“I was walking in the woods near my home and… I found an ear.”

When Jim Dale shows up at the local police station with a stray finger, we felt that maybe CARRY ON SCREAMING! had influenced BLUE VELVET. When Harry H. Corbett discovers an ear in the woods, we were MORALLY CERTAIN. (Lynch always portrays himself as someone not particularly influenced by other moviemakers, but LOOK!)We watched SCREAMING! and CLEO as a double feature with our friend Marvelous Mary to see if we could decide which is best. I don’t think there are any other realistic candidates in the series. CARRY ON UP THE KHYBER is disqualified not so much for racism as for having Roy Castle in it. The early, more solid films (SERGEANT and NURSE) aren’t typical enough to count — they’re still trying to be proper films. But SCREAMING and CLEO are very enjoyable IMproper films.

SCREAMING! might just have the edge. All the main actors are favourites, and they’re all well cast and very good. But maybe a comparison of casts would be productive –Harry H. Corbett VS Sid James. Corbett plays police sergeant Sidney Bung in SCREAMING!, a role clearly intended for series regular Sid James, who plays Marc Antony in CLEO. Both are real actors, more than capable of strong dramatic work, but who got typecast in low comedy. This is Corbett’s only Carry On and he’s magnificent. I couldn’t grab frames of him without cracking up all over again. Maybe it’s the residual tragi-comic aura of Steptoe and Son, but I feel he’s more sympathetic than James would have been. James was no underdog. Corbett is trapped in a hellish marriage with shrew Joan Sims, and though they’re fairly evenly matched at making one another miserable, Corbett has more of a hangdog, loser air, which helps with a character who’s pretty obnoxious in many ways.Double-bill this with DEATH LINE, because both Corbett and Donald Pleasence nail an aspect of the British copper in a really bang-to-rights way: the sarcasm, the one-upmanship, the desire to infuriate and humiliate the suspect/witness/have-a-go-hero. I’m not saying this is what all Brit cops do. But doing a job in which you have to deal with criminal idiots much of the time clearly takes a toll.James in CLEO plays one of his rare out-and-out villains, though the movie regards him warmly and gives him an ahistorical happy ending, splashing into a milk bath with Cleo. It’s also a relatively rare case of him not playing a character called Sid, perhaps a legacy of his Hancock TV fame, where the leads used their own names and cemented their comic personae. So that Sid is always a loveable cockney (from South Africa) even when he’s playing a scheming, murderous traitor. (The funniest thing about that is the way Williams, whenever he hears Marc Antony is coming, cries, “Oh, my friend!”) Plus, Sid in Roman attire is just an amusing sight. I don’t think the real Marc A. would have been much like Sid, but there must have been plenty of Roman soldiers who were.

Joan Sims in CLEO plays a nagging wife to Caesar exactly like the one she plays in SCREAMING!, and for good measure the film has Sheila Hancock playing an identical henpecker to Kenneth Connor.I really like this rodental snarl Joan fleetingly produces, almost like she’s going to make a SILENCE OF THE LAMBS sucking noise. The extremely small, cheap set — we see two walls with oppressive wallpaper, no window, and a corner of stair through the door — adds to the sense of an inescapable domestic hell. Nearly all Joan’s scenes prior to the ending show her in bed, so the claustrophobia becomes part of her characterisation.Jim Dale plays a well-meaning berk in SCREAMING! with some good physical comedy, but is something of a swashbuckling hero in CLEO. At one point he slays four or five Roman assassins in true Errol Flynn manner and manages to make us forget he’s dressed a a vestal virgin. So SCREAMING! is a more rewarding part for his skills, but CLEO shows some more range. He’s the only actor who appears in both films and is still alive, though as he says, “At my age, don’t buy any green bananas.”

In SCREAMING!, both Corbett and Dale get slipped a Mr. Hyde potion mickey, causing them to mutate and rampage. Their performances under the influence are amusingly similar: both go through many weird reactions, as if rendered hyper-alert: they cycle between horny, winsome, confused, ashamed, and they overreact to every stimulus. They basically, in fact, delivered amped-up versions of the typical Carry On performance. My friend Colin describes the essence of the series as being mostly very poor material being performed with wildly inappropriate enthusiasm. These guys can’t cross a room without at least trying to get a laugh.The late Fenella Fielding as Valeria Watt in SCREAMING! is pretty evenly matched with Amanda Barrie as Cleo in CLEO. Each made only one other CARRY ON. Fiona covets Fenella’s red velvet dress, which she had to be sewn into. Barrie is funnier, perhaps, playing Cleo with the manner of a suburban hairdresser, and acting dumb to disguise a brain as functional as any are ever allowed to be in one of these movies. There’s a great bit where she’s reciting dialogue we’ve already heard in a prophetic vision, and she does it kind of by rote, as if she knows she’s already said it. That’s an AMAZING choice.Barrie is also much, much sexier than Liz Taylor.

