Carry On Noir

Had a great time showing NIGHT AND THE CITY to my class a couple weeks ago, a movie I always enjoy, for all kinds of things, from the London noir atmosphere, Francis Sullivan’s eloquently tortured fat man bad guy, and Richard Widmark’s sweaty desperation (ALL the characters in the film are studies in desperation of one kind or another). Despite the seedy atmosphere, the film seems to have had an oddly healthy effect on its participants, with Widmark and director Jules Dassin surviving well into their nineties, and co-star Googie Withers still being with us today. But this time I was taken with a minor player who was not so lucky.

The thug in the car is an actor names Peter Butterworth. Not somebody one associates with thug parts, actually: Butterworth is chiefly known for his roles in the CARRY ON series, often as an incompetent underling to stars like Harry H Corbett (CARRY ON SCREAMING) or Kenneth Williams (DON’T LOSE YOUR HEAD). He’s also in three Richard Lester films, A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, THE RITZ and ROBIN AND MARIAN, where he plays a barber-surgeon failing to extract an arrow from Richard Harris’s neck.

Melancholy and an end-of-the-pier seediness seem to coalesce around the private lives of the CARRY ON team, few of who reached particularly ripe ages (so it’s pleasing to have Barbara Windsor as an uncharacteristically perky Dormouse in Tim Burton’s mess of an ALICE IN WONDERLAND). Butterworth’s death, aged sixty, from a heart attack while waiting in the wings to go onstage at a pantomime show (I’d previously read “while entertaining at a children’s party” but I’ll go with the IMDb), has a sad sound to it, although you can configure a Hollywood Version easily enough: the sound of laughter/applause ringing in his ears. And it probably beats being bashed with a brick, which is what happens to his co-thug in NIGHT AND THE CITY.

Butterworth was a splendid comic, who could quietly hold his own amid the chaos of a CARRY ON farce — it was actually good from to upstage your fellow players in these things, since the only way to make the experience lively for the audience, with the inert staging, corny gags and clunking editing, was to have a few faces emoting at once, each trying to outdo the other in enthusiasm. Situate Butterworth in the background and he’d add a whole mini-drama just by being endearingly daft. He spends the whole climactic exposition of FORUM struggling to get his sword from its sheath, and faffs around behind Richard Harris in R&M, taking the curse off the script’s poetic musings with a welcome infusion of bumbling.

Here’s a bit of SCREAMING which illustrates a number of the painful pleasures of that series. Fenella Fielding is a great underused resource of British cinema, best known internationally for revoicing Anita Pallenberg in BARBARELLA. Kenneth Williams, always alarming, is especially so as the reanimated Dr. Watt, his voice a-quiver with vibrato suggestiveness. Then, about three minutes or so in, we get Butterworth, who hardly says a word but stands behind the other players and mugs genially. Jim Dale tries to match him twitch for twitch, and you get a sort of doubling of affect as they do a kind of facial dance-off behind Harry H Corbett (once praised as British theatre’s answer to Brando, now a magnificently resourceful farceur with TV’s Steptoe and Son as, essentially, his entire career) and Williams.

You can also appreciate Gerald Thomas’s bad filmmaking. He serves up passable angles in which we can enjoy the mugging, but they don’t cut together at all well — there’s no reason for the angle changes except to serve up a spurious variety to the coverage, and break the scene into manageable-sized segments. Kevin Smith must have been taking notes.

Oh, and the big guy at the start is Bernard Bresslaw, who nearly got the role of the Creature in CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, just losing out to Christopher Lee. Imagine what a fun alternative universe that would be!

33 Responses to “Carry On Noir”

  1. Splendid piece. After reading it I saw this at Christa Fausts blog:

    and came up with

    Carry On Noir- Saucy window cleaner Ivor Biggun has fun spying on the dirty secrets of a small northern town – in between shagging randy housewives – but one day he sees the murder of a top politician.

  2. Heh! Starring Jim Dale as Ivor, Barbara Windsor as Phallus Dietrichson, Sid James as Wank Quimlan, and Kenneth Williams as Caspar Buttman.

