Carry On Again Doctor (1969)

When it’s on: Saturday, 21 February (3.05 pm)
Channel: ITV3
IMDb Link

Funny things, the Carry On films. I could cover one per week, such is their ubiquity in the TV schedules, yet they’re treated by most people as a running joke, a wholly outdated product of some best forgotten age. Even at the time they were being made, members of the cast thought they were far better than the material they were being asked to perform. Kenneth Williams, who would go on to make the most appearances, privately reviled the series. Another star, Jim Dale, put in his last job of work for Carry on Again Doctor (that is, until the ill fated Carry On Columbus many years later) before leaving in order to better himself, which attracted scorn and ridicule from his fellow ‘Carriers’. Dale had the last laugh, becoming the ‘voice’ of Harry Potter after recording all seven books for the American market and winning two Grammy Awards in the process.

As for this entry, it was a return to the medical profession for its source material, a further satire on the Doctor series of films that had previously brought great success to Carry On. The eighteenth episode in the franchise, by now the elements that had routinely been hits at the domestic box office were present and correct, all the usual cast members, bawdy humour and the increasing presence of comedy sound effects to enhance the slapstick moments. What it also had, which tended to be more prominent in the more successful Carry Ons, was a plot, an actual story from which the gags derived, rather than some loose clothes horse of a narrative that served to string the jokes together.

Dale plays Jimmy Nookie (I know, I know), a hapless young surgeon at Long Lampton Hospital. Fellow doctor Ernest Stoppidge (Charles Hawtrey) wants to bring him down a peg or two, whilst the hospital’s manager, Frederick Carver (Williams) needs one of his staff to go and practise at a medical outpost in the remote Beatific Islands to placate his patron and potential love interest, Ellen Moore (Joan Sims). Nookie is fingered after one pratfall too many, committed mainly in an effort to impress his girlfriend, played by Barbara Windsor, and he’s packed off in short order. Marooned on the tropical island with Gladstone Screwer (Sid James) and his six wives, Nookie turns initially to drink and despair, only to discover that Screwer has somehow invented a miracle slimming potion. He returns with the elixir and starts making a fortune as female clients flock to his practice, but Carver’s watching with envious eyes, and Gladstone isn’t going to be placated with being paid in cigarettes forever.

The cast was slotted neatly into its appropriate pigeonholes by this stage. Dale played the handsome hero, Williams added pomposity and Hattie Jacques was tailor made to act as Matron. If there’s a sense that much of it is going through the motions, then that’s because it was, well oiled motions that had hit on a largely winning formula and stuck rigidly to it. Some of the jokes and comic set pieces are rigidly terrible, others fine, and one featuring a cameo from series regular Peter Butterworth is brilliant. This wasn’t Windsor’s first appearance for the team, but it was a noticeable one as she played up to her ‘good time girl’ persona, showing up first in a tiny and notorious ‘heart’ bikini, all curves and dyed white hair. If there’s a weak link, it’s the unlikely Sid James, earning first billing despite only turning up halfway through and giving every impression that his part was shoehorned in. The signature laugh is sadly dialled down.

Behind the camera, the creative forces of writer Talbot Rothwell and Gerald Thomas directing remained intact. The former had a really interesting formative experience in comedy scripting; as a prisoner of war at Stalag Luft III (of The Great Escape fame) and kept awake by the incessant tunneling beneath his floor, he wrote for the camp concerts, generally featuring broad, farcical routines that were strong on double entendres. It was the perfect training for his later Carry On work.

Carry on Again Doctor: ***

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Carry On… Up the Khyber (1968)

When it’s on: Thursday, 2 August (11.40 am)
Channel: More4
IMDb Link

‘They will die the death of a thousand cuts!’
‘Oh! But that’s horrible!’
‘Not at all my little desert flower, the British are used to cuts!’

The Carry On team’s sixteenth film turns out to be one of its best. Carry On… Up the Khyber had one of the more generous budgets of the entries and married the quick wit of Talbot Rothwell’s screenplay to a story of insurrection and manners in the British Raj. Gleefully satirising any number of boys’ own yarns concerning the Northwest frontier, whilst poking fun at the attitude of the Empire builders from these very shores, it’s great fun from beginning to end, packed with riotous gags and fine performances.

I really enjoyed BBC4’s Kenneth Williams night last week, with its repeated Reputations documentary and another screening of Fantabulosa!, the dramatisation featuring some mesmerising mimicry by Michael Sheen. The former focused on the Carry On series as both the crowning glory and death knell of Williams’s career. Whilst the films put Ken’s bread on the table, he found the work degrading and a long way from the acting world he wanted to break into, which is a shame as he’s often the best thing in them. He’s on top form here as the Khasi of Khalabar, the local ruler who leads a revolt against the British when he learns that the ‘Skirted Devils’ (the kilt wearing soldiers, known as the 3rd Foot and Mouth Regiment) have taken to wearing underpants, proof of their lack of superhuman strength.

But he isn’t the best thing in this outing. That honour belongs squarely in the lap of Sir Sidney James, playing governor Sir Sidney Ruff-Diamond. James reins in his usual ‘everyman’ shtick as the dignitary with far more airs than graces, trying to hold together a faltering British position by sharing flannel with the Khasi and only occasionally delivering his trademark laugh, normally to great effect. Worthy mentions go to Joan Sims as his blousey wife, Terry Scott’s over-zealous Sergeant Major with shades of Zulu‘s Nigel Green, Charles Hawtrey as the most unlikely frontier defender imaginable, and Bernard Bresslaw playing local warlod, Bungdit Din. Jim Dale was carrying on elsewhere whilst this was being filmed, so Roy Castle took the straight role as the dashing Captain.

Also brilliant is Peter Butterworth, an irregular team member who here plays Brother Belcher, a Christian missionary with a fatal eye for the ladies. His best moments come in the film’s standout scene. As the Khasi’s army starts laying waste to the Governor’s Palace, those inside settle down to dinner, exercising the stiffest of upper lips as the building collapses around them… All except Brother Belcher, who represents the sentiments of the audience and can’t believe the way everyone is ignoring the cannon shots and collapsing exteriors, finally turning to the bottle for solace.

Costs were fought off by filming the Khyber Pass scenes in Snowdonia, indeed the frontier is simply a gate on Snowdon’s Watkin Pass that’s guarded by Hawtrey. But it’s a laugh to think of such a legendary point in the Empire in such a way, and the film in general pays affectionate homage and pokes good-natured fun at both the real-life Raj and other, more serious films covering the period. There’s a danger of all the ribaldry being at the expense of politically correct attitudes, however this is a film approaching its 45th year and anyone chiding it for the white actors playing native Indians and dodgy punmanship can just Fakir off. It’s as close to the bone as Hawtrey in military uniform serving as a comment on the British army’s competence. There isn’t one. Its lack of bite is something to be cherished in an age of more ‘knowing’ comedies. Some fans have gone so far as to form their own 3rd Foot and Mouth regiment in honour of the film, which should act as a lasting comment on the lasting regard in which it’s held.

Carry On… Up the Khyber: ****

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: **