It's the first Carry On film! In case you've been living under a rock and/or aren't British, the Carry On films are a series of thirty-odd comedy films that ran for two decades (1958-78), if you don't count a brief and unloved hiccup in 1992. They're best-known for their stars such as Sid James, Kenneth Williams, Barbara Windsor and many more, who in cheerful disregard of setting and historical period generally seemed to be playing themselves. Their comedy style is as broad as possible, usually to the accompaniment of trousers falling down and swanee whistles. This has led to them being oft-regarded as dated sexist rubbish, but the truth is of course that they're wonderful.
Incidentally their evolution was remarkably similar to that of Hammer Horror. They started at around the same time. There are more Hammer Horrors, but the Carry Ons took longer to die out. The problem in both cases was that they were a riotous success when they began in the 1950s, but the world had changed by the time the 1970s rolled around. Even nudity couldn't save them. Both series have also suffered attempted revivals, despite 1992's Carry On Columbus
. This is where the analogy breaks down, since the unique problem of the Carry On films is that they're defined in the popular imagination by their mostly now-dead stars.
Anyway Carry On Sergeant was the original, although ironically that title was itself an attempt at cashing in on the success of another movie, 1957's Carry On Admiral. It wasn't even planned as a series. It just happened to do good enough business to inspire more of the same from its producer Peter Rogers and director Gerald Thomas, who'd both stay with it right through to Columbus. Something I didn't know was that this first film was based on a novel, The Bull Boys by R.F. Delderfield. That actually explains a few things and changes my opinion of certain aspects of the film from "cliche" to "ill-judged adaptation". The plot in short is that Sergeant Grimshawe (William Hartnell) is retiring in ten weeks' time and has set his sights on winning the Champion Platoon award with his next intake of recruits. Naturally they're a shower of hypochondriacs, idiots and losers.
The problem is that we're only interested in the rookies. The officers are unremarkable, with the worst being William Hartnell! He is! No really, he is! You have no idea how astonished I was to discover that, albeit slightly less so than I was to find Troughton rubbish in Scars of Dracula
. Both are actors I respect enormously giving performances that have their charms, but are completely unsuited to the kind of film they're in. Hartnell gives us a lovely, human moment or two, but it's in the context of a subtle, underplayed performance that in context must be counted a failure. He doesn't sell his gags. Instead the movie's being stolen out from under him by co-stars playing it broad enough to fill the London Palladium in a 1950s British version of Police Academy.
It had always puzzled me that Hartnell was never invited back, but now I know why. Well, unless being a big name he had better things to do and/or wanted too high a fee. It's certainly the money that wasn't enough for Bob Monkhouse.
A further problem is that the officers are too gentle and reasonable. Police Academy had fun with its scum, but Carry On Sergeant's problem is that the British in the 1950s adored the army. They'd just saved us from Hitler. They supported the Empire. All the girls loved a man in uniform and we still had National Service, which here is a particular problem for Bob Monkhouse and Shirley Eaton's characters. It's all rather quaint. Because of all this, the plot thus can't generate its tension directly and so instead wants to be driven by Grimshawe's desire to win the Champion Platoon award. I'll be generous and assume this worked in the novel. Here it's lame, especially at the end when a bunch of no-hopers who've been disastrous failures for the past ten weeks become the best overnight more or less by wanting it hard enough. Admittedly Connor and Rossington's characters had recently had a complete transformation, but the best I can say is that on second viewing I could forgive the cliche.
What's worse, Grimshawe decides to adopt a softly-softly approach with his recruits. I'll be generous and assume that this is why Hartnell is so bland and has less screen presence than almost all the other officers. Hattie Jacques is more intimidating in a single shot than Hartnell manages all whole film.
That all sounds very negative, but believe it or not I like this film. Any sufficiently charming movie can lull you into handwaving its problems as quirks. It might look as if the filmmakers made some eccentric choices, but it's just that they admire the army and expect you to like it too. What's more, you will. It's a funny film and a good-natured slice of the 1950s.
It's time to talk about the cast. As the first Carry On film, this might take a while since almost half of the 48 named actors would return later in other Carry Ons. The big names are Kenneth Williams, Charles Hawtrey, Kenneth Connor and Hattie Jacques, plus a tiny role for Terry Scott, but there are a good number of less-remembered actors who kept returning in the black-and-white ones. It's like a little sub-series of its own.
