Few today remember the ‘Somewhere’ films, beginning with Somewhere In England (1940, the title of course a reference to wartime security measures) and continuing on through Somewhere in Camp, On Leave, In Civvies and In Politics.
They were essentially vehicles for the unique British comic Frank Randle, with strong support, were often unbelievably ramshackle, crude and lowbrow and in the words of Leslie Halliwell, a fan, were “weird entertainments at best”.
But many must have recalled them when an unpretentious barrack-room trifle called Carry On Sergeant first aired in 1958, still more so when the phrase ‘Carry On’ became appended, as meaninglessly as ‘Somewhere’ to a series of subsequent wheezes, in various institutional, fictional and historical settings, with little connection to each other beyond their casts and the downward drive of their humour. “Carry on, Sergeant!” is of course a well-known military instruction: in selecting it as a title, this film was in no way expecting or announcing itself to be part of a series to be known as a ‘Carry On film’. The film could have been called That’s My Sergeant, or Up The Army, or Settle Down, Men, and we’d all be talking about the That’s My films, or the Up The series, or describing some other film as trading in Settle Down humour.
That this film, of all films, should have had such monumental cultural repercussions, therefore, is probably the thought that will most preoccupy audiences coming to it with its pedigree already established, for it is certainly an innocuous thing, at least as inconsequential as it is likeable. Rarely have oaks grown from littler acorns. A happy, jolly ring-binder of assorted army wheezes, still bearing the fingerprints and tobacco stains of Frank Randle and George Formby and Ronnie Shiner, and all the others who have used them before, what really stands out is the team work: Connor, Hawtrey and Williams (the latter especially charmingly in early, diffident mode) work beautifully, and they work beautifully together: if there is the germ of a series here, it’s strictly in the playing.
But nobody needs telling that what was eventually unleashed after a careful start and a few wrong turnings was a pop cultural phenomenon, now routinely spoken of in all seriousness as one of the key defining icons of the British twentieth century.
Beginning as mild, end-of-the-pier alternatives to the Boulting Brothers’s examinations of British society and institutions, taking in hospitals, schools, police force and the like, they then passed through a phase in which they parodied historical and genre movies, before settling into a final golden age as mild sex comedies, in which the characters’ relentless obsession with sex generally and breasts specifically was counterpointed by the scripts’ insistence that all such desires must remain frustrated.
As such, they relied incessantly upon double-entendre, and it is this element of the films, usually likened to the seaside postcards of Donald McGill, that is usually cited as their defining characteristic. It is also of course what makes them seem so naïve and charming today, and what left them unable to compete with the less inhibited style of British sex comedy that appeared in the wake of Confessions of a Window Cleaner. But while the latter films retain only minority cult appeal, the Carry Ons survived their own destruction to become endlessly revived and celebrated British comic artefacts.
Since nostalgia is so important a part of their contemporary appeal, it is worth stopping to ponder why they were so incredibly successful at the time. Certainly it would be a mistake to unleash a little of that deadly paternalism with which we are conditioned to view the popular culture of generations past, and conclude that original audiences didn’t find the jokes as corny or old-fashioned as we do. They did, and perhaps they were already responding to a nostalgic quality in the films, not the nostalgia we now feel for the series itself, but an inbuilt reactionary regard for the dying traditions of music hall and seaside postcard humour, what was deemed ‘honest vulgarity’ and which seemed on the way out in a new age of would-be erudite humour, arriving in the form of Beyond the Fringe, TW3, Monty Python and their even crapper derivatives. Ironically, the Carry Ons might have died out a decade earlier than they did but for the historical accident of coinciding with a vogue for old-fashioned Britishness that was part of the late-sixties zeitgeist.
Disliked by at least as many as liked, they are hailed by none as great productions or great comedy. Instead they exist on a plateau of their own carving, where the cornier the gag, the more telegraphed the punchline and contrived the double-meaning, the more excessive the performance and bludgeoning the concluding musical riff the better. Sympathetic audiences see the lines coming and welcome them like old friends.
And welcomed very literally as old friends are the sterling cast of irreplaceable – certainly never even nearly replaced – greats of British comic acting.
Numerous guest stars and peripheral sub-regulars turned up throughout the main series’ twenty-year run, but those most indelibly linked to the brand are Sidney James (lecherous cockney spiv on the make, beloved by his public like few British stars before or since, with famous walnut face and dirty laugh), Kenneth Williams (in the early films: a young, priggish intellectual, from the mid-sixties: a near-indescribable whinnying, nostril flaring neurotic), Kenneth Connor (a charming young romantic bumbler who turned almost overnight into bumptious mayors and other middle-aged authority figures), Charles Hawtrey (weird, stick-thin and epicene with round spectacles and unnaturally black hair, an uncontainable eccentric on screen and off), Barbara Windsor (bubbly blonde with unexceptional but much fixated-upon breasts and an ingratiating giggle, can make as well as take a joke), Angela Douglas, Liz Fraser, Shirley Eaton (less exuberant sexy blondes from the days before Barbara), Jim Dale (the handsome young man the script occasionally called for, very likeable, and good at stunts), Hattie Jacques (indelibly the hospital matron, sometimes fearsome, alternately reticent or oversexed), Bernard Bresslaw (balding and huge, either Sid’s gormless mate or else heavily disguised in specialty turns), Peter Butterworth (devious and shabby middle-aged opportunist, more interested in making small sums of money than pursuing the other), Jack Douglas (infantile man in spectacles and cloth cap plagued by violent involuntary movements and accompanying exclamations), Terry Scott (sometimes henpecked, usually leering, a podgy, younger, middle-class Sid), Patsy Rowlands (downtrodden wife or secretary seething with repressed passions), Leslie Phillips (suave, lady-killing playboy), plus strong support from June Whitfield, Jacki Piper, Richard O’Callaghan, Bernard Cribbins, Bill Maynard, Frankie Howerd, Kenneth Cope, Windsor Davies, Marianne Stone, Carol Hawkins, Sally Geeson, Margaret Nolan, Valerie Leon, Dilys Laye, Julians Holloway and Orchard, and many more.
All the series were directed by Gerald Thomas, and all but the last produced by Peter Rogers (he was still on hand as an exec, but handed over the actual job of production to John Goldstone.) The first six were written by Norman Hudis, whereupon Talbot Rothwell took over, penning all the remainder but the last four. (Behind and Columbus were written by Dave Freeman, England by Jack Seddon and David Pursall, and Emmannuelle by Lance Peters.) Adding immeasurably to the fun in almost all was the crudely reinforcing music by Eric Rogers.
None are great films, but a world without them is unthinkable.