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.

Guy Ritchie’s ‘Star Wars’

Comedy, Pigs, Science Fiction

Guy Ritchie – one trick mockney geez-ah directly responsible for me having to wade through what felt like several hundred appalling gangst-ah caper scripts back in the days when I was a development monkey. Star Wars – well, you don’t need me to explain. Put them togevv-ah, tho’, and you end up wishing that Darf Vad-ah really was from Sarf London – Errol. Not too office friendly, btb.

Momentous moments of mirth

Comedy, Comics, Culture, Despair, Film

A quick post today, highlighting a superb article from Tanya Gold in The Guardian about that uniquely British phenomenon – the Carry On movies, a set of (very cheesy) UK comedies made in the 50s, 60s and 70s.

If you’re British, you don’t need me to tell you about them. If you’re from anywhere else, you won’t have heard of them – and you certainly won’t have a sense of their omnipresence in the British, and particularly the English, cultural mindset.

There are some very specific reasons for the deep impression they made on us, that Tanya pins down with absolute precision:

‘The Carry On films are not funny. They are parables about failure. The typical Carry On hero is an everyman who lives a life of misery, unrequited lust and boredom…. So why did people like them? Because it was happening to them. Carry On held up a cartoonish mirror to the depressed and repressed Britain of the 1950s and 1960s.’

Bang on. My favourite Carry Ons now are the ones with contemporary settings; the ones that take us into the backstreets of suburban England and show us the lively, limited, busy, thwarted worlds that never appear in more narratively and aesthetically ambitious films.

The Carry On characters would be little more than extras in such movies; here, they, and their local, petty, entirely human desires are given centre stage, and allowed free rein, creating a mythology of English suburbia that is both precise and timeless in its vision and its impact, and that haunts the English accordingly.

That haunting is leant depth by the gap between the superficial froth of the films, and (as Gold points out) the desperation of so many of the lives that underpinned them. The on-screen comedy of failure was underpinned by a series of off-screen miseries that failed to ever develop into anything as resolved and satisfying as tragedy, instead petering out in alcoholism and waste, squalor and death.

There’s something very recognisably English in the deep efforts of repression, the sense of forced jollity and pretence that all’s well, that that reality / fiction relationship embodies. As a nation, we’ve spent the last fifty years or so failing, in one way or another, while beaming joyfully and pretending that nothing’s gone wrong at all.

The Carry On comedies aren’t just myths of suburbia; they’re myths of that pretence, as well, a pretence of normality and worth that’s regularly undercut by the serial collapses it’s not quite managing to hide.

The rest of the article is here, and well worth checking out; and here’s a brief sampler of Carry On-ness, courtesy of YouTube:

Here’s Kenneth Williams, as Julius Caesar, delivering the infamy line:

And here’s another key bit of Carry On-ness – Sid James’ laugh, possibly the single most lecherous sound in cinema. It’s a short clip, alas the best I could find:

More over the weekend, on dictatorships, kings and democracies. So, in true cinema style, ‘COMING SOON… WEIRD PONDERING ABOUT CAVALIERS, ROUNDHEADS, AND YOU… FILTERED THROUGH BRYAN TALBOT’S MAGNIFICENT LUTHER ARKWRIGHT AND HEART OF EMPIRE GRAPHIC NOVELS!!!!’

Oh, and there’s popcorn and hotdogs on sale in the foyer, now!

*cues crap curry house ad*

Life with the Vaders

Comedy, Film, Science Fiction

Well, a busy day at Allumination Central, so for your delectation – and following on from yesterday’s Star Wars referencing post – here’s the first of the magnificent online saga that is ‘Chad Vader – Day Shift Manager’.

It’s about Darth Vader’s somewhat less adequate little brother, and his daily battles as he manages a 24 hour convenience store somewhere in the States. Quite apart from being very funny, it’s entirely justified by the acoustic guitar version of the Imperial Theme that plays over the opening titles.

The rest of the episodes are here.

So – enjoy!