My fascination with the 'Carry On' films
Dr Steven Gerrard, a Reader within the Northern Film School at Leeds Beckett University, will be giving a talk at the ‘Carry on Up The Scope!’ event at the Midland Arts Centre on 11th November. Here, he explains why the Carry On films were so successful and questions their place in society today.
I’m Steve, and I work within Leeds School of Arts at Leeds Beckett University. I teach on both the undergraduate and postgraduate courses in the Northern Film School. I’m not a filmmaker. I prefer watching movies, and of course, talking about them!
I’ve always been interested in movies. My first trip to the cinema – when I was three years old – was to go and see the James Bond film, Live and Let Die! I fell in love with what my cousin calls ‘The Big Telly’, and I think I must have seen near to five thousand films over the years. That’s a lot of sitting down – another favourite pastime of mine!
One of my favourite areas of film, and really what I owe much of my academic career to, are the Carry On films. For those who don’t know what these are, the films were a mainstay of British cinema and its film and cultural landscape for thirty years. These 31 bawdy, politically incorrect comedies were based on the saucy seaside postcards of Donald McGill and the great British Music Hall tradition. They had a core group of actors such as Sid James, Joan Sims and Kenneth Williams who appeared from film-to-film and were produced and directed by Peter Rogers and Gerald Thomas respectively.
The films took swipes at a changing British cultural landscape, and they tackled areas such as gender, sexuality, home life, the Swinging Sixties and the Dour Seventies. And the British public seemed to love them: two, Carry On Up the Khyber and Carry On Camping topped the British box office in their respective years. The former was voted the 99th greatest British film of all time in a Channel 4 poll.
The films began in 1958 with Carry On Sergeant, which was about men coping with army conscription in the post-war years. Over the course of the next thirty years, and sometimes with two films coming out per year in their heyday of the mid-late Sixties, thirty films were released under the official Carry On banner. They ended their original run in 1978, with the awful Carry On Emmannuelle which was a box office disaster. However, they reappeared (to an almost universal thumbs down) in 1992 with Carry On Columbus, a spoof of the over-budgeted and inflated 1492 and Christopher Columbus: The Discovery. And that was the end of them, despite numerous announcements that a new audience need to Carry On!
I used these films as the basis of my PhD, which I got from Lampeter University many years ago. The thesis looked at ways these comedies reflected British life during three very turbulent decades. They are, in the main, very rude and bawdy comedies – but Britain has a tradition of honest vulgarity dating back to the plays of Shakespeare. So, if smut and innuendo are good for him, then they’re good enough for these films!
Now, I have been invited to give a talk at the Midland Arts Centre on Saturday 11th November. I know what I want to say: I want to celebrate the films and the way that they carried on through critical mauling, box office successes and failures, spoke about gender and sexuality, and offered the audience a sense of communal-utopia for an hour and a half, where the working-classes could poke fun at the middle and upper classes.
But everything has it’s time. The Carry On movies are relegated to history. I think that is right. They were very much of their time, and despite reports over the years that a new one is to be made, perhaps they are best left in their time. That doesn't mean that they aren't important to the British film canon. They are. They may be romps, they may be politically incorrect, but they engaged an audience for thirty years.
My talk is going to be focused on how they navigated a country undergoing massive social upheaval. The films reflected Britain at the time. Their social realist films tackled such contextual elements as conscription after the war, the NHS, the package holiday, the unions and strikes. Their genre parodies mocked Gainsborough melodramas, David Lean's epics, James Bond, and, of course, Hammer Horror with the wonderfully ripe Carry On Screaming!. Kaleidoscope, those people who find and then restore missing episodes of TV like Doctor Who, have invited me to give this talk. I hope you can attend - it'd be great to see you there.
Ding dong! Carry on!
To find out about the courses offered within Northern Film School, check out our webpage.
You can book tickets to Steve's talk on 11th November here.
Steve is Reader in Film at Northern Film School. He loves science fiction, horror, Doctor Who, Status Quo, Tintin, Jason Statham, James Bond, Viz Magazine, Music Hall, and The Carry On Films.