It's the last of the four Carry On Christmas specials and a welcome reversal of their previous trend of "every year worse than the last, including the year they didn't do anything at all". Mind you, the improvement is merely up to "unfunny".
Good news: Talbot Rothwell's back! Bad news: it's proof that even he wasn't always that great! Obviously we're delighted not to have Dave Freeman, but to be honest, the main difference between the last two specials is that this one's less unlikeable. Carry On Stuffing
's innuendo felt ugly. It made me want to run away from the television. This year is just as tediously one-note, to be be honest, but at least the tone is merely that of a small boy who thinks he's being funny when he's not, whereas last year at times was almost disturbing.
That's still hardly a recommendation, though. This special is basically a fifty-minute slot from a comedian with one joke that wasn't funny the first time. It's okay at the beginning, but then drifts downhill until by the time we'd reached Robin Hood, I was clock-watching.
The cast is... not much different. Sid James is back, which is good. Bernard Bresslaw is back as well, although it says a lot that I hadn't realised he was gone. However on the downside we've lost Hattie Jacques and Valerie Leon, two beloved actresses (albeit in different ways) and the result of this is to make this Christmas special feel more male-dominated. It's practically hairy. Carry On Stuffing
, despite its many problems, gave a lot of screen time to its ladies. This one though is the Sid James show. This isn't inherently bad and I'm a fan of his, obviously, but the only actor here I'd seek out even in bad material is Peter Butterworth and this time he's even more underused than usual.
0. FRAMING STORY. Sid James is a department store Santa, which is unusual for these specials because it's a modern-day setting. It's mundane. I liked it. There's an odd pleasure to be had in seeing Sims, Butterworth and Connor wearing ordinary clothes and playing simple roles dead straight, because it's not what you expect from comedians in a comedy. This actually makes for quite a good beginning, with a James-Connor confrontation that ends with James showing a bit of steel (which I liked), after which comes a silly bit with Barbara Windsor playing a 13-year-old schoolgirl. Yes, that's what James thinks too. You could put your eye out with those. I tend to disagree with the Carry On assessment of Windsor as sex on legs, but in fairness here she's mildly distracting from time to time (schoolgirl, cavegirl in fur bikini, etc.)
1. CHRISTMAS 2001 BC. It's more of the Pod family from Carry On Cleo
. Connor is playing Anthropod rather than Hengist, but there's still a Senna (Joan Sims rather than Sheila Hancock). This is as wildly, distractingly ahistorical as it was last time. Obviously we're about two millennia earlier than Cleo, but it's still a similar combination of:
(a) Stone Age cavemen hitting each other on the head with clubs (any point over a 2 million year span)
(b) dinosaurs (brontosaurus and pterodactyls are mentioned, so perhaps 150 million BC)
(c) mammoths (any time between 5,000,000 and 12,000 BC, although there's evidence that individual populations survived longer)
(d) Angles and presumably Saxons (5th to 11th centuries, although these ones paint themselves in woad like Picts)
This is probably the best of the individual sketches, but mostly by default and certainly not by enough that I'd argue over it.
2. CHRISTMAS 1759. Ends with a sexual reference that's unusually explicit even for a Carry On and includes Jack Douglas as a butler called Crapper. (Last time he was Ringworm, so I suppose there's a certain biological logic to the progression.) The main thing you'll take away from this one is Sims and Bresslaw. It's set a little too late to be a true Restoration comedy, but it feels bang on in terms of subject matter, costumes and mannered performances. Sims and Bresslaw in particular are talking as if they've got an entire china tea set in their mouths. It's kind of fascinating.
3. CHRISTMAS 1917. World War One, in the trenches. This mostly isn't worth your time, but it has one moment that I found kind of sweet. "It's Christmas Eve." "So it is."
4. DANCE OF THE SUGAR PLUM FAIRY. The funniest thing about this is the innuendo value of it being called The Nutcracker Suite, except that they never mention that on-screen and you've got to recognise the music for yourself. The Carry On gang (including men) wear white tutus and dance ballet. I'm guessing this was inspired by the convent girl dance in the 1969 special
, but the difference is that that was funny. This isn't.
5. CHRISTMAS 1192. This was my least favourite segment, partly because I didn't believe for a moment that I was looking at Robin Hood and his Merry Men. Yet again the sketch ends with James having his wicked way with Windsor, which is getting old. The only thing I liked here was Connor's Liverpudlian Will Scarlett.
The most curious thing about this special is Mincing Bresslaw. He's playing a flaming homosexual both in 1759 and in 1192, which seemed odd and so drew my attention. You see, the Carry On films rarely did homosexual jokes. You'll find a very few such characters here and there, if you look for them, but the hidden secret of the Carry Ons is that they built themselves on flamboyant homosexual actors. Oh, the films think they're straight. They're full of buxom girls and leering innuendo, but look at the performers they're building themselves around. Kenneth Williams. Charles Hawtrey. Frankie Howerd. These are all outrageous personalities who built massively successful screen personas around camp and/or extraordinarily mannered delivery. Julian Clary is similarly the best thing in Carry On Columbus
, although it's not as if he's facing much competition. I'd even argue that Leslie Phillips in his Carry Ons has a similar appeal, although obviously inverted since you couldn't get someone more hopelessly girl-smitten.
I shouldn't overstate my case, obviously. Carry On films are laddish, sex-obsessed and in love with big boobs. Sid James is their king. However they're also a shadow of themselves when there isn't a gay god of British comedy tearing up the stage. The Hawtrey Christmas specials are infinitely superior to the non-Hawtrey ones, for instance. Here the entire male cast is regrettably heterosexual, so Bresslaw duly gets press-ganged into being the Honorary Gay.
He's not bad, actually. He's no Hawtrey, but he's making a better fist (ahem) of the job than Jack Douglas.
Overall, I'm glad I've seen these specials, but only one-and-a-half of them were good. The first one's great and the second one has Charles Hawtrey at his best, but apart from those high points you'll be lucky to find mediocrity. They're an education for those who'd see Sid James as the be-all and end-all, although of course I still love him. This one's better than its predecessor, but only by a small margin and they're both bad.