Momentous moments of mirth

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:


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

*cues crap curry house ad*

3 thoughts on “Momentous moments of mirth

  1. Brilliant dissection of the Carry On Films, which I watched repeatedly on idle Saturday afternoons as a child. I loved them then, and am afraid that one of their legacies in my life is a taste for terrible puns. However, you’ve quite rightly highlighted the sadness, squalor and failure in these films. But what, too, did we also learn about misogyny (Barbara Windsor and her lovely ‘pear’), homophobia ( through the self-hating sexuality of Hawtrey and Williams), race…and how infantilised all those characters seem. And how oddly nostalgic I feel all of a sudden. Thanks, allumination central!

  2. P.S. just read the Gold article (great) and the comments-ye gods! what a bunch of illiterate numskulls who completely misunderstand her argument! If you want to depress yourself, read the first 3 or 4…

  3. I know! It’s astonishing! And on one level shows how accurate the Carry On films were, that TG can draw such fire by even seeming to criticise them. She definitely struck a nerve…

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