Sunday, 20 September 2015

The Biopic Trend

After years in the cinematic doldrums, the late 1990s brought a renewed interest in the Carry On films and their stars. Suddenly, innuendo was cool again and Sid James was a hero for the lads generation. A new generation of young male and female comedy performers publicly regarded the Carry On actors as legends, heroes and inspirations.

While I was completely alright with this as I love my Carry Ons, it also brought about a trend for delving deeper into the lives of the actors. It makes sense that the incredible popularity and cult status of the films made their new fans want to find out more about the stars and the lives they lived. Also, as many of the main actors had passed away by this point in time, it made it easier for people to write books and newspaper articles about the stars as well as produce several rather controversial documentaries. 

Probably at the heart of this boom was the infamous relationship between Carry On co-stars Sid James and Barbara Windsor. Much has been made of it over the years and it has been stimulated by various sources for whatever reasons. Personally I couldn't care less about this sad aspect of the Carry Ons rich legacy. At certain points I wish it had gone away as members of Sid's family were still very much alive and well and it was disrespectful to hear so many often lurid details. Still, it was what it was.

Then along came Terry Johnson's play Cleo, Camping, Emmannuelle and Dick. This was performed at the National Theatre in the late 1990s and claimed to tell the story of what went on behind the scenes at Pinewood, principally the relationship between Sid and Barbara, but also involving the tale of Kenneth Williams. The play received excellent reviews and the actors playing the main roles did well. It spawned a television adaptation, Cor Blimey in 2000 in which Barbara herself made a cameo appearance. While it was well-acted, it left a rather unpleasant feeling in its wake. I know certain actors, Joan Sims and Liz Fraser being the most vocal, were appalled at the way colleagues like Sid and Kenneth were portrayed.

This trend spawned similar biopics with a Carry On theme. In 2006 Michael Sheen played Kenneth Williams in Fantabulosa. Although this drama didn't pull any punches when describing Kenneth's private life, I did love it and thought Sheen was excellent as our Ken. It showed a touching, sad relationship with his mother Louie, played beautifully by Cheryl Campbell. Beattie Edney (daughter of Sylvia Syms) was also on fine form as Joan Sims. While providing an unflinching insight into the life of the troubled Carry On star, it somehow still managed to be a sensitive, affectionate tribute.

Two years later, along came another biopic of a famously camp Carry On comedian. In 2008 the BBC made Rather You Than Me, a one-off drama focussing on the life of Frankie Howerd. It promised to be moving, poignant and humorous but I didn't really enjoy it. Playing Frankie was David Walliams, an actor and personality I've never really taken to, so that's probably why it's not my favourite drama. There was one bonus though, as Dilys Laye made an appearance playing Frankie's mother. In one of her last television acting roles before her sad death, it must have been strange for Dilys to work on this film given that she had worked with Frankie both in the Carry Ons and on radio. 

Finally, in 2011, Ruth Jones brought Hattie Jacques back to life in a film about Hattie's life with John Le Mesurier. Jones was excellent in the title role and really carried the drama, although the top acting prize must go to Robert Bathurst who made an excellent John Le Mesurier. It must have been a tricky role to play but Bathurst really captured Le Mesurier as friends remember him and we imagine him. There was also excellent support from Aidan Turner as Hattie's younger lover John Schofield and the fantastic Marcia Warren as the equally wonderful Esma Cannon. The Carry On Cabby sequences were a highlight! While certain aspects of the drama were painful to observe, it was a fascinating story to tell. 

The rash of Carry On biopics was a right old mish mash. Some of these dramas are worth cherishing and watching over while others, in my opinion, dwelled far too much on certain unpalatable details us fans would rather not consider. Personally, I like to remember the likes of Sid, Kenneth, Frankie and Hattie for their wonderful acting performances, their gift for comedy and the joy they continue to bring into our lives. 

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  1. I would tend to agree. Enjoyable though each biopic was, and very well acted. I think I would rather remember the Carry On Actors for their contribution to comedy and wit. Its one thing for an actor who is alive and chooses to participate in something autobiographical but quite another if they are no longer around to have input or comment. Sometimes personal details should remain just that..personal

    1. Well said! They were all well put together but I do wonder what the subjects would have made of it all.