Monday 11 September 2017

Connor Carries On ... as Horace Strong


Next June will mark Kenneth Connor's centenary. This feels like the right time to celebrate the man's legacy and what better a legacy that his seventeen glorious performances in the Carry On films. As I've already done with the three main leading ladies of the series, I plan to embark on a series of blogs profiling each of Kenneth's roles in the Carry Ons, giving my own take on his contributions.

Kenneth is another one of those actors who worked steadily, prolifically and across all mediums throughout his career. From his very early days in film before the outbreak of World War Two, through the 1950s which saw him become an integral part of British radio comedy to the Carry Ons and his unforgettable roles in several 1980s sitcoms, Connor was an incredibly gifted actor. He worked right up until his death at the age of 75 in November 1993. However unlike Sid, Kenneth Williams or Barbara Windsor, I feel that Connor never really got the credit he deserved. He didn't have an outrageous private life, no scandals to be told. He shunned the limelight and his many performances as the ordinary man in the street mirrored his own life away from the cameras. 


Kenneth was also one of the precious few actors who's career spanned pretty much the entire run of the Carry Ons. He was there at the very beginning in Carry On Sergeant and, a five year gap in the mind 1960s aside, remained loyal to the films until the very end of the original run in 1978. Connor, along with Williams and Eric Barker were the only actors to appear in the very first and the very last of the series. Kenneth was still around when Columbus was made in 1992 but declined to take part, probably very wisely. This new series of blogs will be a celebration of all those wonderful comedy performances in the Carry Ons - from bumbling romantic lead through to crumbling character parts, Kenneth could play them all.

So let's start right back in 1958 with Carry On Sergeant. This film is quite unlike most of the others that followed. The National Service comedy is fairly down to earth, gentle fare and the comedy content is generally light on innuendo. It represented the austere, post war Britain and the main reason for its stunning success at the box office was that the vast majority of the cinema going public could easily identify with the characters on screen and the situations in which they found themselves. While much of the content of Sergeant is pretty much unrecognisable as a Carry On compared to the bawdy antics of later entries, some of the faces debuting here would become long standing series contributors. Along with Kenneth Connor we have Kenneth Williams, Charles Hawtrey and Hattie Jacques. All would be mainstays, returning again and again to Pinewood Studios for fun with Peter Rogers Productions over the next decade or so. 


Other actors in Carry On Sergeant would reappear in later films (Shirley Eaton, Terence Longdon, Bill Owen to name a few) however none of these original stars of Sergeant quite left their mark like the Kenneths and Charles. The leading names in Sergeant were William Hartnell, Bob Monkhouse, Eric Barker, Dora Bryan and Eaton. All reliable actors, well versed in the art of comedy and film making. However even from the get go, it's the actors further down the cast list that shine the brightest, and none more so than Kenneth Connor. Quite simply, his Horace Strong is a comedy masterpiece. 

Horace is the most fragile, ineffective, reluctant hypochondriacal recruit in the entire film. He flinches at army life, shared barracks, technical tasks and most of all, any form of physical activity. Strong has so many mythical medical complaints he pays daily visits to the medical Officer (Hattie Jacques) whose no nonsense approach meets Horace's dithering head on in several beautifully played scenes. Most of the other recruits take the mickey out of Horace and see him as a major factor in their poor performance compared to other platoons. However there is a great deal of affection in these performances and the camaraderie shines though.


For me, the highlight of the film is Horace's battle to put off his persistent love interest, the wide-eyed, love struck Norah, played to perfection by the brilliant Dora Bryan. Dora and Kenneth are comedy gold and together they share many of the best moments. I really wish they had worked together more often as their chemistry and shared comedy timing is just superb. Norah chases Horace throughout the film and this only sends him into even more of a pill-popping panicked frenzy. In the end though, it is Norah (with a little help from Jacques) who helps Horace see the light. On the eve of their final passing out parade, Strong finally acts as his name suggests and wins over Norah before becoming one of the best performing recruits in the film's best of British, proud as punch finale.

Kenneth Connor is the very heart and soul of Carry On Sergeant. On the strength of this performance, it is no surprise that he came to be the Carry On films' leading light in many of the early black and white films that followed.  


Next up will be my blog on Kenneth's return to the world of Carry On later in 1958 when he grabbed the starring role of injured boxer Bernie Bishop in the classic Carry On Nurse. Stay tuned for that! 

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