On Wednesday 4 January 2012, a friend on a mailing list wrote:
- Did you see the abysmal 'Carry On Christmas' in which Scrooge's main crime is having not funded Frankenstein's Monster (which sounds good, but is crap) - oh and Dracula is Frankenstein's assistant. If Carry on Laughing is worse than Carry On Christmas, the CoL cast must physically come to your house and wee in your tea. We all like the Carry On films in this house - but this was really really awful.
I loved it.
Now admittedly I've just finished watching the complete Carry On Laughing!, which is less funny than some funerals. You could hammer nails into my head and at least they wouldn't be written by Dave Freeman. However I also thought Carry On Christmas was better than a good few of the movies.
What's great about it is its cast and the fact that they're so completely unconstrained by, say, a script. You could almost call it the ultimate distillation of Carry On. It's random silliness in a very accommodating framework that's been cobbled together by Talbot Rothwell in about half an hour. They can't stop the plot, because there isn't one. They can thus do bizarre digressions like the Four Convent Girls scene, which is pointless and wonderful. Old troopers like Hawtrey, Butterworth and Howerd (sweet Lord in heaven, Frankie Howerd!) pretty much abandon the script and ad-lib until they're making themselves corpse. Hawtrey is probably drunk, of course. Sid James and Hattie Jacques are nearly dumbstruck, but what can they do?
If you're trying to take it literally, mind you, it's as bad as its enemies say. The, ahem, plot goes as follows:
Sid James is Scrooge, not because he's being Scrooge-like but simply because it's the main role. He's the usual lovable rogue, despite the fact that Rothwell's Scrooge isn't just a skinflint but actually evil, e.g. blowing up carollers. Similarly his eventual renunciations of miserliness are ludicrous, being as badly motivated as anything you've seen in ages. His final change of heart is so stupid that it would have worked better as a deliberate parody of bad drama. However despite all that, he's funny. Can't take that away from him. "I'll thump you" made me laugh, for instance.
Bernard Bresslaw, incidentally, is perfect as Bob Cratchit. If you ever wanted a heart of gold and a brain of mush, Bresslaw's your man.
Naturally Scrooge is going to be visited by the Ghosts of Christmas Past (Hawtrey), Present (Windsor) and Future (Bresslaw again, this time as a 1969 hippy with green sunglasses and flower garlands). Thus the Dickensian framing story makes way for three unrelated loads of nonsense:
(a) Dracula and Frankenstein, who's also a Jekyll-and-Hyde Wolf-Man, working together to raise not one but two Monsters. Firstly, there's the absurdity of Dracula calling Frankenstein "Master". (Surely a count is higher-ranked than a baron?) Secondly, there's the make-up, which is merely terrible for Bresslaw's Monster skullcap and far, far worse than that when his creator becomes a Wolf-Man. This sketch is slightly painful if you care about the horror icons being lampooned, but on the upside the final twist of the monsters' obsession with their creator is actually quite an interesting idea. Unfortunately the sketch hasn't realised this and instead throws it away as sex gags, but there's still interesting (albeit unrealised) potential underneath.
(b) Frankie Howerd as the poet Robert Browning in 1846, trying to elope with his wife-to-be Hattie Jacques. This is theoretically Rudolf Besier's play The Barretts of Wimpole Street, which has been adapted for movies, TV and a stage musical. However in practice it's Howerd going off the deep end as he shreds the script into confetti and instead does his usual stand-up act. Glorious. Note incidentally that Dickens's A Christmas Carol was published in 1843, so using Robert and Elizabeth Browning for the vision of the Spirit of Christmas Present is of all things approximate historical accuracy from Talbot Rothwell.
(c) Cinderella, via Aladdin. Yes, at last the Carry Ons are officially panto, complete with rhyming dialogue. I loved this too.
None of this makes any sense. Why does Scrooge have a buxom girl in her scanties in his bedroom? However everyone's clearly having a whale of a time and the level of silliness is so high that you've just got to go with the flow. (If you don't, you'll hate it. Many people do, although as far as I can tell that's a minority verdict and this is often called the best of the TV Carry Ons.) Peter Butterworth and his costumes never stop being funny, whether he's Dracula putting in his false teeth, one of four dancing convent girls or an Ugly Sister in a mini-skirt. Barbara Windsor is more interesting than usual because she's not doing her usual Cockney sparrow characterisation, instead playing things like a prim and proper Christmas Spirit or a downtrodden Cinderella. Frankie Howerd is, wonderfully, out of control. Charles Hawtrey is of course one of the world's great pleasures when watching comedy, but furthermore for once is getting gags that acknowledge his homosexuality, which is refreshing and he's enjoying them. (Maybe he's ad-libbing?) Bresslaw, Jacques and of course the great Sid James play it straight down the middle and add class. I'm not such a fan of Terry Scott, although I don't mind him, but still this is a stellar cast and you'll never notice the lack of Kenneth Williams.
What's more, the episode's revue-like nature means there's no fill-in actors. Everyone except Sid James plays multiple roles, so for instance Bresslaw is down as Bob Cratchit, Frankenstein's Monster, Spirit of Christmas Future, Convent Girl, Town Crier and Policeman. In other words, if you think the best reason to watch Carry On films is the regular cast (i.e. you're sane), this is the same thing, but squared.
Overall, glorious. However it's also deeply flawed and stupid. I leave it up to you to decide which one is likely to weigh more heavily with you. Personally though I love the surrealism of gags like Bob Cratchit's prayer to heaven, alongside the weird authenticity of doing Mary Shelley for Christmas Past, Robert Browning for Christmas Present and so on. Above all, though, it's the cast. The lack of Jack Douglas makes up for the lack of Kenneth Williams, I think. These are must-watch performers as far as I'm concerned, let off the leash and having silly fun at Christmas. I think it's excellent.