Tuesday 5 May 2015

Carry On, Girls

I don't know about you but I can't imagine the Carry On films without those brilliant leading ladies, Joan Sims, Hattie Jacques and Barbara Windsor.

Each brought something completely different to the films but all three complemented the series perfectly. Joan Sims, appearing in 24 films, went from bright young nurse to nagging middle-aged wife, playing an incredible range of characters in between. Hattie Jacques was famously Matron several times but was capable of much more being such a talented, subtle actress. And Barbara Windsor, the most famous bubbly blonde in British films.

Although we can't imagine the Carry Ons without these actresses, the question is, how well treated were these talented women, both in terms of the roles they played and how much they were paid. 

It's a well-worn story, the Carry Ons and money. Peter Rogers was notoriously tight, running the productions with a firm grip on the purse strings. What boggles my mind still is the fact not just that the leading actors were paid so little but that the leading ladies were always paid  half what the leading men received. You just cannot imagine it happening now. I guess the blame can't all be levelled at Peter Rogers. These actors all had agents representing them so it seems strange that for twenty years the same fees were accepted again and again.

While Sid James and Kenneth Williams were in many ways the stars of the series, it was always a team so the likes of Sims and Jacques really did make equally important contributions so deserved the same money as the men. It's actually pretty outrageous given that someone like Joan SIms, who worked almost constantly during the peak of her career, ended up having to write to Peter Rogers towards the end of her life to ask for a loan. It just shouldn't have been that way. 

Apart from these more practical matters, I wonder if the Carry Ons served the female performers well in terms of the parts they played. Barbara Windsor was pretty much always limited to the bubbly Cockney blonde with the giggle and the flashes of boobs. Hattie Jacques was a brilliant actress but time and time again was limited to the role of funny fat lady. As her role in Cabby shows, she was capable of much more than that.

Other actresses in the films faired a bit better. The likes of Angela Douglas, Fenella Fielding, Jacki Piper and Liz Fraser, while always glamorous also demonstrated a feisty intelligence and could run rings around the men. The likes of Margaret Nolan and Valerie Leon were normally employed solely for their figures and their glamour and that must have rankled at times but it didn't stop them accepting these parts as well as similar roles elsewhere. The Carry Ons were simply reflecting the times - the 60s and 70s were not kind to women in light entertainment. 

Joan Sims probably faired better than the rest. While many of the other actresses were pigeon-holed, Joan displayed astonishing versatility both within the films themselves and away from the Carry Ons. Her incredible contribution to 24 of the films did not prevent her working prolifically in other forms of media pretty much right up until her sad death in 2001. While Joan may not have received pay in line with the men she was gifted an amazing range of roles to play, at a time when being a funny woman in an industry where male comedians were king, was not all that common. Did her involvement in so many knock about comedies prevent her from starring with the Royal Shakespeare Company or grabbing roles in prime time BBC dramas? Who knows.

We love the Carry Ons to this very day. Elements of the films don't sit well with Britain in 2015 but they become more and more a picture of the past. You can argue that certain elements of the films are inappropriate and inequalities did persist, however they still enabled some wonderful performances and classic comedy actresses like Joan, Hattie and Barbara were always right up there with their male counterparts. 

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