The 5 best Carry Ons… and the 5 worst

To salute 60 years of the sauciest and silliest of all our national institutions, we offer up two handfuls of the Carry On series’ peaks and troughs.

23 November 2018

By Neil Mitchell

Carry On Screaming (1966)

Cor blimey, it’s now 60 years since Carry on Sergeant, a farce about National Service, inadvertently gave birth to a comedic institution. Said institution would include 30 more feature films, three stage plays, a television series and four Christmas specials.

In the style of naughty seaside postcard and British music hall humour, the Carry On series was masterminded by producer Peter Rogers and director Gerald Thomas, who assembled an ensemble cast of regulars who would become household names – indeed national treasures – over five decades of saucy slapstick fun.

Virtually no part of British history, attitudes and culture were free from the Carry On treatment, as Sid James, Babs Windsor, Kenneth Williams and the rest of the gang bawdily pursued the opposite sex – an amorous encounter always the aim of their game. Armed with pun-tastic jokes, gloriously ridiculous plotlines and all manner of memorably entertaining characters, it’s no surprise that the Carry On films and their stars hold such an affectionate place in the nation’s cultural heart.

Ooh, matron, here are five of the best…

5 to remember

Carry On Cleo (1964)

Carry On Cleo (1964)

Using costumes and sets originally intended for Cleopatra (1963), Carry On Cleo is an altogether bawdier affair than that Oscar-nominated Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton behemoth. With Amanda Barrie as the seductive queen of the Nile, Sid James as a randy Mark Antony and Kenneth Williams as the campest Julius Caesar in cinema, this is an ancient-world epic like no other. It’s certainly the only one to boast a slave-trading firm called Marcus et Spencius.

The 10th entry in the series, Carry on Cleo is rife with the knockabout energy, puns, and visual gags that were the movies’ popular trademarks.

Best gag: A distressed Julius Caesar exclaiming: “Infamy, infamy, they’ve all got it in for me.”

Carry On… up the Khyber (1968)

Carry On... up the Khyber (1968)

A huge hit at the domestic box office and a contender for the series’ funniest entry, Carry On… up the Khyber is a gloriously ribald send-up of other fictional representations of life in the British Raj. Sid James’ provincial governor, Sir Sidney Ruff-Diamond, faces a stiff task quelling an anti-British rebellion stoked by Kenneth Williams’ Khasi of Kalabar when one of the apparently fearsome ‘Devils in Skirts’ from the 3rd Foot and Mouth Regiment is discovered wearing underpants beneath his kilt.

The pomposity surrounding class, rank and political diplomacy is beautifully punctured in ways only the Carry On team could pull off.

Best gag: A skit involving sabotaged weaponry, culminating in a machine gun playing a 78 record rather than firing bullets at the enemy.

Carry On Screaming! (1966)

Carry On Screaming (1966)

A brilliant parody of Hammer horror movies, with nods to The Munsters and The Addams Family, Carry On Screaming! starred Harry H. Corbett in his only Carry On role as unhappily under-the-thumb Detective Sergeant Sidney Bung. Bung’s bumbling investigations into the disappearances of several young women lead him to the Bide-A-Wee Rest Home, and into the scheming arms of the mistress of the house, Fenella Fielding’s Valeria Watt.

The pitch-perfect script, on-point production design and memorable characters – such as Kenneth Williams’ Dr Orlando Watt, Bernard Bresslaw’s Lurch-a-like, Sockett and Tom Clegg’s funny/creepy monster, Oddbod – make the series’ 12th entry a real gem.

Best gag: Orlando’s increasingly convoluted attempt to give his surname to Peter Butterworth’s dim-witted Sergeant Slobotham. What? Who? Where? etc.

Carry On Camping (1969)

Carry On Camping (1969)

A trip to what they believe to be a nudist colony doesn’t go to plan for the ever-randy Sid Boggle (Sid James) and his easily-led sidekick Bernie Lugg (Bernard Bresslaw). Instead, they find a family campsite, where the arrival of a coachload of mischievous and promiscuous schoolgirls, led by Barbara Windsor’s Babs, promises to salvage the lads’ frustrated plans for saucy shenanigans.

Carry On Camping claimed the top spot at the UK box office in 1969 and was later voted the nation’s favourite Carry On in a Daily Mirror 50th anniversary poll in 2008.

Best gag: Babs’ famous eyebrow-raising ‘wardrobe malfunction’ during an early morning exercise routine.

