Sunday 19 June 2016

Carry On Blogging Interview: Robert Ross


I recently caught up with Carry On writer extraordinaire Robert Ross to ask him some questions about all things Carry On. It seemed a particularly fitting time to do this as this year marks the twentieth anniversary of the publication of his first book, The Carry On Companion. I asked Robert all about that book as well as his thoughts on some of my Carry On favourites, including Liz Fraser, Patsy Rowlands and of course, Joan Sims...

It's now an unbelievable 20 years since your book The Carry On Companion was first published. Can you remember what it felt like to have a book you'd written on the Carry Ons published?

If it seems unbelievable to you, it's absolutely extraordinary to me! Where have the years gone? Rhetorical! And, yes, I can remember vividly what it was like to have that first book published. I had started putting 'The Carry On Companion' together years earlier. Just before the death of Kenneth Williams in 1988, in~fact. I was still a fresh~faced teenager then, so I went through work, university, more work, and an awful lot of fun, before the book was finally published in the May of 1996. 

I never quite gave up on it throughout those years, but I was feeling less and less convinced that I would ever find a willing publisher. I wrote to literally everybody! Finally, B. T. Batsford a specialist in film books I had long admired, made me an offer. It was partly thanks to the success of Howard Maxford's Batsford book on Hammer Films that they decided to take a punt on the Carry Ons; a series that another, nameless publisher, informed me was too "low~brow" for their film list. Oh, the snobbish attitudes I have encountered! Anyway, when I took that 'phone~call from B. T. Batsford,  suffice to say my controlled delight evaporated as soon as I hung up the receiver. To put it mildly, I went insane: running around the house, whooping and hollowing as if I had won the Pools. There has never been a professional high so sweet as getting that first book placed with a publisher. I owe 'The Carry On Companion' and Richard Reynolds at B. T. Batsford pretty much everything for what followed over the next twenty years. It's been a total joy.


You reviewed each of the Carry On films in the Carry On Companion. Do you still agree with your verdicts 20 years on or have you changed your mind?

Well, as I said in the original book even One Sid rating means I really like the film. I genuinely do get some pleasure out of every Carry On. Having said that, I think I was particularly harsh on 'Carry On Jack'. It's a beautiful looking film, and simply oozes class. It also features one of Charles Hawtrey's most poignant and gently funny performances. I suppose it's like Bernard Cribbins told me: It's not a great Carry On, but it is a great British comedy film. I still marvel at the thought of contemporary audiences going to see it; it's *so* different to the Carry Ons that had gone before. Anyway, twenty years on, I have the pleasure of upping it from 1 to 3 Sids! I also think I was pretty hard on 'Carry On Cowboy' and 'Don't Lose Your Head'. These are scrumptious, lovely to look~at, laugh out loud, quality actor packed Carry On films. So, if you can indulge me, I'll give each of them another Sid each. Maybe even two more each!

The Carry On Companion included memories from many actors involved in the series. Was it a challenge to get so many actors to share their thoughts?

Not really. I just wrote to their agents, or the BBC, and hoped for the best. Don't forget, it was much harder to get access to your heroes back in those days. You couldn't cold tweet someone, or like their official Facebook page! Mind you, I was used to tracking down actors, directors, writers, heroes of all sorts because, from an early age, I had collected signed photographs. The approach was the same. The first responses I received were from Frankie Howerd, June Whitfield and Bernard Cribbins. I thought I had cracked it straight away. How could I fail to get a publisher with such support? I refer you to my first answer for the hollow response that question received! You have to remember that I had no proven record, and I didn't really know anybody. Receiving not just a reply but a C90 audio cassette of memories from Jim Dale in New York still remains one of the most exciting pieces of post I have ever received. Jim is still a dear friend to this day.

You have now published several books on British comedy. Which one are you most proud of and why?

Gosh! That's a really hard question. Obviously there are some I am less proud of then others, but all of them have had some delight attached to the researching and writing of them. I've written two books on 'The Goodies', and to be able to hang out with those super chaps for hours and hours has been one of the great joys of my life. I was obsessed with them as a kid. It's nice to be able to tell them just how much they meant to me. The same goes for Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, the Guv'nurs of comedy scriptwriting for me. To share a credit with those two behemoths of their art on the official 'Steptoe and Son' book for the BBC makes me very proud. I was also chuffed that, after years of pitching, I finally got my Marty Feldman biography published. That was with Titan Books, and the Marty project is one I'm very proud of indeed, not least of which because nobody had ever done it and I wanted to put him back on the Top Table of Comedy Greats where he belongs.

Are there any of the more elusive Carry On actors that you would still love to meet? Who would they be and why?

I've been lucky enough to meet almost everybody associated with the Carry Ons over the years; from Gerald Thomas to the bloke who pulls the toilet paper down in the opening credits of 'Carry On At Your Convenience'. That was Peter Govey, by the way! Still, I long to meet Gail Grainger ~ Miss Plunkett in 'Carry On Abroad'. I was desperate to get her on the DVD commentary and, if she's reading this, I'm still more than happy for her to squash my itinerary anytime she likes!


