Gerald ThomasEric BarkerBarbara WindsorBernard Cribbins
Carry On Spying
Medium: film
Year: 1964
Director: Gerald Thomas
Writer: Talbot Rothwell, Sid Colin
Keywords: comedy
Country: UK
Actor: Anthony Baird, Eric Barker, John Bluthal, Tom Clegg, Bernard Cribbins, Bill Cummings, Jim Dale, Patrick Durkin, Angela Ellison, Frank Forsyth, Judith Furse, Hugh Futcher, Charles Hawtrey, Renee Houston, Gertan Klauber, Dilys Laye, Victor Maddern, Jill Mai Meredith, Norman Mitchell, Eric Pohlmann, Derek Sydney, Jack Taylor, Richard Wattis, Kenneth Williams, Barbara Windsor
Format: 87 minutes
Series: << Carry On >>
Website category: Carry On
Review date: 12 March 2009
That was weird. Obviously it's spoofing James Bond films. Charles Hawtrey plays Charlie Bind, originally to have been James Bind, agent double-oh six and a half, until the producers got threatened with legal action. Carry On Bond sounds like a laugh, but then then you sit down to watch the thing and realise that it's nothing like any Bond film you've ever seen. All your expectations? Throw them out of the window. This is one of those films that only makes sense in its historical context, which in this case would be its release date of 1964. The Bond films had hardly started then. We had Dr No and From Russia With Love. That's it. Even Goldfinger wasn't out yet, despite the fact that it would become the series template. If even the original series being spoofed hadn't found its identity yet, what chance the poor Carry On team? Suddenly one realises why as a James Bond parody it misses so many of its targets and instead it becomes surprising that they hit any at all.
What's more, they're spoofing more than just Bond. They're taking on the entire spy genre, with nods to The Third Man, Casablanca and Modesty Blaise. It often looks more like an early Hitchcock, being a modestly budgeted film in black-and-white. Bond has always played big. A film like this was never going to be able to look the part, but often that's not even what it's aiming at.
That said though, Bond remains the obvious point of comparison, especially for a modern audience. Even in 1964 that was the film's main target. Even the film's original poster was based on that of From Russia With Love. The first 15 minutes involve B.O.S.H. HQ, London, where Eric Barker is being forced to send his least competent agents in pursuit of S.T.E.N.C.H. The criminal mastermind they'll be opposing feels a lot like Ernst Stavro Blofeld, though he doesn't stroke a cat and calls himself Dr Crow. "No" = "Crow". Geddit? He lives in a secret base which is clearly based on Dr No's hideaway, complete with a 1960s SF aesthetic, bleeping control room sounds and lots of henchmen in skintight black catsuits. Do they tend to be curvy and female? Do you have to ask? I was reminded of Thunderball, although ironically the best fit is The Living Daylights (1987). Both go to England, Vienna and North Africa (Algiers/Tangiers). Both have an English intelligence facility being infiltrated by a man armed with exploding milk bottles. Both even use a dummy stand with a coat and hat for camouflage, although that's one's a stretch.
The film feels at its most Bondian when its mind is in the gutter. Both series are famous for girls and innuendo, so on that level it's a perfect match. I shouldn't think it took much to persuade Gerald Thomas to include a character called Daphne Honeybutt, for instance. I also liked its jet-setting, taking us to Austria and Algeria.
...and that's it. As far as 007-ness goes, that's your lot. This wouldn't feel like a Bond film at all if it weren't for the girls, but even that side of things feels slightly wrong. Look at Barbara Windsor. Even when dressed as a belly dancer and shimmying her finest features, she's not radiating an iota of sex. She's playing a bubbly schoolgirl. Enthusiastic and likeable, yes. Sexy, no. The Carry Ons could vamp it up with the best of them, as for instance with Fenella Fielding, but this particular film clearly has no interest in crossing the line and having its characters do the deed. There are admittedly two romances, but they're afterthoughts and barely deserving of the name. Cribbins proposes to Windsor, but it's a schoolboy's notion of romance in which the nearest the two of them had come to that kind of relationship had been getting confused about how to put on a gun harness.