Carry On Matron (1972)

Carry On Matron (1972) poster

The punningly named Finisham Maternity Hospital is the setting for the series’ last genuinely memorable entry. When the hospital’s large consignment of birth control pills comes to the attention of Sid James’ small-time criminal Sid Carter, he puts into motion a fittingly farcical plan to steal and then sell the contraceptives abroad.

A cross-dressing ‘nurse’, a libidinous doctor and a hypochondriac registrar are just some of the loveably daft characters that Hattie Jacques’ under-loved matron has to contend with. Featuring virtually all of the series’ best loved stars, Carry On Matron is wonderfully silly and gleefully executed.

Best gag: On being asked “Oh, you haven’t had your baby yet?”, Sid fires back: “No, I thought I’d leave that to the missus.”

5 to forget…

Carry On Girls (1973)

Carry On Girls (1973)

By the early 1970s the series was starting to flag, and Carry On Girls showed that Carry On’s glory days were now well behind it. Sorely missing series regulars Kenneth Williams and Charles Hawtrey, this tale of shenanigans at a downmarket beauty contest in the seaside town of Fircombe is a dud from beginning to end.

Attempting to move with the times, the shift from nudge-nudge, wink-wink humour to more risqué material and on-screen nudity backfires, as the cruder gags largely miss their mark. Even the always brilliant June Whitfield as formidable feminist Augusta Prodworthy couldn’t save this one.

Best gag: On hearing Augusta Prodworthy state that nine inches of annual rainfall is “an average one”, Councillor Sid Fiddler (Sid James) shoots back: ‘If you think nine inches is an average one, you’ve been spoilt.”

Carry On England (1976)

Carry On England (1976)

The Second World War barracks of a mixed gender anti-aircraft battery is the setting for the misfire that was Carry On England. Featuring only a smattering of the Carry On regulars – including Kenneth ConnorJoan Sims and Jack Douglas – this box-office disaster plays out like a misguided, mash-up episode of Dad’s Army and It Ain’t Half Hot Mum.

With the ever-enthusiastic Windsor Davies and Melvyn Hayes playing almost carbon-copies of their respective characters from the latter sitcom, the paucity of the script and concept behind it is plain to see. Sequences featuring topless nudity just add to the feeling that the series was, by now, clutching at straws.

Best gag: Captain S. Melly (Kenneth Connor) asking Jack Douglas’s Bombardier Ready “Are you a ventriloquist?” – to be answered with ‘No sir, Church of England.”

That’s Carry On! (1977)

That's Carry On! (1977)

Inspired by MGM’s hit compilation film That’s Entertainment! (1974), That’s Carry On! marked 20 years of the series by pulling together the best clips from the previous 27 entries. Babs Windsor and Kenneth Williams present the clips from the projection room of Pinewood Studios while generally larking about and making jokes about Babs’ “assets”.

A well-deserved anniversary it may have been, but this one also highlighted how the series had steadily declined as the ensemble cast grew older and the gags began to wear thin. The times had changed and That’s Carry On! feels more like a death knell than a cause for celebration.

Best gag: Take your pick from any of the greatest-hits clips included.

Carry On Emmanuelle (1978)

Carry On Emmannuelle (1978)

The 30th Carry On movie was to be the last for well over a decade, and the series entered its unplanned hiatus not with a bang but a whimper. For a parody of the soft-core pornography witnessed in the Emmanuelle films, as well as being an entry into the dubious sub-genre that is the British sex comedy, there’s a certain irony in Carry On Emmannuelle being so irredeemably flaccid in all departments.

Despite the appearance of a number of series regulars, including Kenneth Williams and Joan Sims, this is as far from the series’ heyday as it’s possible to get. Neither raunchy or funny, Carry On Emmannuelle is just tired.

Best gag: A wordless sequence involving Mrs Dangle (Joan Sims) being seduced in a launderette. 

Carry On Columbus (1992)

Carry On Columbus (1992)

The first Carry On movie in 14 years – shot and released to coincide with the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s discovery of the Americas – was a desperately laboured attempt to revive the series. Jim Dale signed on to play the lead role and was joined by Carry On alumni Jack Douglas, June Whitfield, Jon Pertwee and Bernard Cribbins, alongside Alexei Sayle, Rik Mayall and a host of other contemporary, alternative comedians.

Unfortunately, practically all of the gags, both visual and verbal, sink like stones, leaving precious little for the viewer to take away from this belated epitaph to a once thriving series.

Best gag: Columbus stating that one legged cannibals are victims of their own gluttony.

Comedy Genius is a season of side-splitting film and TV, at BFI Southbank, on BFI Player and at venues across the UK, from October 2018-January 2019.

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