So unfunny that it'll make the writing of comedy itself seem mysterious. How does it work, this impenetrable thing called "laughter"? How does anyone manage it? Is it vouchsafed only to those who've entered a lost ancient Egyptian temple or something? Dave Freeman certainly hasn't, anyway.
That said, the good news is that it's not offensive, obnoxious or unwatchable. It's a cast of old friends doing, for the most part, a bad job with weak material. That's all. It didn't make me angry or send me screaming for the "off" button, but merely made my jaw drop at the idea that anyone ever thought this was comedy. Sid James does best, of course. I liked the scene where he's being interrogated in drag by Oliver Cromwell, in which he refuses to overact and so sells the reality of an unbelievable situation. Sid James in a dress and a wig being taken for a woman in normal light by adults, none of whom are blind or insane? Um... okay, it's Carry On. They do that. Anyway, James is my hero and that scene was amusing.
The other interesting thing here is Peter Butterworth, albeit that doesn't mean I'm not calling him good. He's playing Cromwell and thus breaking his usual typecasting, even doing an accent. I enjoyed that. The Carry On team were all more versatile than their Carry On stereotypes and it's always enjoyable to see them getting a chance to spread their wings. Butterworth is thus worth watching from that point of view, but the downside is that he fails at his dramatic purpose. Cromwell's a threat. That's his script function. He's brought his Roundheads to the Royalist country house of Joan Sims and Jack Douglas, ready to burn the place down and have everyone executed if he catches a whiff of a Cavalier. Theoretically this should provide dramatic tension, which can be conducive to comedy. In practice... no. In practice it comes across as a bunch of Carry On hacks pissing around for 25 minutes.
Anyway, the story. I think I've already suggested most of it en passant, but I might as well do it properly. It's the English Civil War and Joan Sims is a staunch Royalist, but her husband Douglas is a flip-flopper who'll support whatever side looks likely to win. Sid James goes off to fight for the king, but then one battle later the Roundheads come and park themselves on the household. They've already burned down one village inn for harbouring a Cavalier fugitive... and that's exactly what Sims and Douglas have when James shows up.
So, how to appoint the blame? The writer and director are clearly guilty as sin. Neither is perceptibly giving a damn, although I'd suggest that Freeman's lamentably weak script is at least not as bad as Tarrant's direction is making it look. The scene where Joan Sims is trying to lie to that Roundhead about a serving girl in the kitchen... oh dear. Are we even supposed to be believing in the lines being spoken?
Joan Sims is uninspired, not to mention being given a dress and a wig that make her look like a thatched cottage. It's not a flattering look. Jack Douglas at least has something clear to play and does so, but I didn't think he was adding anything either and I wasn't happy to see him do that flailing spastic schtick of his. Admittedly it's only once, but that's once too often. That gets old fast. Barbara Windsor is exactly as always, i.e. doing her usual Barbara Windsor thing and making me wonder whether a different actress who was actually acting might have been able to raise her scenes and make them, perhaps, a bit funny. She also shows less cleavage than usual. James is good. Butterworth is half-good.
...and that's it. Otherwise it's minor parts from bit players you won't recognise.
I have one negative point of praise. The episode avoids being partisan, unlike, say, Mark Gatiss's The Roundheads. Dave Freeman seems to me to be on the side of the Cavaliers, but he's using the two sides interchangeably for his, um, comedy and not bringing up Cromwell's near-genocides in Scotland and Ireland or anything.
In summary, sort of watchable in a forensic sense, but a failure at its job of making me laugh. What most exercised me as a viewer was looking for the right simile for what the wig and costume department have done to poor Joan Sims. She's like walking furniture. The mystery is that any of the cast returned for later episodes, although in fairness Sid James would only do one more. Well, I suppose you can't blame them (except of course for their performances). We've all got to earn a crust somehow. I'm not allowing the writer and director any excuses, though.