You worked with the late Patsy Rowlands several times before her death in 2005. Patsy is one of my favourite comedy character actors. What was she like to be with?

Patsy was an absolute delight. The most unassuming, sweet, delightful of people. I interviewed her at Pinewood Studios, and on a couple of the DVD commentaries; as well as being a fellow guest with her on a particularly pugnacious BBC News 24 live session. She didn't have a bad word about anybody, and remained proud and misty~eyed over her association with the likes of Bernard Bresslaw and Joan Sims. I always get a little defensive over Patsy's place within the team. She never felt she deserved to be included in the roll~call of greats. I beg to differ. Whether it be a tiny cough and a spit, as in her stunning, truthful, nemesis comedic turn in 'Carry On Henry', or a gleeful lead role, as in 'Carry On Girls', Patsy was always on the money. For me she's one of the finest comedy actors of her generation. It makes me smile to think that she is still so well~loved. She deserves it.

One of my favourite Carry On ladies is the wonderful Liz Fraser. From the audio commentaries you have done together, you obviously get on well! Do you enjoy working with Liz?

Liz and I adore each other. We have known each other for years and years. In~fact, I'm pretty sure Liz was the first Carry On star I ever interviewed; wandering around the grounds of Pinewood Studios during one of their open days, well before I had even got one foot on the ladder. I seem to remember we bonded over dogs and the fact that my favourite film of her's was 'Double Bunk'. It's her favourite too. She's worked with my ultimate comedy heroes: Sid James, Tony Hancock, and Peter Sellers, and we have worked together a lot. More than that, we meet up socially too. Actually, I had just got off the 'phone to her before I started answering your questions. Lunch dates, and a couple of work things with Talking Pictures TV are in the planning stages. Happy days.

My ultimate comedy heroine is the late, great Joan Sims. What are your memories of Joan?

Far too many to recount here. Always funny, often outrageous, occasionally heart~breaking; she was the most insecure and sweet of ladies. Her home offered a non~stop supply of cola and cherry cake ~ her favourites ~ and a busy day would usually culminate with a delicious Chinese takeaway. We would literally cry with laughter while discussing everything from her amazing career to my latest ridiculous exploit. I first met her during the filming of 'What's A Carry On?' in 1998, so I only knew her for a couple of years, but we saw a heck of a lot of each other in that time. I can't think of Joanie without smiling, and I think that's as good a legacy as you could possibly leave.


On 26th June you will be joining Valerie Leon for her Forever Carrying On event at the Leicester Square Theatre Lounge. How did this new venture come about?

That show is all Valerie's. We have known each other for years, and there's always just one more Carry On project bubbling under the surface between us, but my position with this show is simply as host. Since December 2013 I've presented a monthly show, first at the Museum of Comedy, and latterly at the Leicester Square Theatre. You can listen back to a selection of the shows on my website, but Valerie's is going to be very different. It's her presentation that is the lion's share of the fun, then we will briefly chat all things Carry On afterwards, with questions from the audience and a signing session. The fun kicks off at 4pm., so I hope to see some of you there.

What are you up to next? Any more books in the pipeline?

Yes! Lots more books in the pipeline; including at least three with a Carry On connection. I'm also writing another play ~ following 'Jeepers Creepers', about Marty and Lauretta Feldman, which played at the Leicester Square Theatre earlier this year. There's also 'Forgotten Heroes of Comedy', a labour of love which Terry Jones and I have collaborated on, and which I'm currently funding with Unbound. Here: If your readers want to keep up~to~date with my work, Is the place to be, and although I am on Facebook, I don't tend to have a lot to say over there! Twitter is more likely to get me: @RobertWRossEsq

You will be acting as an advisor on the new film, Carry On Doctors. Can you tell us more about what this role will involve?

Ha! Not really. Other than what the press release has specified! Basically, I'm very hands on with the production, in terms of continuity with the original series. All of us involved with the new films are massive fans of the series: writers, director, producer, executive producers. Everyone. This is not a re~branding of a beloved institution, it's the continuation of the same. We see 'Carry On Doctors' as the 32nd. Carry On film, and I'm very excited about it.

Finally, what's your favourite Carry On film (at the moment)?

Nicely put. I still think the best is 'Carry On Cleo'. Everything just came together so beautifully ~ from Talbot Rothwell's historian touch with an off~colour joke, to the serendipity of all those wonderful sets and costumes. To be honest, it's been a while since I actually sat down and watched a Carry On all the way through, just for the pleasure of it, but my comfort blanket Carry Ons still remain the same, and although I will always adore 'Carry On Screaming!', my absolute favourite Carry On at any given time just has to have Sid James in it. Life just seems a little better when you stick 'Carry On Cabby' or 'Carry On Abroad' on the telly, doesn't it?


Many thanks to Robert once again for taking time out to provide such thoughtful and interesting answers to my questions. 

You can follow me on Twitter @CarryOnJoan and also on Facebook

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