Monday, 9 January 2017
Carry On Sergeant - A Hidden Gem?
I don't often watch Carry On Sergeant. I know it's there and I'm eternally grateful to that low budget, black and white comedy film as it started something amazing. I guess for quite some time I have dismissed it as a coy, cosy post war comedy that is very unlike the brash, bawdy, innuendo-laden Carry On films which followed.
However recently I've looked at Sergeant with a fresh eye. For a film which started off a long running series without any notion of a team or a sequence of films which would trundle on for twenty years, it is remarkably good. The cast is populated mainly with names unfamiliar to the general public and they really go for it. In short, I think it's time to celebrate Carry On Sergeant as a great British comedy in its own right, not just for starting the series off. So here are five reasons why I love Carry On Sergeant.
1. First of all this film really did shake things up at Pinewood Studios. Pinewood had a long history of lavish film making, even by 1958. It was known for big budget productions, attracting stars from around the world. The films made there spent lots of money and were highly regarded by film critics. Then along came Peter Rogers and Gerald Thomas with a film made for a budget of around £70,000 and a cast comprised of largely unknown actors. Sergeant must have been like a breath of fresh air at the time and not only allowed a different kind of film to be made at Pinewood for many years to come, but would go a long way to keep the future of British cinema in rude health in the coming decades at a time when television was king.
2. The Carry On films were from the very start unashamedly working class, both in subject matter and in the audience they performed to and attracted. The original films each tackled well-known and beloved British institutions - the army, the National Health Service, the schools system, the Police force. All featured working class characters the ordinary cinema going public could identify and empathise with. Times were changing with more working class people attending drama school and becoming actors and as the kitchen sink phenomenon took hold, the Carry Ons were packing out the cinemas. There just weren't films being made like Carry On Sergeant at the time. In choosing National Service as the subject matter for the first Carry On, Peter Rogers and Gerald Thomas tapped into a massive market and touched the funny bone of the working class British public with a topic so many of them had experienced and knew well.
3. Carry On Sergeant pulled together the essence of the classic team which would make us laugh time and time again over the years to come. Of the Carry On Sergeant cast, Kenneth Williams, Kenneth Connor and Eric Barker would appear in both the first and the very last of the original run of films. Williams, Connor, Charles Hawtrey and Hattie Jacques would become fixtures of the series well into the 1970s. And the personas they established in this very first film would typify the roles they inhabited over the many films that lay ahead. Williams the intellectual, slightly snobbish know it all. Connor the bumbling, accident prone little man. Hawtrey the effete loner and Jacques, the authority figure with a medical bent. Sure, the roles would become more exaggerated as the years progressed but these actors really did hit the ground running.
4. I think we must also pay Norman Hudis a huge debt of gratitude for his Carry On Sergeant script. The film was produced from an original idea by R.F Delderfield and reworked several times before Hudis got his hands on it. I love Norman's Carry On scripts as they provide the right balance between laugh out loud humour, slapstick, gentle innuendo and lovely character comedy with a touch of serious romantics, scenes that tug on the heart strings and a very real sense of social comment. Not an easy task and he threads all these strands together so very well. While many of the later films like Khyber and Camping are rightly lauded as being classics of their kind, I think the Hudis era films stand up really well and are remarkably fresh given that they were made nearly sixty years ago.
5. Finally, Carry On Sergeant saw one vital plot strand develop which pretty much went through every subsequent Carry On - the plight of the little man. In Sergeant it was Kenneth Connor's Horace Strong who the audience could get behind and root for. Future films would see the audience root for the male patients in Nurse who stood up to the rather harsh Matron, the children in Teacher who campaigned to keep their beloved headmaster at their school, Jim Dale's Marshall P Knutt in Carry On Cowboy and the British in Up The Khyber when faced with the threat of the Khasi of Kalabar. It's always good to see the underdog triumph and in Carry On Sergeant, this very pleasing trend was set.
So I think it's time to dust off your copy of Carry On Sergeant and appreciate the skill of Norman's script and the performances of Connor, Williams, Hawtrey and the gang.
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