But Fielding is like a kind of special effect, which is what a true Carry On star needs to be. Vampira figure, sexy skull face, big hair, and THAT VOICE, honeyed smoke.Kenneth Williams is one of the genuinely uncanny elements in SCREAMING! Chalk-white face and nostrils dilated like nacelles, vowels equally dilated. He was never required to exercise his natural ghoulishness elsewhere, except maybe the unpleasant surgical stuff in DOCTOR. In CLEO he’s just his usual twerp, maybe more benign than usual. He does get the greatest line (there aren’t many GOOD ones…) in a CARRY ON, the endlessly quoted “Infamy, infamy! They’ve all got in fa me!” I tell you what’s less funny: his last words in the film are, “Oh what’s the use?” which were also the last words in his diary before he committed suicide.

(There’s been a whole TV subgenre, mainly on BBC4, of plays about beloved British comics who led troubled or miserable lives. The Carry Ons are largely to blame, because almost everyone in them had what seems like an unusually bleak life. But Williams is the sun from which all that misery radiates.)Peter Butterworth as Slobottom, the Watson to Bung’s Holmes, is magnificent. He nearly always played background types, and stole what moments he could (Richard Lester used him similarly: check out his textbook faffing as he struggles to removed an arrow from Richard Harris in ROBIN AND MARIAN). The only similar subordinate in CLEO is Victor Maddern, a believable and useful type, but not someone I ever feel like laughing in the presence of.Kenneth Connor in CLEO gets one of his better roles. Writer Talbot Rothwell appears to have appropriated his story arc not from any telling of the Cleopatra story, but from THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE, with Connor acquiring a heroic reputation based on another man’s accomplishment. I’m wondering if somebody had the idea that Connor could be a second Dudley Moore. But that job was taken. Connor is never less cute than when he thinks he’s cute, but he is certainly an enthusiastic farceur.Bernard Bresslaw makes a great zombie butler in SCREAMING! but is unaccountably absent from CLEO. Worth mentioning again that he was up for the role of the Creature in CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN. Would that have led to him playing Dracula, then Fu Manchu, then Scaramanga, then Saruman?

The burly henchman Sosages in that film, Tom Clegg, is great value as Australopithecine abductor Oddbod in SCREAMING! When I was a kid, the movie was not only hilarious, but also gave me everything I could want from a monster movie.Jon Pertwee gets two showy roles in these films, as a daffy Scottish police scientist and an Egyptian soothsayer. I’ll leave you to decide which film each character turns up in. He does a lot of face-pulling, tongue-protruding and random whistling and is very enjoyable, but somehow never seems quite in the same genre as the other actors.The only actor in the regrettable CARRY ON COLUMBUS who seemed to get it was Rick Mayall, who said that director Gerald Thomas told him to be the most exaggerated version of who he was as a comedian. And that’s exactly what you want from a Carry On performer. Pertwee was a man of many voices from the radio, and he’s in that mode here, but when he had to play a role that was his own persona, it turned out to be in Doctor Who as a Victorian space fop.

Still, the above image is one of many from this film that crack me up even as I edit it into this post.Charles Hawtrey, like Kenneth Williams, is a total special effect, a freak of cinema. He attempts to make Dan Dann, the lavatory man quite a dashing figure. It’s a one-scene cameo with no real jokes except TOILETS. Which is a good half the humour of Carry On. His more substantial part as Caesar’s smutty father-in–law Senecca (!) in CLEO lets him do more and be more strange (the classic Carry On panto of gay men playing dirty-minded straight men while still furiously signalling their queerness).

The stuff with Slobottom trying to, ahem, make contact with Dann in the gents is relatively near-the-knuckle for a Carry On. Because usually the panto fantasia they present is one in which gayness doesn’t really exist, but heterosexuality is lampooned by flamboyantly queer actors. (But this movie also has two dress shop managers who seem like they’re meant to be a couple.)

I keep forgetting how many Carry Ons Angela Douglas was in. She plays Doris Mann in SCREAMING! but spends most of the movie as a mannequin. But she’s able to make more of an impression than Julie Stevens in her underwritten role in CLEO.

