Carry On At Your Convenience has long been one of my very favourite Carry On films. In many ways it is the classic Carry On experience. It features all the standard characters you would expect, all the familiar situations, a trip to glorious Brighton and it's even set in a toilet factory. So while the film has gained in popularity over the years, why was it such a shocking great flop when it was first released in 1971?
I can't really comment on the state of the nation in 1971 as I wasn't even thought of, coming along eleven years later. However Convenience did seem to be pitched completely wrong given that the Carry Ons' core audience were the working classes. The strong trade unions theme running through a lot of the picture was at odds with the cinema going public. An earlier film about the unions and the bosses, I'm All Right Jack, had been a roaring success and has rightly become a British comedy classic, however that film treated both sides fairly equally. They were all at it! With Convenience, by and large the union members (notably Kenneth Cope and Bernard Bresslaw) are portrayed as arrogant and dim-witted. Despite this, I think both Cope and Bresslaw put in superb performances and work tremendously well as the miss-matched double act.
It is easy to appreciate the strengths of Carry On At Your Convenience with the benefit of hindsight. I think it is a shame it is often labelled as the biggest Carry On flop - even in last year's Carry On Forever documentary, Carry On historian Robert Ross branded it the major Carry On failure. I must disagree with Mr Ross here as he seemed to have forgotten all about Carry On England and Emmannuelle, not to mention Columbus! Compared to these three films, Convenience is in a different league.
I mean, just look at the cast, firing on all cylinders. You've got Sid James, adopting his cardigan wearing, pipe smoking Bless This House persona, even if he does still fancy a bit with Joan Sims. Sid is blessed with a slovenly Hattie Jacques as his onscreen wife and a flighty Jacki Piper as his errant daughter Myrtle. One of the joys of this film is the running gag about Sid and Hattie's extraordinary budgie. It's an absolute delight. Joan Sims is playing the middle-aged flirt next door with ease. Her uproarious scenes in the factory canteen are beautifully played and surely one of the finest and purest examples of Carry On comedy.
Kenneth Williams is on sublime form as W.C Boggs, both repressed and upright and then unbuttoned and rebellious during the trip to Brighton. He's never been better. The film also gifts Patsy Rowlands one of her largest and most satisfying performances in the series as the frustrated Miss Withering. Kenneth and Patsy worked together frequently in the Carry Ons and you can see why - they had tremendous chemistry. Charles Hawtrey turns up on autopilot as Mr Coote, the toilet designer but it doesn't matter. I can forgive him anything for his hideous range of brightly patterned matching shirts and ties! He also enjoys a bracing double act with the redoubtable Scottish actress Renee Houston.
A special word for Kenneth Cope too. In the first of his two Carry On appearances, Kenneth is just superb. He plays the bombastic little man Vic Spanner with just the right mix of comedy, pathos and pride. A difficult part to carry off perhaps but I think he does a fine job. His failed attempts to land Jacki Piper as his "bird" are both hilarious and painful to watch, especially as she ends up with the bosses' son.
The Convenience supporting cast is also littered with sterling British character actors. Marianne Stone gets one of her biggest supporting roles as Joan's best friend Maud while Bill Maynard makes the most of a few scenes as Joan's husband Fred. Margaret Nolan adds some Seventies glamour to the proceedings when she joins in for the trip to Brighton, quickly pairing off with the lumbering Bernard Bresslaw. Geoffrey Hughes also turns up as a factory worker, a few years before he found stardom as Eddie Yeats in Coronation Street. Watch out also for brief cameos from the likes of Julian Holloway, Amelia Bayntun, Harry Towb and Shirley Stelfox. What a cast!
The highlight of Convenience for me is the climatic trip to Brighton. The Carry Ons were returning to their spiritual home with these scenes and it just feels so right to see Sid, Joan, Charles and Kenneth prancing down the pier, munching winkles and candyfloss and tearing up the shooting arcade. It's like being on holiday with your favourite gang of cinematic friends. You can also tell all involved are having a whale of a time. One of my all time favourite Carry On moments takes place during these scenes too. Although Sid apparently hated drag, he did seem to quite enjoy the scenes in the fortune teller's tent! From conning Kenneth and Patsy to flirting with Joan who goes on to burst Sid's balloons, it's a joy. The shared laughter between Joan and Sid is so real it goes beyond performance, much like their scene in bed towards the end of Carry On Abroad.
I guess what I'm saying is let's look past all the political humbugging and trade union angst and just enjoy Carry On At Your Convenience as the delightful bit of early 1970s fluff and merriment it is meant to be. The film captured the main team at the height of their precious powers just before everything started to slip away. It will always be one of my favourites.