Carry on Regardless at the Chiswick Book Festival

Images above; Carry On Regardless book cover; Caroline Frost

Corny, puerile, non-PC and utterly predictable. And yet …

There is something very comforting about watching a Carry On film. I don’t usually admit publicly to liking them. They are corny, puerile, non-PC and utterly predictable. And yet … they were a part of my childhood, always on TV and there was something very innocent about them.

The warmth and comradeship of the cast came across in spades. There was a kind of working-class solidarity about them too. The bosses and the toffs never won, they always got their comeuppance.

Author of Carry On Regardless Caroline Frost says there was a “beautiful chemistry” between the actors and the body of work they produced over 30 films was “an extraordinary part of our cultural history.”

The best-selling author, journalist and broadcaster was asked to write a book to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the last of the franchise, and being in lockdown at the time she got thoroughly stuck in.

Researching it and writing about it “became a labour of love in a way I didn’t expect it to” she told me.

Caroline lives in Ealing, west London where, almost every day, she passes the blue plaque marking Sid James’s family home. She is a lifelong fan of the films and one of her earliest memories is of meeting Barbara Windsor backstage after the Christmas pantomime at Richmond Theatre, where the star sweetly let her try on her stage wig.

Images above: Carry On Camping poster; Hattie Jacques and Kenneth Williams; Barbara Windsor 

An accidental series

All the films were produced by Peter Rogers and directed by Gerald Thomas, so there is a cohesion and continuity to the franchise.

“It was an accidental series” Caroline says. “Peter Rogers’ wife Betty Box produced the Doctor in the House series and he wanted something like that of his own. They made Carry On Sergeant in 1958 and due to its success they were invited to do another.”

When they came to make the last one Carry On Columbus in 1992, a new generation of comedians including Rik Mayall and Julian Clary were delighted to have the opportunity to work with director Gerald Thomas and the other comic actors they had grown up watching: Bernard Cribbins, Leslie Phillips and John Dale.

Images above: Carry On Doctor poster; Charley Hawtrey in Carry On Doctor

Sexist? Not me gov

But wasn’t it terribly sexist? Not to mention racist and anything else-ist you can think of?

“It wouldn’t be made now” says Caroline “We don’t have access to that puerile humour, the humour is too ripe for this sensitive age. The films exist in a magical mystery land between our secret desires and those that society allows us to express – that’s where the double entendre lived. Now we can say exactly what our desires are.

The characters certainly had sex on the brain.

Bernard Bresslaw to a nurse in Carry On Doctor: “I dreamed of you last night nurse.”

Nurse: “Did you?”

Bernard Bresslaw: “No, you wouldn’t let me.”

Caroline says: “The biggest criticism is how women were treated but I don’t think that stands up to scrutiny. Women invariably saved the day, they always came out on top. There was that constant maternal presence of Hattie Jacques and if you think about Barbara Windsor she was always a feisty, independent, strong-willed figure.”

Images above: Sid James and Terry Scott in Carry On Henry; Sid James and Joan Sims 

Caper, comradeship and comedy

Ultimately, she says, the films showed a great victory for comradeship. There was always some senior figure who wanted to put one over on the rest and they always failed.

That reflected the comradeship of the company. Kenneth Williams, Joan Sims, Sid James, Bernard Bresslaw, Hattie Jacques, Jim Dale, Charles Hawtrey, Kennth Connor and Barbara Windsor were together in most of the films, playing familiar characters: Sid James the wise-cracking lech, Charles Hawtrey timid and effete, Barbara Windsor the wide-eyed and chippy sex bomb, Hattie Jacques the maternal figure.

Jim Dale described the cast as “a repertory company of the cinema.” They worked hard, they turned up on time, hit their marks and remembered their lines and brought in the films on budget and on time.

There was resentment as the films became more and more successful that the actors were paid so little. Peter Rogers kept a tight grip on the purse strings and would not allow the stars to cut individual deals that gave them preferential treatment. The Carry On brand was more important than the individual stars in his view.

Jim Dale, Bernard Cribbins and Leslie Phillips left to take up more lucrative work. Joan Sims and Kenneth Williams complained, but ultimately they stayed because they enjoyed the security and the camaraderie.

Images above: Hattie Jacques, Frankie Howerd and Kenneth Williams in Carry On Doctor; Kenneth Williams and Bernard Bresslaw in Carry On Up the Khyber

Role models?

A lot has been written about some of the lead actors’ chaotic personal lives – Hattie Jacques’ divorce from Dad’s Army star John Le Mesurier; Barbara Windsor’s divorce from Ronnie Knight, sentenced to seven years in prison for handling stolen money from an armed robbery. On set on the Carry On films they were among family.

Something else she found in her research is that a lot of gay men have said seeing Charles Hawtrey and Kenneth Williams being camp on screen, clearly gay, though Kenneth Williams never spoke openly about it, helped them a lot at a time when society considered homosexuality unacceptable.

“They suffered in their private lives but they were a source of inspiration to young gay men. They were incredibly helpful.”

“Everyone has a favourite film” says Caroline. A lot of people pick Carry on Camping, Carry on Cleo or Carry On Up the Khyber (mine is Carry On Doctor, 1967)

She had great access to those of the actors who are still alive. “The families of Sid James and Gerald Thomas were very helpful. They opened doors and I was able to meet Bernard Cribbins, Kenneth Cope, Angela Douglas and Valerie Leon.

“It was a delight to meet Valerie Leon – she was a stunner, she had knock-out looks.”

Caroline is talking to comedy historian Robert Ross next Saturday (10 September) at the Chiswick Cinema at 12.45 as part of the Chiswick Book Festival. You can buy her book at Waterstones Chiswick on online.

Book tickets – Carry On Regardless at the Chiswick Book Festival

Buy the book – Carry On Regardless – Amazon

Read more stories on The Chiswick Calendar

See also: Meeting Bernard Cribbins

See also: Dame Eileen Atkins heads line-up for Chiswick Book Festival 2022

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