Saturday, July 26, 2008

More than just a Carry On?

Caricatured as low-brow and smutty, Carry On films were never much rated by movie critics. But do they tell us something more profound about the huge social changes in post-war Britain? The BBC's Carolyn Quinn thinks so.

A few weeks ago on her Sunday morning radio programme, Gabby Logan made an unintentionally saucy comment and referred to having had a "Carry On moment". Without further explanation you know exactly what she meant.
Almost everyone has seen at least one of the films. Most people have a favourite Carry On scene or cringe-making pun.
The very first Carry On film - Sergeant - came out 50 years ago this August and its appearance spawned a series of 30 over the next two decades. I decided to put in an idea to make a documentary marking the golden anniversary - not the sort that had been made many times before, focusing on the saucy lines and, at times, the desperately sad story of the troupe of actors who became such familiar faces to us all.
Instead, I wanted to examine the amazing social changes society underwent over the 20 years during which Sid James, Charles Hawtrey, Joan Sims, Barbara Windsor and the rest were Carrying On.
Think about it. When Carry on Sergeant, a low budget black and white movie came out in 1958, National Service - the core of its plot - still had a couple of years to run in Britain.
By the time the last film of the main series, Carry on Emmannuelle, was released in 1978, life was very different - the permissive age was in full swing and the post-war era of deference had gone, replaced by the desire to escape the duties and limitations that most of those living in the 40s, 50s and some of the 60s accepted as part of their "lot" in life.
From 1958 to 1978 the Carry On films held up a mirror to British society, its institutions and its rapid changes. National Service ended, the National Health Service expanded rapidly, the sexual revolution arrived, the country faced bouts of industrial strife and working-class families started to holiday abroad.


Amid the slapstick, the innuendo and the corny puns, the Carry Ons reflected all of this. Derided by highbrow critics, it is only recently that social commentators have come to appreciate them for the unvarnished portrait they paint of a nation in flux.
Take Carry on Cabby (1963) for tentative stirrings of feminism as Hattie Jacques sets up an all-female taxi firm to rival that of husband Sid.
In the words of Daily Telegraph columnist Simon Heffer, Cabbie is "certainly what Germaine Greer would call a proto-feminist film".
By the time of Carry on Girls, 10 years later, bra-burning feminists disrupt a beauty contest in the seaside town of Fircombe.
While the humour may have been upfront, any social commentary was more subtly conveyed, says Andy Medhurst, lecturer in film, media and cultural studies at Sussex University.
"They weren't films that set out to have an explicit social message but in a paradoxical kind of way that gives them more meaning," says Mr Medhurst. "They capture the way people living humdrum lives with limited horizons found a release in comedy. They seem to encapsulate an everyday life in Britain of that time."

Earnest people

Indeed, the makers of the Carry Ons had no serious ambition for them other than as easy entertainment in the best music hall tradition. The man behind the scripts for the first six Carry Ons, Norman Hudis, had no idea he was being "significant". Now in his 80s, and living in America, he recalls he was simply reflecting life at the time.
From the patients' point of view, you can see the Carry Ons are a bit of a rebellion against that idea.
"For the most part," says Hudis, "it was earnest people in circumstances where they were being tried or pushed to the limit, almost giving in but eventually coming through and doing what they were supposed to do and doing it well."
For Simon Heffer, these early Carry Ons reflect a "sense of social cohesion which was really important before an age when individualism became as highly prized as it is now".
"I think that was the predominant sociological current and the films very accurately reflect that."
Where Hudis drew on his own wartime service for Carry On Sergeant, he also plundered his wife Rita's memory for Nurse. She had been a state-registered nurse and provided him with many a juicy story of life on the wards.
Yet again, there was more to 1959's Nurse than the saucy one-liners.
Former nurse Julia Hallam, now a film lecturer at Liverpool University, says Nurse provides a patients' eye insight into what was really going on in hospitals.

Sexy stereotype

"One of the things that you can think of them as representing is the first wave of consumer critique of the health service, particularly in the hospitals which were very authoritarian.
"Patients often felt too terrified to ask questions of people. They felt hospital was a very demeaning process and robbed you of your identity. From the patients' point of view, you can see the Carry Ons are a bit of a rebellion against that idea."
In 1959's Nurse, the NHS seemed novel and egalitarian. The nurses were cool and professional - and the patients fell in love with them.
By Carry On Doctor, eight years later, Barbara Windsor had introduced the saucy nurse to the nation - much to the chagrin of the Royal College of Nursing, which was horrified by the portrayal of the "sexy nurse" and fought the image for years, says Ms Hallam.
All across the Carry On canon, the rich entertainment was suffused with broader sociological comment.

Soft porn

From Teacher (1959) which seized on the ethics of corporal punishment in schools - eventually outlawed in 1986 - and the strains between traditional and progressive teaching methods, to 1971's Carry On at Your Convenience, with its undercurrents of industrial unrest.
That was the year a new Industrial Relations Act was passed, aimed at cutting numbers of unofficial strikes; the previous 12 months had been the worst in terms of days lost in industrial disputes since 1926.
Yet by the mid-70s Carry Ons' knack of feeling the pulse of British mass entertainment was fading.
By 1978 and Carry on Emmannuelle - in which the eponymous "heroine" manages to step outside a lot without her clothes - the Carry Ons were dying. Soft porn was readily available in British cinemas in the form of the raunchier Confessions films and even the original Emmanuelle. The time for nudge-nudge-wink-wink, innuendo-laden comedy had passed. Somehow the Carry Ons seemed old-fashioned and naive.
But as the decades have passed, the pendulum has swung back, allowing us to view the Carry Ons with affection. Even if you think they are corny/cheesy/horribly dated you may at least appreciate them for their nostalgia value and their reminder of more innocent times.

This article, written by Carolyn Quinn, appeared in the BBC News Magazine - Our apologies for omitting the reference.