Friday 3 April 2015

Carry On, Carrying On!

Ah the glorious Carry On team. Who could have guessed at the time they would not only have lasted all these years but grown into such a never-ending, massive cult! Each new generation gets to know them, falls in love with them and takes them to their hearts. And long may it continue.

Sadly, far too many of the original team are long gone. They live on for all of us though on the silver screen, captured at their collective peak. The true meaning of a gift that keeps on giving. I think Rogers and Thomas really did strike it lucky with their principal cast. Such a collection of talents, each distinct and bringing their own special something.

Sid James, the leader of the pack in 19 of the films. A true star but also an everyman. Someone so many of the core Carry On audience could identify with and imagine chewing the fat with down the local or in the betting shop. He was a man's man, as it were. An unlikely sex symbol and a classic comedy star. Beneath the Carry On persona though lurked a superb, technical actor capable of a terrific range. He was happy and content doing what he knew best though and we're all grateful for that.

One of my all time favourite raconteurs, the simply brilliant Kenneth Williams. Starting off with idealist dreams of becoming a classical actor and making a difference, he soon found his niche in radio comedy before expanding into television and eventually 26 Carry On films. It was effortless for him and he loved the camaraderie but at the same time it was often an uncomfortable, undignified experience for him. He frequently suffered for his art. In later years as the work dried up he became a renowned chat show regular, a reliable guest able to talk widely and hilariously. Unfortunately these performances ate away at more and more of him and it was painful to watch. I prefer to remember him at his peak - a brilliant, polished comic actor.

Charles Hawtrey. A child star who was rescued by the Carry Ons when his career was on the slide. He appeared in 23 of the films until aspects of his personal life made his position untenable. But what a class act he was in his prime. Even when his appearance in a Carry On was little more than a cameo, it left a lasting impression - the mark or a true star. Who can forget his Private Widdle in Up The Khyber or Dan Dan the Lavatory Man in Screaming? A true one off.

My own favourite of all, the incredibly versatile Joan Sims. There was nothing she couldn't play. More than any other performer in the series she tackled everything they threw at her: posh, common, dowdy and glamorous. How often does an actress go from bright young student nurse to middle-aged housekeeper over a twenty year film franchise? Superb in Carry On Cowboy as Belle, scene stealing as Zig Zig in Follow That Camel and Lady Ruff Diamond in Up The Khyber, she was simply stunning. The downside of appearing in 24 Carry On films was that sadly, more serious roles escaped her. I honestly think she was capable of a much wider range. She would have been magnificent at the National Theatre or the Royal Court or starring in a period drama on television. A great talent, gone too soon.

Jim Dale, the handsome hero of 11 Carry Ons. He provided so much truly brilliant physical comedy it was no surprise he went on to so much success on stage both here and in America. He brought a wonderful energy to the films and was greatly missed when he departed after Again Doctor in 1969. He made a great double act with Sid James and his on-screen romantic partnerships with the likes of Anita Harris, Angela Douglas and Barbara Windsor were always beautifully played.

The wonderfully versatile, naturally comedic Peter Butterworth. He appeared in countless Carry Ons over the years, normally in supporting roles but he attacked them with relish. Never missing an opportunity for comic reactions and unscripted bits of business he was often underestimated I think. In his bigger roles in the series he shone - Brother Belcher in Up The Khyber, Slowbottom in Screaming and Pepe/Mario in Abroad - brilliant, memorable performances up there with the best of them. One of the few main team members to appear in really brief, sometimes uncredited cameos he clearly loved being a part of the series and I adored his performances. His touching scenes with Joan Sims in Carry On Behind show the subtle actor within.

I adored Hattie Jacques in all of her 14 appearances in the Carry Ons although she was often saddled with the harridan of a matron supporting role. She was a class act though. She was a gifted comedienne, star of countless reviews and music hall at the Players Theatre. She made a great double act with Eric Sykes on television and was a really subtle comedy actress. My favourite of her Carry On appearances is not one with a medical theme. Her role as Peggy in Carry On Cabby is outstanding. It was Hattie the woman, playing out a troubled marriage and showing intelligence, guts and determination as a modern business woman. A shame she wasn't allowed to play more parts in that vein. 

The sublime comedy actor Kenneth Connor, one of only two main team players to appear in both the first and last of the original Carry On series. He was the leading man in the early days, the bumbling romantic lead. He then graduated to crumbling middle-aged figures of authority and bureaucracy. Like Peter Butterworth he was a natural comic performer, never missing an opportunity and always delivering top notch performances. A true legend, like so many of his peers he worked right up until the end of his life, making a name for himself on television in Allo Allo and Hi-de-Hi.

 It may have taken her a long time to shed the bubbly blonde Carry On image, but it still put Barbara Windsor on the map and made her a star. She only appeared in nine original Carry Ons but it always feels like she was in a whole lot more. My favourite performance is her first, as Daphne Honeybutt in Carry On Spying. It set the tone for so many that followed, but there was also a touch of the naive which was very welcome. Peter Rogers once made some unkind comments about Barbara's role in the series, very much based on her image, but as her role in EastEnders showed, there was a lot more to her than just the comedy, cockney blonde.

Bringing up the rear, the towering giant of the team, Bernard Bresslaw. He was a quiet, unassuming, intelligent man in real life which was in great contrast with the characters he played. Often the dim-witted accomplice to Sid James or the scary villain (Up The Khyber/Follow That Camel) he was another underrated actor in the team who brought much to the ensemble. The depth of his acting talent was demonstrated in later years when he became a prolific star in legitimate theatre. Sadly he died at the absurdly early age of 59, robbing us of yet another fine talent.

So there you have it, the main players in the classic Carry On team. A superb range of comedy performers who worked effortlessly together on and off for an amazing twenty years. 57 years on from Carry On Sergeant, the Carry On phenomenon shows no sign of abating and thank heavens for it!

Carry On Forever!

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