Dilys Laye feels oddly 007-ish as a femme fatale, mind you. However her opposite number, Kenneth Williams's character, simply isn't playing the game. It's not that he's homosexual. Here he's not. The Carry On films mysteriously never went in for gay jokes, thank goodness. I've no idea why, but even the likes of Kenneth Williams is all but climbing trees to get away from Hattie Jacques in the hospital films, it's nothing to do with his sexuality. It's oddly innocent, avoiding anything that might puzzle the children in the audience.
Other differences include the fact that we're following a four-man team of agents, not just one. Hawtrey is theoretically playing the Bond character, but there's little acknowledgement of that bar a bow tie and a line or two trying to suggest that he's heterosexual. He's actually the least important agent. Thus we have a Bond spoof with no good equivalent of the central character or his sidekicks, gadgets or even arguably girls. Instead we have four morons. That goes without saying, but what you won't expect is the towering magnificence of their idiocy, guaranteed to shatter any illusion of reality you might have been hoping to cherish. Kenneth Williams puts on a ridiculous fake beard. Hawtrey tries to draw his gun and his trousers fall down. If this were a real spy film, these agents wouldn't merely be inefficient. They'd be dead in seconds. They wouldn't live long enough to feel the floor as they hit it. The gags are so silly that reversing a conveyer belt will cause the movie footage to run backwards, making water unspray back into its nozzles and clothes unfall up to people's bodies. I gasped in admiration. It's a marvel of cinema that anyone dared to put these gags before an audience. To watch this movie, you've got to believe that Bernard Cribbins in a bikini can pass for a woman and that an enemy agent can turn into Benny Hill.
I did blink at minus 300 degrees Centigrade, though. Absolute zero, anyone? There's also a regrettable bit where it's said that the natives of Algiers want to get their hands on white women.
The leader of our four heroes is Kenneth Williams, playing his first utter blithering idiot and for some reason talking through his nose. He sounds like a bee trapped in a jar. He also gets to say his catchphrase a couple of times: "Stop messing about." Of his three rookies, Bernard Cribbins is wonderful and the only reason I can think of for his disappearance from the series is that they didn't offer enough money. Barbara Windsor's breasts make their series debut, followed at a respectful distance by the rest of her. She's not as buxom as everyone says, mind you. Then there's Hawtrey, who's Hawtrey.
Bringing up the rear are Dilys Laye, Jim Dale and the little-seen Eric Barker, harking back to the early days. They're all playing it much straighter than the central foursome, which is nice. The villains are even villainous! Our heroes might be clowns, but they're in a real situation and their opposition is genuinely intent on getting those plans. That I liked. There are even a couple of deaths.
Is the film any good? As a Bond spoof, hell no. It's full of weak, obvious and stupid jokes that don't try to make you laugh by being witty, but simply through wearing down your resistance to childish goofiness. However it's full of charm, thanks to the usual wonderful cast. There's something magical about their innocence, somehow transforming what should be the world's stupidest farrago into something rather lovely. Besides, every so often the film does manage some good laughs. I liked the gag with the doorman at Hakim's Fun House, then howled at Hawtrey's letter to his mum. I also enjoyed the silly chase music, not to mention the silly chases.
Overall I got great enjoyment from this film, even if I often couldn't quite believe what I was seeing. It's just lovely to see Cribbins, Williams, Windsor and Hawtrey doing their stuff, even if the world they're in is deeply and profoundly silly. I also liked Williams's fez. However the film's lack of Bondness was disconcerting enough that I'd have loved to see them try this again a decade later, in the Roger Moore years. You'd have had Sid James being filthier than Connery and dragging the film up by the scruff of its neck whether it liked it or not, not to mention the chance of a bit of nudity. That could have been rather wonderful, actually. I'd back Sid James against Patrick Macnee any day, for starters.