Archive for Gerald Thomas

Retreat, Heck!

Posted in FILM, Radio, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 3, 2010 by dcairns

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.

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Carry On Noir

Posted in FILM, Television, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 22, 2010 by dcairns

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!