Retreat, Heck!

Hattie Jacques (pronounced “Jakes”), beloved comedienne, here cast as Captain Clark, a name which recurs in numerous of the novels of William S. Burroughs, always with sinister implications…

It occurs to me that CARRY ON NAKED LUNCH would have been a fine project… Kenneth Williams in CARRY ON DOCTOR is just a breath away from Dr. Benway already.

CARRY ON SERGEANT is the archetypal film with a lot to answer for. Based on a book by the relatively respectable R.F. Delderfield, it was certainly not intended to launch any kind of series, and certainly not a series as odd as the CARRY ON series.

How to define the CARRY ONs? They were all produced by Peter Rogers and directed by Gerald Thomas. They were all ensemble comedies specializing in vulgar, end-of-the-pier humour and lewd puns. They starred a varying assortment of comic actors, with none being considered essential to the formula, but a few becoming so familiar that one might experience some disappointment at their absence. More on them later.

The nominal stars of this one are William Hartnell, the first Dr. Who, who plays the retiring sarge who wants to win the prize for best troop before he goes, and Bob Monkhouse, the stand-up comic who had made a name for himself in television and would go on to star in a couple of dentist-based comedies before fixing his attention more firmly on the small screen. I like Hartnell a lot, consider him a true film star, and I quite like Bob, but the Bob I remember was the perma-tanned smiler famed for keeping vast ledgers full of cheesy gags, who held some kind of record for most jokes told in an hour or something. I barely recognize this callow youth.

Bob and Shirl. No danger of skin suffocation here.

Bob is a newly-wed whose been called up for national service when he’d planned on a honeymoon. Future Bond girl Shirley Eaton (this is a terribly British affair), minus her gold paint, plays Mrs Bob, who gets a job in the army mess so she can attain her deferred conjugal bliss with Bob. Shirley appears to be very keen to act, in this one, attacking every scene with wide-eyed zeal, which coincides with the plot to give the impression that she’s some kind of nympho.

Anyhow, none of these performers get any laughs — the material doesn’t really offer much support — and the whole experience is feeling a bit desultory when, ten minutes or so in, Charles Hawtrey appears. Series regular Kenneth Connor has already been introduced, as a hypochondriac neurotic, and his usual strenuous comedy stylings have been exerted, but to only moderate effect. But Hawtrey suddenly opens up a portal into some Technicolor dimension of otherness, perforating the grey British celluloid world of the film with blazing hues. Hawtrey is not quite human.

Combining the qualities of cheeky schoolboy, effete homosexual, living skeleton and dowling puppet representation of a nonagenarian, this whiff of the uncanny basically reconfigures the whole movie around his spindly base and sends it spinning off into the realms of low camp, to be followed by twenty-nine more movies.

Here’s Wikipedia on Hawtrey the man:

Hawtrey owned a house full of old brass bedsteads which the eccentric actor had hoarded, believing that “one day he would make a great deal of money from them.”

His mother’s handbag caught fire when her cigarette ash fell in. Hawtrey, without batting an eyelid, poured a cup of tea into it to put out the flames, snapped the purse shut and continued with his story.

On his deathbed, Hawtrey supposedly threw a vase at his nurse who asked for a final autograph – it was the last thing he did.

Scarcely has Hawtrey (in films since the ’20s — he flits through Hitchcock’s SABOTAGE with a single line) blown a thin hole in the screen, when an unmistakably voice pipes up from O.S. and we are introduced to Kenneth Williams, reclining on his bunk, book in hand, still in civvies and greeting the sergeant with a supercilious air of polite condescension… Williams, of course, gays the whole thing up even further, if that were possible.

Hartnell, left, and Williams, right.

Williams, who did more CARRY ONs than anyone else (hating it the whole time, according to his diaries), is on relatively restrained form here. For one thing, he’s playing a character, rather than a heightened version of himself, although he surely identified with Private Bailey’s valuing of individuality and education over team spirit and mindless drudgery. Williams doesn’t do the trick with his nostrils, which could conceivably swallow the world if he wanted them to, and he keeps his nasal voice in a lower register, shunning the catchphrase “Stop messing about!” which he used on the radio and would soon deploy in the movies. And he doesn’t do the class shift, where his voice suddenly descends the social register like a perfumed slinky from duke to guttersnipe. All that will come later. What’s fascinating is how hypnotic he is when he does little, or at any rate less.

Everybody is young, except Hartnell, and Eric Barker (who also did the ST TRINIANS series). Director Thomas (uncle of Jeremy Thomas, producer for Bertolucci and Cronenberg) actually rouses himself to attempt some camerawork, several times — a fast track along the counter where army kit is being dispensed looks to have been inspired by ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT. And “inspired” isn’t a word one would use to describe the visual approach of the CARRY ONs, usually.

The film itself is a team-building piece with minimal propaganda content but still somewhat conservative, as are all the CARRY ON scripts (the team battle hippies in CARRY ON CAMPING). But the performers are already starting to take the films into a different terrain, where obviously camp men compete over gigantic women, and anytime a lumpy male puts on women’s clothing (on the slenderest plot pretext), all the other blokes immediately find him irresistible. Shoddy filmmaking and cheap end-of-the-pier jokes performed with staggering gusto by a troupe of slowly disintegrating grotesque comedy wizards.

Can’t think why the Criterion Collection hasn’t gotten around to THIS classic —

Carry On Cleo [DVD] [1965]

Half as long and forty times funnier than the Mankiewicz version.