  3. Yes! And, you know, I think it COULD work …

  4. That’s nice to find out – I’d not realised that was Butterworth! It reminds me of a similar epiphany I had last night watching Gilliam’s Brazil again and finally realising that the officious clerk at the beginning when Buttle is arrested (“sign here please…press harder this time. This is your receipt for your husband, and this is my receipt for your receipt) is played by Simon Jones, the original Arthur Dent from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. So in addition to Brazil being influenced by 1984 it also shows a nice connection to the Douglas Adams world! Which isn’t such a big leap considering Hitchhiker’s is bascially all about struggles against futile petty bureaucracy and rampant idiocy/narcissim of the general population!

  5. Far and away my very favorite documentary:

  6. I’m really a newcomer to anything Carry On (I think I’ve seen one clip before), so that was (to steal a phrase) something completely different. The Dr. Watt/What joke seemed like something straight out of American TV’s Get Smart. The directing reminds me of American television, too. Fenella Fielding has a nice, sexy look and a nice, sexy Joan Greenwoodish voice. Alarming is a good way of describing Kenneth Williams, at least from that clip. Did I miss much not watching any Carry On films?

  7. Yes you did. They’re great British folk art.

  8. In particular Carry on Cleo should be essential viewing usurping sets from Cleopatra featuring the infamous line from William’s Caesar “Infamy! Infamy! They’ve all got it in for me!”

    Nearly topped by his “Frying tonight!” in Screaming!

    Carry on Spying is great too, a good spoof of Bond films when both Bond films and the idea of spoofing them was still novel!

    Of course anyone who likes Kenneth Williams should also check out the Round The Horne radio show, which he frequently rampages through.

  9. David Boxwell Says:

    Gene Tierney in N&TC: wan, barely there, tragic.

  10. Tierney was breaking up from her husband, Oleg Cassini, so Zanuck told Dassin to write her a part at short notice. Up until two weeks before the shoot the role didn’t exist. I think he did an amazing job integrating her into the proceedings, and her presence makes the ending work.

    I think Cleo, Screaming, Spying and Up the Khyber have the most merit as entertainment, but if any Carry On comes on TV I usually watch a bit. The really bad ones are still kind of enjoyable, apart from the last two or three which are tragic. But some of it maybe depends on the associations the cast have for us in the UK, and probably that’ll wane as time goes by and the various TV and radio shows are forgotten.

    Just watched a chunk of Carry On Cabby, and was struck by how the radios are talking about Wentworth Street (which is in Whitechapel) and Aldershott Road, while the cabs are zooming around the leafiest suburbs imaginable, no doubt a stone’s throw from Pinewood Studios. Did nobody notice this?

    Simon Jones is one of the underground government scientists of the future in 12 Monkeys, too. The only one of Gilliam’s stock company he was able to bring on for that one.

  11. Yes, probably best to ignore Carry On Emmanuelle, where the double entendres became rather pathetic and uncomfortable single ones, and Carry On England and the 90s Carry On Columbus for their attempts to bring in newer, broader, non-innuendo based generations of comedians into the series. But all of the others are worth watching (my mother particularly likes Carry On At Your Convenience and the Hattie Jacques/budgie interactions in particular!), even if just for isolated moments.

    Teacher (vaguely riffing on St Trinians), Sergeant (taking cues from Private’s Progress), Cabby, Regardless and Constable are probably the most ‘charming’ of the series.

    Cleo, Cowboy, Screaming, Up The Khyber, Henry, Jack, Dick, Don’t Lose Your Head and Spying would seem to be the ‘golden age’ ones with the ambitious, grandiose sets to underpin and enrich the silly comedy (a little like the later Python films in that sense).

    Follow That Camel is sort of undermined by featuring Phil Silvers in the lead role rather than one of the regular cast, and Up The Jungle is similarly undermined by Frankie Howerd.

    And of course the run of hospital set Carry Ons (Nurse/Doctor/Again Doctor/Matron) are seminal in themselves!

    Some more of non-Carry On Kenneth Williams:

  12. Frankie Howerd works marvelously in Carry on Doctor — I think he’s a natural fit — but somehow everything in Up the Jungle misfires. Phil Silvers is out of place in this purely British comedy world — for some reason it’s rare to find American and British comedy in harmony on screen. A Fish Called Wanda is one of the more successful examples, and recently In the Loop managed the trick, but there aren’t many other transatlantic successes.

  13. Considering that I had no trouble dealing with American sitcoms, I guess I could enjoy a Carry On film. Local PBS often carries some rather dreary BBC comedies along with the good ones. Why doesn’t TCM ever carry Carry On? Now that they’ve done Dirk Bogarde’s Doctor series, I can’t see why not. They couldn’t complain with a straight face that those Bogardes were classics.