Both films include bits for Michael Ward (camp), Norman Mitchell (fat) and Sally Douglas (girl).

Between them they also feature Captain Peacock, Alf Garnett, Vivian Darkbloom and Woodrow Wilson.

And some weird, choppy editing. They’re cut by different hands, but share a pacey style where scenes are chopped off the instant the last line is finished, and in the case of fades and dissolves, these often happen while someone’s still trying to get their last line out. They’re really “stepping on the laugh,” in some cases, as Jerry Lewis would say. My theory is that Gerald Thomas was a bit quick to say “cut.” Or else that he knew the films would collapse if we ever got a moment’s time to reflect on whether any given joke was worth laughing at.

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12 Responses to ““I was walking in the woods near my home and… I found an ear.””

  1. Mark Fuller Says:

    “Barrie is also much, much sexier than Liz Taylor.”

    Thank you, I thought it was only me that thought that.

    I always felt a bit sorry for Peter Butterworth; defined by his comedy jowls. He was famously turned down for a part in The Wooden Horse because he didn’t look convincing as an escaping POW….despite having participated in the actual event.

  2. And then he died entertaining at a children’s party, I believe, which has a tragic air to it.

    I remember tuning in part-way through A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum as a kid and being baffled because Butterworth was in it, which meant it had to be a Carry On film, but it clearly wasn’t (too much visual energy, too many expensive sets). it had Pertwee and Phil Silvers too, which gave it a Carry On vibe of sorts, but Butterworth all on his own was enough to define the genre.

  3. Just saw “Screaming” on TCM. I especially like the notion of Kenneth Williams as a kind of zombie “Invisible Man” or whatever he was supposed to be. As for “Cleo” One More Time!

  4. Oh BLAST, they’ve pulled it from You Tube!

  5. I also love SPYING, probably because I had it on tape as a kid, but the gang are genuinely sweet and it manags to spoof films that hadn’t been made yet (cf Return of the Pink Panther’s Fat Man.) I should also say aa a kid I saw Roy Castle in Singing in the Rain. He did Donald O Connor’s choreography move for move. I won’t hear a word against lovely Roh Castle.

  6. Tony Williams Says:

    Mark, I don’t know Butterworth’s class origins but could he have been excluded from this film because he did not look working class? In the post-war era there was a deliberate attempt to dismantle the wartime “People’s War” ideology and restore class boundaries at least in mist 50s war films. I’d be interested in your response here as well as others.

  7. I think Butterworth is fairly classless but certainly not posh. He just doesn’t look lean and heroic like the cast of Colditz.

    Spying is great, and opened up a world of fantasy that Screaming! could then capitalise on.

    Williams is a sort of Herbert Wet, Reanimator here.

    (Wet was a typo, but I like it.)

  8. The early Carry Ons, up through Carry On Screaming, were released in America in a bare-bones box set long ago. It included the compilation That’s Carry On, which had clips from movies not in the set. The box is now out of print and overpriced, and they’ve yet to get a second release here.

    The later films, through Carry On England, were released in recent years as a series of double feature discs by VCI, which included some commentaries and special features from British releases. Those are readily available and cheap. The TV series and the Christmas specials are also out in legit editions. Carry On Emmannuelle and Carry On Columbus can be had on dubious-looking labels (I haven’t bothered).

    I followed them through in order and fancied I saw a parallel development with the James Bond films shooting on the same lot: They start out reasonably straight and plausible, edge towards fantasy, and finally chase their formula into self-parody. Then the decline as they try, clumsily, to transition from old-fashioned naughty to hard-edged modern comedy. Carry On ended in its Roger Moore phase.

    When I was a kid in the 60s, the most readily available racy comedy was in old Paramount movies. Particularly in the wisecracks of Bob Hope. I get the impression that Carry On was the equivalent for British kids of a slightly later era. Were they as omnipresent on the tube? Flying under the radar or heavily censored?

  9. Oh yes, Carry Ons were always on TV, and the colour ones still show up on cable.

    The films’ ensemble approach made them fairly unique worldwide, though later bawdy comedies like the execrable Confessions films are slow-witted second cousins.

  10. I’m very fond of Don’t Lose Your Head (first of the series to have been produced by Rank, and which only later acquired the “Carry On” prefix to officially incorporate it into the franchise) – especially for Sid James as The Black Fingernail and his alter ego, Sir Rodney Ffing, who thpeaks with a lithp.

  11. Also has Dany Robin in it. IIRC you like her.

  12. I like Dany Robin but I love Dany Carrel. There’s a clear hierarchy of Danys.

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