungle creatures (largely culled from stock footage, along with a bloke running around in a gorilla suit), a jungle native (Terry Scott) who takes a shine to June and has some long lost connection to Lady Bagley, ferocious tribes and a tribe of Amazonian women, led by Valerie Leon.

The jokes – mainly knob gags – come thick and fast, along with moments of mild nudity. Bresslaw was required to speak gibberish as his communication with the other Africans, but actually took the time to learn the Ndebele dialect; in an unfortunate comic twist, no one understood him as the actors playing his fellow retainers were from the West Indies. It sounds good anyway, though presumably the exchanges with Boosey – ‘Nikka Nookie’ – is wholly made up. Scott and Piper have a surprisingly touching subplot as the romantically involved ‘Tarzan and Jane’, Scott emerging as pretty funny in a part that requires him to grunt nonsensically, clamber around in nothing more than a loincloth whilst possessing a 40-something’s stocky build. George of the Jungle he is not, though the later film did rip off his talent at flying along vines and straight into tree trunks.

It starts to lose its way a little once Leon’s female tribe enters the action, mainly because the antics of James, Sims, Howerd and all have been such good fun (especially the latter, who brings his usual verbal tics and ‘Please yourselves’ remarks to bear). The action suddenly becomes much bawdier, though there’s a brilliant build-up to Tonka, the tribe’s chief and sole male member, talked of as a legendary lover, who turns out to be none other than Charles Hawtrey.

Other elements to recommend include Eric Rogers’s frantic score, drawing on drumbeats, tribal chants and at times becoming fairly epic. Indeed it’s the latter moments that undermine the film as an ultimately cheap exercise, though it’s never less than fun and moves at a sufficiently whip-cracking pace to keep eyes from focusing on the cost-cutting methods.

Carry On Up the Jungle: ***

Carry on Regardless (1961)

When it’s on: Friday, 22 June (5.10 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

I like Helping Hands.’
‘And I don’t like “helping yourself” hands’

Less a continuous narrative and more a prop for a series of sketches, Carry on Regardless finds our favourites working for the Helping Hands Agency, which will take any and indeed every job it’s offered. The various tangential yarns are uneven – some hilarious, others just okay – but there’s a great deal of affection to be felt for its sense of fun. As a whole, it’s tough not to fall for the innocent, broad charm on offer. Once the newspaper that fills the opening shot drops and you see Sid James behind it, you know you’re in relatively safe hands.

This was the fifth Carry On film and continued the tradition of being produced on a shoestring, directed by Gerald Thomas and showcasing a Norman Hudis screenplay. Hudis certainly wrote some cracking scripts, stuffed with innuendos and farcical situations inspired by Brian Rix’s comedies. There’s a lot going on in Regardless. How well the sketches work depend often enough on the performer, but much of it warrants at least a wry chuckle. For instance, the routine that finds Kenneth Williams walking Yoki the chimp around the streets of London is one of the film’s best, and it’s based fully on the level of rapport between the actor and his simian friend. Williams looks as though he’s having a whale of a time, putting every nuance into the way he gradually treats the chimp as a pal rather than a pet.

Kenneth Connor, never one of my favourite Carry On stars, gets a superb run when he’s dispatched to Scotland in order to jump off the Forth Bridge. Suffering his usual brow-furrowing nerves on the train heading north, Connor reimagines himself as Humphrey Bogart; a disembodied voice tells him to hold his nerve and he goes through with the job, only for the audience to learn the errand was for naught, based as it was on a misquoted client. Another sketch works less well when it involves him being pressed into a brief romp with the buxom Fenella Fielding, all in an effort to make her husband jealous. It’s the sort of thing we’ve seen him do a thousand times; squeaky voiced antics ensue.

Joan Sims fares better. Employed to deal with invitations to a classy wine-tasting party, she’s soon sozzled on posh plonk and wrecking the joint, as well as rightly rebuffing the lecherous advances of a young Nicholas Parsons. In the meantime, Liz Fraser gets to model sexy underwear for a man who’s trying to surprise his wife with perfectly fitting lingerie. It’s an excuse to get the curvy Ms Fraser into some tiny outfits, but that’s about all it is and the fun ends there. On the plus side, there’s Charles Hawtrey’s boxing career, upon which he embarks as a substitute for the prize fighter he’s there to assist at ringside. The sight of Hawtrey running from ‘Massive’ Mickey McGee, wearing a string vest and boxing gloves that are several sizes too big for him, as well as his shorts steadily falling down, is hysterical. Sid James performs medical examinations on a line of nurses in their smalls. The trademark laugh puts in an appearance, but the sketch shows glimpses of the bawdiness that would eventually take over.

