Keep on Carrying On… 60 years of the best in British comedy

It’s 60 years this year since the first Carry On film – Carry on Sergeant. I’ve already done a deep dive into the classic early films, so in the second part of this look back let’s remember the classics from the last 30 years of risque postcard comedy.

‘Blue’ leader David Spam (Tennant) tries to avoid the press in Carry On Show us your Mandate (2012)

Carry On Emmannuelle (1978) – was the nadir of the famous series, when the overcooked attempt to sex up a saucy formula did nothing but make audiences uncomfortable it nearly ended a Great British institution. Thankfully however, flush from the success of funding Life of Brian, Beatle George Harrison (in return for a cameo role) found the money for one more go around.

That was a planned spoof of the popular US soap Dallas: Carry on Dallas. A script was written and casting offers made to Kenneth Williams,Charles Hawtrey and Jim Dale amongst others, but production was abandoned when Dallas’s producers demanded a royalty fee of 20 times the total production budget – too rich even for the world’s most famous lead guitarist.

But Carry On Fighting (1981) was a cheaper proposition – after Rocky (I and II) and Raging Bull boxing films were big business. Bernard Bresslaw (Robby ‘The Raging Bully’ Bull) fights Big Dick (Geoff Capes) for the British Heavyweight title – but not before various setbacks and interference from Tommy Cannon and Bobby Ball as ineffectual bookies, and distraction from love interest Glory Annen.

Harrison is seen in the crowd scene after the Raging Bully’s victory, where Kenneth Connor’s corner man spills a spit bucket on him – rumours that the cast had been adding real spit to it might be why Harrison’s Handmade Films were not involved again.

It took three years to get another Carry On out of the starting blocks: Carry on Flash (1984) aimed squarely at Flash Gordon, an already camp space opera, but drew in tropes of the Star Wars films. Fart Evader (a heavily-costumed Bernard Bresslaw in his last Carry On) with his ‘heavy breathing’ from the wrong end is one of Carry On’s bassest and funniest quick gags. Mel Smith’s Flash Norman featuring totally the wrong actor in a vest for the whole movie (when it was also a quick gag) does not work as well.

Carry On Stanley (or Mind your Malvinas) (1985)  was yet another Carry On to feature an incompetent group of soldiers. Dennis Waterman, perhaps miscast, as a grizzled sergeant, and Privates Les Dennis, Dustin Gee and Russ Abbott make up the notable members of the platoon. The Argentine forces are conspicuous by their absence (thank God) and the Welsh hills and coastline around Colwyn Bayl don’t make for a perfect Port Stanley.

Fresh back from recapturing the Falklands, Abbott and Dennis’s characters are guests at the FA Cup final. With hilarious consequences.

In Carry On Comic (1987)  the team return to the UK to take a swipe at the burgeoning alternative comedy scene. An emperor’s new clothes riff on ‘comics without jokes’. A surprising number of the Comic Strip were happy to self parody, including Mayall and Edmondson whose characters have an act where they just hit each other without content or context. Hi-de-Hi!’s Paul Shane almost reprises his Ted Bovis role as an old-style comedian who has seen it before. It works as a satire, and features lovely turns from Ronnie Corbett (his only Carry On) and Kenneth Williams (his last)  pretty much doing their old cabaret routines, and but inevitably when most of it is ‘comics without jokes’ it isn’t very funny.

Carry On What A Big Bang (1989) was a Wall Street parody, although set in the UK in the context of Thatcher’s ‘big bang’ deregulation of the UK stock market. Hale and Pace worked hard as warring brokers against a poor script. It was an attempt to really modernise the Carry Ons with fresh casting with broader appeal, though a cameo from Gordon Kaye (then of course riding high on TV as Rene from ‘Alo ‘Alo!) as a waiter in a wine bar now places this very much of it’s time. Lisa Maxwell’s Princess Regina as an object of attraction worked brilliantly – but due to her getting the role of Daphne Moon in Frasier mostly off the back of how this performance played well in the States we wouldn’t see her in Carry On… again for some time.

