Earlier this week my attention was drawn to some comments made by the well known comedian Stewart Lee. Writing in The Guardian newspaper, Lee was contributing on the subject of favourite British films. As I started reading the paragraph, kindly provided by a follower on Twitter, I found myself in total agreement as Stewart waxed lyrical about the cinematic charms of Carry On Screaming and also Carry On Up The Khyber.
However, the tone soon changed as he became critical of many of the other films in the Carry On canon. The quote ended "it's Victorian gothic milieu protects it from the ravages of squeamish social revisionism that have rightly rendered many Carry Ons unwatchable." Now, I understand the language in this quote but for me it takes the whole subject far too seriously. Do you really think Peter Rogers and Gerald Thomas were at all concerned with 'social revisionism" when they were churning out their cheap and cheerful pantomimes on film?
What really ticks me off about Stewart's comments is the apparent snobbishness throughout. I will defend the Carry Ons and their stars to my last breath - I adore them. Sure not all the films were of the highest quality but it would be virtually impossible to create an endless stream of classics when the team were making an average of two feature films a year over a twenty year period. However the Carry Ons as a body of work remain an absolute joy. They are pure escapism; light, frothy confections of bawdy antics which manage to entertain across the generations. They were naughty but never filthy and compared to many of the mainstream films released today, really very sweet and innocent, lacking the copious amounts of violence and bad language that appear to come as standard in 2016.
Yes the films were made quickly and on a tiny budget and yes the actors weren't paid huge sums and that's always regrettable. They all looked like they were having terrific fun though and this still bounces out the screen no matter how many times they are shown. The Carry Ons captured countless truly brilliant, top quality comedy actors in their prime. How could any of these actors ever be deemed 'unwatchable' - Kenneth Williams, Charles Hawtrey, Peter Butterworth, Patsy Rowlands, Fenella Fielding, Jim Dale, Barbara Windsor, Sidney James, Liz Fraser, Peter Gilmore, Frankie Howerd, Bernard Bresslaw, Angela Douglas, Dilys Laye, Marianne Stone, Kenneth Connor, Hattie Jacques, Esma Cannon, Joan Hickson, Julian Holloway, Eric Barker, Amanda Barrie and of course, the wonderful Joan Sims.
The Carry Ons have become part of British culture, beloved by generations across the country and now around the world. They keep these wonderful comedy actors in our living rooms and in our thoughts long after all too many of them have sadly left us. I honestly believe that the vast majority of the Carry Ons remain timeless and stand up well to repeat viewing, even after all these years. I agree with Lee that the likes of Screaming and Khyber raised the bar and the quality of that era was hard to replicate however even later, contemporary films like Convenience, Abroad and Behind had terrific moments, wonderful humour and memorable performances from the cream of British comedy talent.
I also think Stewart Lee makes the fatal mistake of viewing the Carry On films with a modern eye. They are all period pieces coming from a Britain of long ago and we should not be apologetic about that. They were honest films and the working classes loved them, flocking to the cinema every time one was released. Yes there are elements that don't necessarily appeal in 2016 but they weren't made in 2016 for a 2016 audience! In my view there are far many more appallingly gross elements in so-called enlightened modern day comedy than there ever were in a Carry On. I think it's a huge mistake to judge any of the Carry Ons from a 21st Century point of view. Enjoy them for what they are.
We only have to look at the more recent effort, Columbus in 1992, to show that today's modern comedians just don't cut it at broad, Carry On comedy. Their failure showed that the performances the likes of Sid, Kenneth and Joan turned in again and again over the years were not as effortless and easy as these legends made them look. They were highly skilled performers, adept at comedy across film, television, radio and on stage and were true all-rounders.
You could have Joan Sims and Charles Hawtrey sit and read out the phone book and their talent would shine through. These actors and the glorious Carry On films could never ever be unwatchable in my eyes. I love them all and I always will. Long live the Carry Ons!