The most important is Cyril Chamberlain, who did all seven films up to Carry On Cabby
but not long afterwards retired from acting to sell antiques in Wales. Eric Barker, Bill Owen, Terence Longdon and Norman Rossington all went on to do four films and Shirley Eaton did three. Eric Barker's last would be Carry On Emmannuelle
, making him and the two Kenneths the only three actors to do both the first and last regular Carry Ons, yet coincidentally he'd also done a film called Carry On London in 1937. Meanwhile Bill Owen is probably best-known for playing Compo in 185 episodes of Last of the Summer Wine, while Shirley Eaton was of course the gold-painted girl in Goldfinger.
All the other returnees were bit players at best, but between them they still notched up a good few credits. The roster is Anthony Sagar and Frank Forsyth (7 films each), Ed Devereaux and Patrick Durkin (5 each), David Williams (3) and Martin Boddey, Ian Whittaker, John Mathews, Graham Stewart, Leigh Madison and Don McCorkindale (2 each). There. Don't you feel better for knowing that?
Of that lot, the most important here is Kenneth Connor. He gets the biggest role and the biggest laughs as the hypochondriac Horace Strong, coupled with a love interest in Dora Bryan who's cartoonish even by Carry On standards and very funny indeed. At first I thought she was out of her mind, but by the end I was roaring. I'd also note that Connor does marvels with a silly and underwritten character U-turn, making a virtue out of what could have been an serious problem with the film. He's great with the unstoppable Hattie Jacques too. Note that he got his own TV series (The Kenneth Connor Show) in 1972. Meanwhile Charles Hawtrey is a delight, while Kenneth Williams had me laughing out loud with just his first line. Delivered from offscreen, no less. "Oh, do stop shouting, please." I also enjoyed Terence Longdon, who's urbane and charming even if his role isn't the funniest and I was pleased to learn that he'd be back.
The straight men are Bob Monkhouse (who's fine) and Shirley Eaton (who's gorgeous but a waste of space) as the newlyweds who forgot to arrange compassionate leave and so get split up on their wedding day by a service call-up. They're not particularly memorable, but I liked Monkhouse.
The whole film's so amiable that I feel bad to be spending so much time pointing out its imperfections, but there really are a lot of them. Norman Rossington slightly undersells his part as the simpleton Herbert, although he's still memorable and likeable. "I give up." "So did the army." Eric Barker has an annoying speech pattern for his lines as Captain Potts and can't pronounce "flamingo". More worryingly, important scenes like the wedding day call-up and Monkhouse finally getting his compassionate leave are underwritten and badly directed. They're amateurish, the hallmark of incompetent adaptation. I'm afraid I don't like Gerald Thomas.
Nevertheless none of that really matters. This film's flaws are merely foibles, whereas its virtues are considerable. It's endearing, funny and the progenitor of a much-loved comedy series that would last for more than twenty years. It's charming.
P.S. The complete list is:
- 01. Carry On Sergeant (1958)
- 02. Carry On Nurse (1959)
- 03. Carry On Teacher (1959)
- 04. Carry On Constable (1960)
- 05. Carry On Regardless (1961)
- 06. Carry On Cruising (1962)
- 07. Carry On Cabby (1963)
- 08. Carry On Jack (1963)
- 09. Carry On Spying (1964)
- 10. Carry On Cleo (1964)
- 11. Carry On Cowboy (1965)
- 12. Carry On Screaming! (1966)
- 13. Carry On Don't Lose Your Head (1966)
- 14. Carry On Follow That Camel (1967)
- 15. Carry On Doctor (1967)
- 16. Carry On Up The Khyber (1968)
- 17. Carry On Camping (1969)
- 18. Carry On Again Doctor (1969)
- 19. Carry On Up the Jungle (1970)
- 20. Carry On Loving (1970)
- 21. Carry On Henry (1971)
- 22. Carry On At Your Convenience (1971)
- 23. Carry On Matron (1972)
- 24. Carry On Abroad (1972)
- 25. Carry On Girls (1973)
- 26. Carry On Dick (1974)
- 27. Carry On Behind (1975)
- 28. Carry On England (1976)
- 29. That's Carry On (1978)
- 30. Carry On Emmannuelle (1978)
- 31. Carry On Columbus (1992)