Gareth Hale (L) and Norman Pace (R) on the receiving end of a nightclub chucking out for once – a cameo from Soho supremo Paul Raymond in Carry On What A Big Bang.

The Strangeways prison riot of the previous year was perhaps an odd subject for a Carry On film. The seam mined by Porridge proved to be almost exhausted by the time Carry On Inside (1991) hit the screens. The lack of women (apart from Amanda Noar (I Bought a Vampire Motorcycle) as a prison psychologist, and Joan Sim’s nurse) made a traditional Carry On plot hard, but it turned out to be a decent ensemble piece. Frankie Howerd making a Carry On comeback alongside his Up Pompeii revival did his usual wonderful job as an ageing prison patriarch and Gareth Hale and Norman Pace were better used as his enforcers that they had been in …Big Bang.

Carry on Robin (1992) was where eventually the long planned (started and aborted in 1965) Carry On Robin Hood film was made. Well, everyone else was doing one and this was filmed very quickly to catch the wave after a planned Carry On Columbus was rejected by the studios. Like …Cleo it used some of the sets and costumes from the (less successful of the) Robin films released the previous year and so looks well above its budget with realistic bows twanging in all directions. Jim Dale as the Sheriff brings old school Carry On to a relatively young cast, sparing well with Neil Pearson’s Robin (who as is tradition in a Carry On is a little too old and saggy for the tights of the lead). Paul Shane as friar F-tuck (“the ef is silent”, “not round here”) is a highlight, but with modern eyes the treatment of Lysette Anthony’s Marian (“and well made she is too”) is regrettable in an otherwise fine take on the legend.

“and well made she is too” – Carry on Robin.

After the 1990 World Cup football was finally an acceptable topic for popular culture, Carry On Up the Arse (1994) couldn’t have been made in any other era. Thankfully, for those expecting to see Paul Shane squeezed into a pair of shorts, there’s precious little football here – it’s very much an uncredited remake of The Arsenal Stadium Mystery (a ‘30s detective film where a murder is committed at Highbury).The trend for films ‘exploring’ football hooliganism, leads to the suspects being part of a ‘crew’ headed by Rik Mayall’s brilliantly insane Rik Nutt. Shane in fact is again a star turn as Sir Rowland Pie the Arsenal Chairman, who is suspected of wanting to sell the club to foreign investors.

Paul Shane in training at ‘the Arse’, with a couple of cameos from old H-de-hi friends.

Carry on Killing (1995) was an overlooked gem, a horror spoof that laid the ground for the huge success of Scream the following year. It really showed that the Carry On franchise could have relevance in a post-modern world, a gentler and more story-based alternative to American film genre spoofs. Regulars Rik Mayall, Paul Shane and Neil Pearson as hapless detectives and a host of cameos for victims (including Kylie Minogue, Robbie Williams and now oddly presciently Tupac Shakur, all filmed on the set of Top of the Pops) make this worth a re-watch.

It was a mistake to cast Victoria Beckham (then Adams) in a speaking role in Carry On Up the Charts (1997), she was perhaps the least believable of the girl group who battled record company disinterest to become a hit. Samantha Janus, for whom the role must have provoked flashbacks to her Euro-vision stint is far better. Paul Shane as their manager does very little, but it’s a nice swansong in his Carry On career. They were not too ashamed to use the Kit-Kat advert line “You can’t sing, you can’t dance and you look awful…you’ll go a long way” and that’s all the better for it. Carry Ons are at their best when they are complete cultural magpies.

Lads mags like Loaded’s obsession with ‘60s gangsterism and the Great Train robbery 35 years previously lead to Carry On Robbing (1998) – a period, but not historical, setting for the first time. Set in the ‘60s underworld, you can see it’s Ealing comedy roots through the bad dye jobs of the cast, none of which seem quite right for a story that would have suited Sid James down to the ground. Michael Richards (Kramer from Seinfeld) was a odd choice as an American safe cracking expert, but he was funny, even if his presence isn’t every really explained. Importing an American star hadn’t happened since Phil Silvers in …Follow That Camel and wouldn’t again.