  14. The Doctor films are pretty similar, but without the exuberant overplaying from a cast of grotesques, therefore not too interesting to me. Dirk seems to have hated doing them too.

  15. I quite liked Jerry Lewis visitng Blackpool in Funny Bones, but at the same time it was difficult to call that a comedy per se, more a film about comedy which is a different thing entirely!

  16. I forgot about Howerd in Doctor – he is a good team member in that one. Up The Jungle seems to focus too much on him as the main character though, and the film’s story is, I agree, one of the less thought through.

    For a good Howerd starrer it is probably best to check out something like The House In Nightmare Park from 1973, also featuring Ray Milland which is part of the comic old dark house tradition that encompasses the 1960s Sid James/Kenneth Connor starring What A Carve Up! (also featuring Donald Pleasance, Michael Gough and Dennis Price), and the 1980s Kenny Everett Bloodbath At The House Of Death (featuring Vincent Price).

    And of course the Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum ‘inspired’ Up Pompeii series is prime Howerd!

  17. Wasn’t The House On Nightmare Park a version of The Cat And The Canary?

  18. That’s the ur-text from which these variations spring.

  19. Sort of my point, I watched one of the Doctor films, and I couldn’t figure why TCM would run the series except to run a whole day of Dirk Bogarde films (they didn’t even run Accident, though they ran The Servant). And they ran a lot of the Doctor films again some months later.

    Unless they’re doing Ealng films, TCM never seems to run many British comedies at all, and the ones they do run tend to be rather dull, something I’m guessing Carry On films aren’t. Most may not be good, but they certainly don’t sound dull.

  20. Never dull! Well, only occasionally. Vulgar, trashy, loud, frantically overplayed (because if the cast stopped mugging for an instant the whole edifice would disintegrate), sometimes tasteless, generally badly dated, and somehow lovable.

  21. Christopher Says:

    I always enjoyed Night and the City when it would turn up on TV mixed in with all the other Noirs..Haven’t sen it in ages…I saw one Carry On film in a theatre when we lived in Sydney,Australia..Carry on Jack,on a double matinee bill with Munster Go Home……or was it Sammy Goes South!? :o/

  22. Dated? Like I’d care? I watch ’30s movies primarily, and a lot of them are dated. I did see clips of Carry On Up The Khyber and Carry On Cleo, and they seem like they’d be a lot more fun than some of the more dreary stuff that TCM shows. The Carry On clips I saw were tasteless, frantic, and funny. I sort of understand why TCM has certain films recur on a yearly basis, but other films I wonder why they show even once. I’m sure you’ve seen some films in my listings that you wondered why I even bothered recording. I honestly didn’t know if they’d be duds or not. They usually were.

    Maybe TCM can’t show them because they can’t get them – does Fox or another entity own the rights in the US?

  23. I don’t know who owns the US rights but I can’t imagine they’d be expensive. Certainly not in America, where they’re so unknown. It does seem like any country that embraced Benny Hill would go for the humour here, although it’s more verbal than visual so I guess that could be a barrier. You have to be able to follow some obscure British slang.

    The datedness is of a different quality from 30s films, but it’s hard to pin down. Mostly its sexism, but it’s such a cartoon of sexual attitudes its not usually offensive. And although British TV up to the 70s had a lot of racially insensitive stuff (a minstrel show ran until 1980!) the Carry Ons are mostly free of this kind of embarrassment. Up the Khyber is probably the most dubious, but it’s a lot less obnoxious than Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, that’s for sure.

  24. “Vulgar, trashy, loud, frantically overplayed (because if the cast stopped mugging for an instant the whole edifice would disintegrate), sometimes tasteless, generally badly dated, and somehow lovable.”

    Remove the ‘somehow lovable’ bit and it is no wonder that Barbara Windsor was later able to fit in so well on EastEnders! Boom-boom!

  25. Expensive or not, some rights are so messed up that we don’t see such things as the Edgar Kennedy RKO shorts because the idiots who own the rights don’t see fit to release them in any form (they used to show on TV here regularly about 20 years ago). I mentioned Fox, since TCM has limited dealings with Fox (only once in a while do I see a Fox film on TCM), and Fox has their own movie channel.

