There's a lovely irony about the way in which the Carry On
films are now revered, not only in the evolutionary story of British comedy, but also as an essential ingredient of cultural history. Derided for years for their low humor and conveyor-belt production values--30 films were churned out in just 21 years between 1958 and 1978--they now embody a cozy, innocent, and less sophisticated time. At the heart of their success are two vital ingredients: a virtual repertory company of Britain's finest post-war comic talents and quick-fire, innuendo-laden scripts which somehow become high-octane fuel for side-splitting laughter.
Public institutions, great historical figures, and established entertainment genres provided the main modus operandi, offering limitless potential for the films' staple themes of lust, adultery, and chicanery. Carry On Sergeant kicked off in 1958 with mainstay Charles Hawtrey. Later the same year in Carry On Nurse and in 1959's Carry On Teacher, the basic team quickly gelled with Joan Sims and Kenneth Williams making regular appearances. Leslie Phillips's insatiable predatory comic persona also figured large in these early films. Perhaps the first major milestone, though, came with the arrival of Sid James in 1960's Carry On Constable. With his trademark raucous laugh and a face like a wizened walnut, James would be a major factor in the ongoing success of the films, in which his leering, lascivious, and amoral character would vary only in name.
In 1962, Carry On Cruising marked the team's first foray into color. The following year, the films grew more adventurous and multilayered. Within their admittedly limited parameters, they did explore relationships and were surprisingly radical in their satirizing of women's roles. Hattie Jacques, for example, is best remembered for her fearsome matrons, but in Carry On Cabby (1963) she plays a downtrodden woman who hits back at husband Sid by forming her own taxi company. Carry On Jack (also 1963) found the team taking to the high seas in a Mutiny on the Bounty-style spoof starring Bernard Cribbins, but the next two films found the team at the real peak of its powers. Carry On Spying (1964) introduced Barbara Windsor's giggly buxom blond, a character who naturally fell hand in hand with James's aging Lothario in many of the subsequent films. In Carry On Cleo the same year, Amanda Barrie's deliciously frothy Egyptian queen and Kenneth Williams's saturnine Caesar set new heights for the series. The year 1965 brought Carry On Cowboy, featuring Joan Sims as a feisty saloon girl, while Carry On Screaming (1966) drove a comic stake through the heart of classic Hammer horror flicks.
Today, the Carry On films are seen as a vital component in the linear development of modern British comedy, influencing everything from French & Saunders to the surreal League of Gentlemen. In their time, they provided a much-needed big-screen vehicle for the greatest comic talents of the age. And today that vehicle has become a legacy of wonderful performances, many of them truly subtle. On that level alone, the Carry On films earn their status as a comic institution a hundred times over. --Piers Ford