1999 Millennium Bug-based Carry On Computing is not well remembered. The production was dogged by, ironically, technical problems.  The only happy tale is that Catherine Zeta-Jones (Chrissie Bigguns, a conventional girl scientist who becomes beautiful after taking off her glasses) met Bernard Cribbins (playing a Bletchley Park veteran who holds the key to beating the bug) and the pair were married shortly after.

Zeta-Jones, about to take off her glasses.

Like the Millennium Bug itself that film never really went off, performed badly at the box office, and there was a hiatus until Carry On Big Brother (2003) where reality show contestants realise that no-one is watching and decide to break out, with mildly hilarious consequences. The conceit allowed a good breadth of cast, including a return for Barbara Windsor, her first since a flash of her as a landlady in …Stanley. Unfortunately she felt underused and refused to return again.

Richard Curtis-alike Carry on Love (2005) fell between two stools somewhat, what it a romantic comedy or a broader comedy that parodied the then massive English-fop romantic comedy genre? A Robert Webb and  Zeta-Jones lead couple (a shopkeeper and a model, but not the way round you’d expect), which could still play out in a blockbuster, battled for attention with five other partially-interlocking stories. The best of the sub-plots was a rekindled third-age romance between June Whitfield and Leslie Phillips which was carefully balanced between an autumn romance and Viagra jokes.

You’d have thought that Russell Brand was a shoo in for 2008’s Carry On First One to Baghdad but he chose the concurrent St Trinians reboot instead, so the part of Osama Bin Lid went to Webb who didn’t really know what to do with it. The producers decided to set it during Desert Storm rather than the ongoing second Iraq War which lead to quite a lot of confusion in the script as did rather forcing in an all female battalion of the SAS (lead by a returning Lisa Maxwell).

Apparently a film provisionally titled ‘Carry on London’ was planned for 2010 release and was to feature amongst others Frank Skinner, Vinnie Jones and Shane Richie. The city it seems, dodged a bullet and we took again a little break until four years later. Carry On Show Us Your Mandate (2012) is a surprisingly sensitive coming out story with a gay MP Nick Clagg (Graham Norton) finding love in a coalition across the benches. Beautifully played as a sort of Whitehall drawing room farce, Clagg and  ‘blue leader’ David Spam (David Tennant) do everything to hide their love from investigative journalist Fanny Twitcher (Anna Chancellor) but when the ‘scandal’ is revealed it turns out not only is no-one scandalised but the public is very pleased for them.

…Mandate went so well that you’d think a politically-based follow up would inevitable. And you’d be right, but in Carry On Men (2016) Tennant, this time as a council leader, has more prosaic things to deal with. A bin-workers strike, caused by an equal pay claim, causes him no end of problems. Anna Chancellor also returns as Viky Spanner, women’s rep for the union. It’s her character name as well as the theme of industrial strife that leads many people to see it as a partial sequel to 1971’s Carry on at Your Convenience. Vic Spanner, played by Kenneth Cope in …Convenience is briefly here as Vicky’s father (although he is not named as Vic), who tries to persuade her not to take the female refuse workers out on strike. After nearly 60 years this is still classic Carry On.

Micky Flanagan as Clacton MEP Richard Dick in an early promo shot for Carry On Back Home.

Which brings us to Carry On Back Home (slated for June 2018) – as perhaps the most Brexit of film series it is a surprise to see the team take a direction sympathetic to ‘eurocrats’ – those who have seen previews say it features displaced MEPs having to come back to England. Russell Kane (who takes his cue very much from Kenneth Williams) as Nigel Garage, having to deal with finding jobs for his ‘less cultured’ party members – such a Clacton MEP Richard Dick (Micky Flanagan) who wants to find a way to stay in Brussels to continue his affair with his French secretary. I can’t wait, here’s to another 60 years of Carry On.

Author: Jon Bounds

14th Most Influential Person in the West Midlands 2008, subsequently not placed. His new book about visiting every seaside pier in England and Wales — Pier Review — has been described as “On the Road meets On the Buses”, it's out now. Jon wrote and directed the first ever piece of drama to be performed on Twitter and founded the famous blog Birmingham: It's Not Shit.

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