A shame there’s no Leslie Phillips, who decided the previous year’s Carry on Constable would mark his last appearance in the series. But there are some very good cameos thrown in, including Esma Cannon’s agency secretary with her range of reactions to peoples’ comments, Hattie Jacques as a nurse, Betty Marsden’s Mata Hari and Stanley Unwin turning up irregularly to literally talk gibberish. It all passes by harmlessly enough, though there’s an impression that the team felt their formula was already beginning to go stale, hence the sketch format. Not the most glowing recommendation for the rest of the series, and the ‘some you win, some you lose’ nature of the individual tales leaves the film feeling a little uneven.

Carry on Regardless: **

Carry on Teacher (1959)

When it’s on: Wednesday, 6 June (3.20 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

‘Are you satisfied with your equipment, Miss Allcock?’
‘Well, I’ve had no complaints so far.’

It seems as though the difference between the earlier, ‘classier’ Carry On films and the later, smut-reliant entries coincided with the shift from black and white to colour. It might also have had something to do with the change in script writer. Talbot Rothwell took over screenplay duties from 1963’s Carry on Cabby and into the 1970s; previously Norman Hudis penned the scripts. Carry on Teacher, the third in the long-running series, definitely belongs in the earlier generation. Whilst there’s room for innuendo and the occasional suggestive name (see the above quote), Teacher is a gentle parody of the Secondary Modern system. The teachers are the butt of every joke. Staffed by Carry On regulars, they’re at the mercy of the pupils, whose St Trinians style joke shop pranks lead to an endless series of pratfalls.

Fortunately for all involved, the kids have a soft centre and are motivated by a good cause. Their school, Maudlin Street, is in peril of losing its Head Teacher, Mr Wakefield (Ted Ray), who is in the process of applying for a job in a new build. To help his case, Mr Wakefield takes advantage of the visit of a couple of school inspectors, asking his staff to impress in order to advance his own application. But the pupils, led by a fresh-faced Richard O’Sullivan, don’t want to lose their beloved Principal and do everything in their power to make the visit an unpleasant one. Things start going wrong in the classroom. The teachers – stuck up Kenneth Williams, nervous Kenneth Connor, hapless Charles Hawtrey, matronly Hattie Jacques, etc – don’t stand a chance. In the meantime, a child psychologist, played by Leslie Phillips, falls for Joan Sims’s PE teacher, Miss Allcock, whilst there’s a frisson of mutual attraction between Connor and inspector Rosalind Knight.

It’s naive, innocent fluff, but unlike later Carry Ons there is at least something of a plot taking place beneath the set piece comic routines, rather than innuendos loosely strung together by a chosen topic. However obvious the jokes may be, actors like Kenneth Williams had to do very little to be funny – a contorted face and set of flared nostrils pretty much ticked the box. The performance by Ray, not a Carry On regular, is also quite lovely, particularly the emotion on his face once he is told what the kids’ pranks have been motivated by – very Mr Chips, I’m sure.

On the downside, the jokes are telegraphed to audiences well in advance. Kenneth Connor’s built a rocket in his class – I wonder if… The English Literature class is putting on a show of Romeo and Juliet – I bet it all goes horribly wrong, and so on. Besides all of which, maybe state education was very different fifty years ago, but I don’t recall feeling any affection for a single teacher whilst in secondary school. The underlying story kind of unravels with the revelation the pupils will go to any lengths in order to keep Mr Wakefield. I used to work in a school where the Head Teacher was about as charismatic as they come – when he moved on, his departure was greeted by the students with, at best, complete indifference. It’s lucky the kids of Maudlin Street never use their prankmanship to take over. Now that would be a film, but not one fitting in with the tradition of a 1950s comedy.

Carry on Teacher: **