Carry On’s lavatorial masterpiece

Comedy, Escapism, Film, Gnosis, Visionary

Well, it’s been a quiet August on the blogging front, partially because work’s been very hectic (in particular, some fascinating drug legalisation crusading – more details here), partially because my tech time has gone on other projects (which should lead to major changes to the blog this autumn – watch this space, as they say), and partially because I just felt like a bit of a break.

But now, I’m back. And I’m back because of late Carry On masterpiece, ‘Carry On At Your Convenience’, one of the last films the team made before they descended into the horrors of dubious sex comedies like ‘Carry on Emmanuelle’.

On the surface, it’s not an immediate contender for masterpiece status. It’s set in a toilet factory; it’s a profoundly partial anti-union rant; and, climaxing as it does with the humiliation, and then spanking, of Vic, the lead trade unionist by his fearsome mother, it’s in part a kind of right wing media spell for invoking the coming reign of the arch-matron, Margaret Thatcher. Here she is in action:

But there’s much in it that’s just magnificent. For starters, there’s the relationship between Sid James and Hattie Jacques. It’s a precise portrait of a certain kind of suburban tedium; a ‘happy’ marriage that’s at once a source of routine comfort and quiet desperation. Played a little differently, it would fit easily into any one of the period’s ostensibly more serious and socially realistic classics. Here’s their first scene together:

Then, there’s the relationship that offsets that, between Sid and Joan Sims. Often cast as the shrew, Sims shines here in a far more positive way. Her cheerful, bawdy wit and gleefully sexual presence effortlessly deflate pomposity throughout the film. But there’s a deep emotional core to her performance. She and Sid spend most of the film in very public comic flirting; but, once they’re alone, the tone changes.

They’re next door neighbours; and, after the works outing to Brighton, they’re dropped off together, late at night, outside their respective front doors. Divided by a garden fence, they debate whether or not to share a cup of tea before bed. Deciding in the end that the neighbours would talk, they sadly separate, and the scene ends. Alas, I can’t find any clips of it online.

There’s a depth to this moment that’s unique in Carry On; played entirely straight, it’s a direct and very touching presentation of the reality behind the endlessly flirtatious, endlessly unconsummated relationships that drive the humour of so much of the films.

And it’s a nod to a reality the audience would know very well, too. In fact, few – if any – contemporary films managed to present the complex reality of long term relationships, caught on the cusp of major social change, in such a concise and affecting way.

But, being a Carry On movie, ‘Carry On At Your Convenience’ of course has hilarity at its core. Throughout, hilarity deflates pomposity, acting as a wonderful and powerful leveller. Nowhere is that more evident – and developed in a more interesting way – than in the works trip to Brighton itself.

About three quarters of the way through the movie, all the characters take off for Brighton – the management included, despite the ongoing strike that’s threatening to close (you’ve guessed it) Boggs & co. – and enjoy a riotously wonderful (and in some cases life changing) day together.

In plot terms, the whole jaunt is completely unjustifiable. Management and workers are at each others’ throats; and yet factory owner Kenneth Williams treats his staff to round after round of drinks, and all sing and play merrily together. But then, part of the point of the sequence is that joy trumps all disagreements, all hierarchies.

That sense of joyous misrule also upends various character relationships. Bernard Bresslaw’s character meets the stunning love of his life; the factory owner’s son ends up winning and marrying his true love; and even Kenneth Williams might have consummated his relationship with his love-lorn secretary, after an educational encounter with some cockles:

That’s a joyous little gag – and joy, the film tells us, is at the heart of true love, whether that love is consummated or unconsummated. For all its conservatism – and for all the tragedies that dogged these films – that’s a wonderfully heartening response to, and way of understanding, the bawdiness that drove and was celebrated by the Carry On films.

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