That was horrible. I didn't like that at all. Admittedly it's quite a good-looking Carry On, with excellent production values and a decent plot structure to go with the usual cast of favourites... but unfortunately it's also loathsome.
I've talked about the occasionally disturbing morality of the Carry Ons before, but this might be the worst of them. It's like 'Camping'
and 'Don't Lose Your Head'
rolled into one, with an additional dose of racism and plot illogic. 'Camping'
gives us repellent sexual politics with Sid James. 'Don't Lose Your Head'
gives us a historical setting with French stereotypes and the constant threat of execution, although this film's French cliches are far more dubious. Apparently they're addicted to eating bulbs of raw garlic and hence stink of it so badly that you can hardly go near them, yet won't even consider not eating the stuff even when that's what's stopping their husband from consummating their marriage on their wedding night.
Worse yet though is that the plot fundamentally makes no sense. Henry VIII's motivation for all these marriages would seem to be the fact that he's a randy old bastard who isn't getting any sex. An heir to the throne? Who cares about that? This is about as credible as Sid James in drag, since there's simply no way in the world beyond physical incapacity that Henry VIII wasn't able to get his end away. This one here thinks of nothing else! He goes "hunting", which involves chasing buxom girls across the countryside. He's the most powerful man in England and is perfectly capable of having people executed on almost any pretext. Nevertheless in this film he can't get a shag for love or money and comes across as being all but helpless in the face of court intrigue, feminine scruples and international politics. He's a bit pathetic actually, despite the fact that we're being expected to see him as a forceful tyrant. Another idiotic plot point is that he spends half the film trying to get a divorce from his latest wife by extorting a confession of infidelity, despite the fact that this would seem unnecessary since she's pregnant and they'd never consummated the marriage. In fact that last point could have been a sufficient reason in itself.
I just didn't buy it. The entire film pushed me away. Almost everything that happened was unconvincing, morally repellent or both. The film begins with Sid James not even hanging around to watch the execution of his queen, Patsy Rowlands, because he's in too much of a hurry to speed-marry Joan Sims and get into bed with her. I wouldn't have minded so much had the film seemed to think there was anything bad about this, instead of just playing it as the 16th century equivalent of "whoops, vicar, where's my trousers?"
Sid James is doing something interesting, though. For once he's not just playing himself. Admittedly he's hardly the world's most flexible actor and his performance is still about 90% unreconstructed Sid James, but from time to time you can see him trying to take on Henry VIII's character instead. This would have been more effective if he'd been doing it more thoroughly, but to be fair to him the script isn't helping and I dare say Gerald Thomas wouldn't have wanted him to depart from the usual stereotype anyway. Nevertheless when he's making these unusual attempts at acting, Sid James becomes heavier and scarier. He stops being a lovable rogue and starts becoming an unpredictable tyrant, capable of ill-motivated decisions that can mean life and death. This I liked a lot. The guy's a monster anyway, so why not admit it and change the film's dynamic to make him the anti-hero instead? The film might have worked better if they'd done that, but unfortunately Sid James isn't doing nearly enough of it to make a difference. It's a detail you might notice, rather than anything more significant.
The cast isn't huge, but I like it. Terry Scott's isn't my favourite, but he's perfectly acceptable and the important thing is that we have Sid James and Kenneth Williams. Other regulars include Connor, Windsor and quite a good role for Charles Hawtrey, so no problems there. Extraordinarily for a Carry On I think there's a reference to Hawtrey's homosexuality, but on the other hand his character not only has sex with a woman but gets her pregnant. Meanwhile Barbara Windsor seemed a bit dozy with a couple of her line readings, but for real-world reasons has got impressive chemistry with Sid James. Peter Butterworth gets what might be the most insignificant cameo of his career, though.
Don't think too hard about the history. It's no Carry On Cleo
, but it's not trying to get it right either. You've got Henry VIII, Thomas Cromwell, Cardinal Wolsey and... um, Guy Fawkes. I'd have been more impressed if the Carry On team hadn't as usual been riding on the coat tails of recent hits, in this case largely the BBC's Six Wives of Henry VIII (1970). There's also a scene that would seem to suggest that Cardinal Wolsey wrote a dictionary, which had me wondering if I'd misremembered my history or else if they'd confused him with Samuel Johnson. Oh, and the French king apparently had his latest wife guillotined. This isn't as bad as it sounds since Joseph-Ignace Guillotin didn't actually invent the guillotine but instead merely put forward its use during the French Revolution, but having said that he did end up giving it his name and so the reference here is definitely an anachronism.
It looks great, mind you. The costumes are downright lavish, with Sid James for instance wearing the same cloak Richard Burton wore in Anne of the Thousand Days (1969). There's location shooting on the Long Walk at Windsor. Even their torture chamber in the Tower has been lit to look almost sinister. To lower the tone for a moment, there's also some amazing cleavage (Margaret Nolan!) and the series's best nudity yet (if you don't count the dirty film in the cinema in 'Camping'
). Unfortunately it's only from Barbara Windsor, but she's wearing a transparent nightdress for much of the third act and there are a couple of shots with nipples.
It isn't worthless. Some people even seem to like it, so presumably not everyone's going to share my reaction to the disturbing morality and plot holes. Furthermore even in an unpleasant film like this, Talbot Rothwell can still on occasion be funny. The gag with the marrows made me laugh, as did the line about "the queen is in Labour" - "don't worry, they'll never get in". There's wit here. Besides, every so often the film comes alive and breathes, for instance in any scene with Kenneth Connor or the James-Sims hostility at the 53 minute mark.
Fundamentally though, for me it didn't work. You've got a plot point made of Henry VIII trying to see Barbara Windsor's tits, as if this was American Pie or something. No, sorry. As the protagonist and engine of the story, he's a failure. If he'd been the scary and ungovernable monster we occasionally get hints of from Sid James, maybe the film might have worked... but then I'd have probably had even more trouble buying the bedroom farce plotting. The film isn't always clear on whether Henry's aiming for a divorce or an actual execution. Meanwhile the sexual side of the plot is unpleasant (although slightly better than 'Camping'
), while the violence is real and yet laughed aside. The film begins and ends with decapitation, has three hanged men in a cutaway shot and tortures Charles Hawtrey in the dungeons for weeks as a running gag.
To be fair though, this isn't one of the ramshackle, incompetent Carry Ons. Instead it's more fundamentally broken.