30 Responses to “Retreat, Heck!”

  1. I am the exceptionally proud owner of a Carry On boxed set that besides Segeant includes Cleo, Jack, Cowboy, Screaming, Nurse, Regardless, Cruising (rather redundant with Williams and Hawtrey on board), Teacher, Constable, Spying, Cabby and a tribute special called (as if you couldn’t guess) That’s Carry On.

    Words fail to describe my obsessional devotion to Kenneth Williams. A character comedian so original he transformed the world in order to “fit into it.” But in life he never fit in at all. His great firend Joe Orton tried his best, but Williams went down in history as the only gay man to visit Tangier in its glory days buttoned-up from head to toe and terrified of sampling the locals — who Orton and his eventually murderous boyfriend indulged to the max.

    A classic Bad “Good Idea” was Orton’s decision to cast Williams as Inspector Truscott “from the water board” in a revival of Loot. He didn’t understand the play at all, and started directing all his lines to the audience in a manner that previously gotten laughs in makeshift sub-par comedy vehicles.

    A new volume of Williams diaries came out a couple of years ago. Such a sad case. Like Paul Lynde deeply beloved by the public but deeply unhappy off-screen.

  2. Williams’ existence, as depicted in his diaries, comes across as utterly miserable — his friends at least recall a different person, who could be wildly hilarious and loved holding court. Barbara Windsor was aware of his luckless love life but still found him great company — his diaries reflect his deep-rooted misery which surfaced when he was alone with the blank pages to fill, but that’s only one side of him.

    Final entry before suicide/death by misadventure overdose: “Oh what’s the bloody use?” And this kind of tragedy haunts nearly all the Carry On players — Babs has had her ups and downs but probably had more good times than the rest, and is still going strong.

  3. The only really good one missing from that box set is probably Up the Khyber, with Williams as “the khazi.” A pretty interesting take on the British Empire’s heyday…

  4. Jenny Eardley Says:

    Ha! What a good interview with S Fry. I wish Jonathan Ross would do that – just get someone with anecdotes on and give them a feed line. None of this “you’re looking fabulous” padding. Cymru am byth! Great!

    I saw him in Innocents in Paris a few weeks ago. Such a delight to see him running the Wedgwood shop, flashing the smile and the nostrils. If only he’d lived longer, maybe he could have saved Match Point. It was all left to Jimmy Nesbitt, poor dab.

  5. Carry on up the khyber is my fave… Did you know there is a street at Pinewood named after Peter Rodger?

  6. It’s startling to think of the films Williams could have enlivened if he’d lived. However, I doubt many British filmmakers would have the courage to cast him — he was finished in movies long before his death, mainly thanks to the typecasting of the Carry Ons.

    Those movies were life’s-blood to Pinewood, so it’s fitting they should be so honoured.

  7. A young contemprary American Kenneth Williams:

  8. Ah, Fiona’s a big fan!

  9. Tony Williams Says:

    Isn’t Fry’s anonymous structuralist lecturer on Sexual Difference 70s SCREEN heavy Colin McCabe?

  10. The funniest line from Carry On Cleo was from Kenneth Williams as Julius Caesar, “O infamy, infamy…they all have it in fo’ me”.

  11. Tony Williams Says:

    The Carry on films were all made on the cheap and the only star who ever earned a high salary ($120, 000) was Elke Sommer in CARRY ON BEHIND.

  12. “Hurricanes can be a terrible, terrible thing…” It’s Fiona, by the way. I’m merely logged on as dcairns. I see EXACTLY what you mean David E, but I’d never thought of it before.

  13. It’s interesting that Parsons’ character is coded as autistic whereas his performance is coded as gay.

  14. James McCourt, who I wish would would write more film criticism, would refer to Henry James as Hattie Jaques.

  15. Tony Williams Says:

    The most inappropriately named character Kenneth ever played was Captain Fearless in CARRY ON JACK!

  16. Heh! Jacques was without doubt the loveliest of Britain’s comedic big women (it’s strange to me how the Carry Ons so often cast against her obvious warmth), so I think James could take that as a compliment.

  17. Tony Williams Says:

    She is really very good in CARRY ON CABBIE, her favorite in the series where she is allowed to play a more feminist role in running a rival taxi-cab service to her husband Sid James. I’ve read that the talented actress-writer who appeared in that BBC TV series (the name of which escapes me at the moment) about a romance between a Londoner and a girl from Barry is going to appear in a TV biopic about Hattie.

    This sounds great casting.


  18. Jenny Eardley Says:

    You’re thinking of Ruth Jones in Gavin and Stacy. I haven’t seen it but I think Ruth has that warmth, as you say.

  19. Tony Williams Says:

    Yes, that’s it. I forgot the title and only saw two episodes on a UK trip during Fall 2009.

  20. Carry on Cabbie is indeed the most sympathetic. And her role in the TV show Sykes allowed her to show her more appealing side for years also. BBC3 has already done a bio-drama about Kenneth Williams, so I imagine they’re behind the Jacques show.

  21. Tony Williams Says:

    I’ve just begun reading Chibnall and McFarlane’s 2009 book on the British B movie and found that Charles Hawtrey actually directed a short movie titled THE FAG (!) or some such revealing titlle.

  22. The IMDh has him helming two, What Do We Do Now? and Dumb Dora Discovers Tobacco.

  23. Tony Williams Says:

    According to Chibnall and McFarlane, the film was called FAG END (1947).

  24. Sounds like it could be an alternative title of the tobacco one. Assuming the title intends the more innocuous meaning.

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