It's boring. I think that's a Carry On first.
It's also the end of an era. Talbot Rothwell had a nervous breakdown due to overwork and this would be his last script for the series. Sid James and Hattie Jacques make their final appearances. After this, all that's left is Behind
, plus the That's Carry On
compilation in 1979 and of course Carry On Columbus
The story involves Dick Turpin, who may be an unfamiliar name if you're not British. Turpin was a poacher, burglar, horse thief, highwayman and murderer who was rightly executed in 1739. Unfortunately ballads and popular theatre romanticised his story and eventually turned him into a hero. He performs an impossible feat of horse-riding in a Victorian novel called Rookwood, which became part of the legend. He's been retconned into an 18th-century Robin Hood and his assorted films and TV series include titles like The Adventures of Dick Turpin: The King of Highwaymen and His Majesty Dick Turpin.
Naturally this has the Carry On team swarming like flies around excreta. The only problem as far as they're concerned is that being called Dick doesn't allow enough sexual innuendo, so they call him Big Dick instead.
The story involves Turpin's struggle with the Bow Street Runners, which in an uncharacteristic burst of historical authenticity really existed. They were founded in 1749 and this film takes place in 1750, although this means Sid James (61) is looking surprisingly well for a man who was hanged eleven years earlier at the age of 33. Anyway, these Bow Street Runners are led by Kenneth Williams, with Bernard Bresslaw as his superior and Jack Douglas as his sidekick... and therein lies the boredom. The plot's one-sided. Kenneth Williams, as usual playing a snooty idiot, couldn't win a battle of wits with a five-year-old. Jack Douglas is hardly more competent. Sid James's repeated humiliation of them is practically bullying, although this wouldn't matter if he had any goals of his own. He doesn't. He enjoys his life just as it is, thank you very much. All he wants in this movie is for nothing to change and for him to go on perpetrating robberies.
Then there's Hattie Jacques. She's playing his housekeeper of ten years' standing, yet she's astonished whenever he comes home late and so every time he's having to come up with flimsy lies to cover himself. These get found out. What a load of tripe. I'm always delighted to see Jacques and as ever she's one of the best things in the film, but she's being forced to play a rehash of her earlier roles and she deserved better.
At the one hour mark, I was wishing the film would hurry up and finish. I'd have bailed if I hadn't been going to write this review. Oh, and yet again Rothwell was making me uncomfortable with his assumptions that everyone commits adultery and that it's normal to make leering sexist comments to people's faces.
So that's the case for the prosecution. What did I like?
The performances are surprisingly interesting, even given my high regard for the Carry On regulars. What's particularly worth watching this time is their double roles. Most of the cast have a hidden identity. Sid James and his gang (Peter Butterworth and Barbara Windsor) run the village church by day. Williams and Douglas pretend to be criminals. Even Joan Sims at first glance appears to be French, yet occasionally drops into broad Cockney.
These double roles are fascinating, because they're stretching our favourite actors in unfamiliar directions. Kenneth Williams is surprisingly good as a lowlife crook, but Sid James makes for a glorious vicar. He underplays it. He's calm and mild, no matter what the provocation. He's gentle with everyone. You get the impression that his vicar identity is just as real for him as his Dick Turpin persona and that he accepts its responsibilities. He can quote chapter and verse on Biblical quotations, for instance, while he sells his stolen loot in a church jumble sale. I think the latter is meant to be a Robin Hood twist.
Of the others, I thought Jack Douglas too aggressive to Williams. You can understand his feelings, but that's still no way to talk to your boss unless you're looking for the sack. Barbara Windsor is playing an innocent, which she pulls off better than you'd think but it makes her feel peripheral in a way she wasn't in, say, Carry On Girls
. Peter Butterworth is a spear-carrier, but it's nice to see him. The revelation though, comparatively speaking, is Bernard Bresslaw. He's always been famous for throwing everything into his roles, even learning foreign language phrases when playing an African or an Indian, but here it becomes clear that he's managed to turn himself into an actor. He's still not a particularly good one, mind you, but there's no comparison with what he was doing in the early Carry Ons. He's scary! He's doing a good voice too. Lately he'd seemed to get typecast as a big lovable simpleton, at which he was very natural and effective, but here he's having to transform himself into a harsh, angry man of authority... and he does okay.
The nudity is from Windsor, incidentally, although she's sexier when not showing her tits. There's a reasonable amount of cleavage, but not enough to be a selling point. Margaret Nolan gets naked, but shows us nothing.
As for the innuendo, though, it's unusual in the emphasis it's putting on the male organ. Even Up The Khyber
didn't have this much talk of trouser snakes, not to mention spying in the toilet and Kenneth Williams being attacked by self-appointed manhood inspectors. Even the movie's title has a penis. Cleavage shots and leering over women are thus liable to feel more out of place and became more jarring than usual for me. Oh, and needless to say Turpin steals clothes as well as valuables, i.e. he makes his victims strip.
The other thing I appreciate about this film is its respect for religion, despite the fact that South Africa banned it as anti-Christian because of James's crooked vicar. The Carry Ons by this point may seem contemptuous about marriage and abusive of women, but it's rather sweet to see Bresslaw and his men not arresting James because he's giving a church service. Meanwhile this film's Turpin is a sweet and rather good vicar, taking his duties seriously enough that despite myself I liked the guy. This was a surprise. I'd been expecting to hate him.
Overall, it's rubbish. It has occasional laughs, often courtesy of Kenneth Williams, but until now I don't think I'd ever found a Carry On film boring. Basically I like the series. I'm a fan. Sometimes they're creepy, disturbing or offensive, but this is the first one where I just flat-out didn't care what was happening. It's perfunctory and cheap. It feels as if they'd run out of money and didn't care, while the storyline is pointless. Where's the tension or interest in making a fool out of Kenneth Williams? He comes pre-fooled.
Dull. It has its defenders, but I'm not one of them.