It's a double-length episode of Carry On Laughing!, except with Charles Hawtrey in it. It's directed by Alan Tarrant and co-written by Dave Freeman, for crying out loud.
It's a parody of Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, with no side-stories or digressions like last year's Christmas special. That was practically a sketch show. This however plods through the original book much more literally than you might expect, with Carry On equivalents of Long John Silver (Sid James), Jim Hawkins (Barbara Windsor), Squire Trelawney (Terry Scott), Blind Pew (Charles Hawtrey), Doctor Livesey (Kenneth Connor) and Ben Gunn (Bob Todd). As an adaptation, it's poor and lacks energy. The first act's lively, but things get stodgy once we're out at sea and they don't improve when we find the island.
The fundamental problem is that it's unfunny. Tarrant and Freeman again don't seem to know where their laughs are coming from, failing just as they'd fail five years later with Carry On Laughing!. As often with that series, it's watchable in a passive way, but doesn't seem to know what it's doing. In fairness Freeman has a co-writer here, Sid Colin, who'd previously co-written Carry On Spying with Talbot Rothwell, but the appalling possibility occurs to me that Freeman might have been the better comedy writer of the two, since it's him who kept being asked back. (Apparently some of the gags here turn up, word for word, in Carry On Columbus
.) On the other hand though, maybe Freeman was simply cheap.
There's also a plot point about everyone wanting to see the map tattooed on Barbara Windsor's bottom, which I found vaguely unpleasant. She's the Principal Boy, in traditional panto style, except that she's not really because even within the fiction she's a girl pretending to be a boy. Her breasts are being emphasised more than usual.
So it's all down to the cast, in other words. Even this though is worse than the previous year.
- LOST: Hattie Jacques, Peter Butterworth, Frankie Howerd.
- GAINED: Kenneth Connor, Bob Todd, Wendy Richard
- KEPT: Sid James, Terry Scott, Charles Hawtrey, Barbara Windsor, Bernard Bresslaw
That's hardly a fair trade, is it? I'm in love with Jacques, Butterworth and Howerd. Of their replacements though, I'm lukewarm about Connor, was irritated here by Todd and saw so little of Richard that it's a stretch to mention her at all. Of the returnees, Sid James is rightly the biggest star of Carry On, but he's also a disciplined actor who sticks to the script, does his job and has never really struck me as someone with the knack of rescuing bad material. Scott, Windsor and Bresslaw are okay. They're important Carry On players, but they're also second-tier stars and they've all had their off days.
Hawtrey though... my Lord in heaven, bless Charles Hawtrey.
He's jaw-dropping. I was in awe. Hawtrey single-handedly redeems this Christmas special. He's not just the funniest thing in it, but very nearly the only funny thing in it. He just minces on with a grin and a "why, hello", massacring any rhymes they're foolish enough to have written into his dialogue and stealing the show at every opportunity. I don't think I've ever seen him better. He doesn't have a big role like Long John Silver, but instead an assortment of miscellaneous roles that let him simply be himself. He gets homosexual gags like last year, except this time there's more of them and they're funnier. During a mutiny: "Are you with us, or are you with the men?" "Decisions, decisions." I can't believe the movies kept making him heterosexual.
If you must watch this, you'll probably enjoy the first fifteen minutes. If you can't stomach even that, escape while you still can. I really enjoyed Act One and was looking forward to the rest, but was to be disappointed despite occasional good bits (solid gold Hawtrey, or the rather odd "let her go" scene). It's also in black-and-white, thanks to a technicians' strikes at Thames television, which is normally a good thing but here is a minus because Alan Tarrant isn't doing anything special as director and of course you can tell just by looking that it's a British TV studio of its era. The production values are respectable, though. No complaints there.
Good stuff: Charles Hawtrey and a few other bits. Sid James isn't bad. Otherwise, nothing to see.