  26. The situation is worse here, where TCM barely owns anything worth showing, and the movie channels are generally run by people who don’t know or care about their libraries. By contrast, Turner has achieved a remarkable feat of capitalism by more or less creating his market — the number of people who were clamoring for obscure 30s pre-codes must have been far smaller than the number now happily watching them. If you make this stuff available, people can discover it and see if they like it.

    Meanwhile, our main networks, including the BBC, have given up on foreign cinema altogether, and show only the cheapest old movies they can get.

  27. There’s “Up the Khyber” (one of THE great endings in British comedy… Butterworth’s mugging is almost surplus to requirements here), there’s “Spying” (Windsor is actually sexy here, Cribbens in a veil is delicious, and Williams and Haughtry joyously young and silly) and there’s maybe “Cleo” (apart from that “Infamy” line and Amanda Barrie who’s a joy, it’s actually pretty dismal) but I think the first ever Carry On – is it Sergeant? – is perhaps the most deserving of a look. It’s a sweet thing (I remember Williams’ role being particularly interesting although it’s been a while since I’ve seen it) and being the first of what was never intended to be a series it’s hardly a Carry On film at all I suppose. However it IS here that the debt owed by the Police Academy series is most obvious and in fact, yes, Police Academy is basically the American Carry On, isn’t it? So, American cousins, be warned. (And you might also be interested to know that Carry On stalwarts Sid James, Kenneth Williams and Hattie Jacques all originally appeared together in a much funnier radio show called “Hancock’s Half Hour”. A British, kitchen-sink Seinfeld, it pretty much pioneered realism in sitcoms over here.)
    Oh, and I saw Bution’s Alice. I had been warned. But I had not been warned ENOUGH! “Futterwacking”? Futterfuckoffing more like.

  28. It is worse than that David – that recent review of the BBC which caused a big ruckus with the closing down of 6Music and the Asian Network digital radio stations also included in the fine print of the section about cutting back on imported material that the BBC should show no films that have not had a recent theatrical release to already build an audience up.

    I think that is ridiculous – surely the thing the BBC should be doing is picking up and screening the films that no film distributor could, or would, touch rather than screening films on BBC4 that already have perfectly decent DVD editions out there like The Lives of Others or Caramel?

  29. I guess over here if there’s money to be made, somebody will try it. TCM is successful enough to have spawned FMC, which shows that there’s enough of a market for older films to keep them both going. TCM’s libraries are strange in that they vary from country to country. Even Canada’s schedule is different.

  30. The BBC is in crisis because it used to have a massive slice of the market, but with the digital age that’s been cut down, and the age-old question becomes more pressing — how do you justify charging everybody with a TV for something not everybody watches? The real argument should be that the BBC provides services a commercial channel wouldn’t bother with, but that smacks of elitism to the social democrats in charge, so there’s pressure tp make the BBC very very populist — which is completely unjustifiable since I can get populist entertainment from ITV or Sky, which don’t charge a license fee.

    A promise to protect the license fee and the BBC as long as they DON’T chase ratings with expensive “talent” shows would suit me fine.

  31. There is also the situation where the next government is very likely to be Conservative, who have brought in one of the young Murdochs to write their media policy for them. And even without a Murdoch involved, the Conservatives are very, very annoyed at the BBC for many reasons, both real and ideologically motivated.

    So the BBC are slashing left and right to pretend that they are actually making cuts and not infringing onto commercial broadcasters territory, so that the new government will not do it for them. Unfortunately they are making ridiculously token cuts to those very services which actually do provide a service only the BBC can provide while at the same time saying that they will put more money into fewer ‘event’ programmes (like the various Andrew Lloyd-Webber ‘search for a theatre star’ co-productions like the one starting tomorrow which is sure to irredeemably sully the reputation of Wizard of Oz).

  32. I saw you post and wanted to correct that Finella Fielding doesn’t voice Anita Pallenberg’s character in Barbarella – it actually is Joan Greenwood. However, and please correct me if I’m wrong, but I do believe that Kenneth Williams voices Barbarella’s computer ‘Alfie’ in the English version, however he is uncredited. Can’t find too much info on this.

  33. Thanks for that! The IMDb backs you up on Greenwood. Those two husky voices can be hard to distinguish. Kenneth Williams certainly did a lot of voice work, so it’s possible. Dubbing credits can be very hard to confirm.

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