Wednesday 29 July 2015

From the Happy Wanderer to Els Bells: The Social History of The Carry Ons

Earlier this week I wrote my very first guest post for another blog - the wonderful History Usherette. It was published on that very fine blog on Monday and here it is at Carry On Blogging. It's my attempt at discussing the Carry On films in a social history context. Do visit for more terrific blogs. 

The Carry On films are a cultural phenomenon. They hold a unique place in British culture and British life. No other series of comedy films has lasted so long, either in terms of the number of films produced or their durability. Nearly sixty years after Carry On Sergeant was released, the films are still shown regularly on television and discussed endlessly in blogs just like this one.

As well as being madly passionate about British film, the Carry Ons and their stars in particular, I also trained as a social historian ten years ago. I studied social history at Glasgow University, eventually clawing my way to a Masters degree. Had the focus of my thesis been on the Carry Ons, that distinction may have become a reality. I grew up on these films: cheaply made yet bursting with quality actors and memorable lines. As I have gone through life they have stayed with me, as a comfort blanket, as a hobby and most of all just for fun. The Carry Ons were meant to be churned out and be instantly forgotten but these days, in the digital age, they have become a time capsule. Although they often represent a Britain that never truly existed, they still provide a valuable insight into how much our country changed during their twenty year reign at the box office.

They started in black and white with National Service. Twenty years later, in glorious technicolour they crawled towards the end of the 1970s with a send up of the soft porn genre. For the likes of Kenneth Williams and Kenneth Connor, who appeared in the credits of both Sergeant and Emmannuelle, the changes must have been distinctly obvious. While neither of these films are my own personal favourites, the difference is plain to see - coy romance between Connor and Dora Bryan in the NAAFI in 1958 to plenty of flesh and mentioning the unmentionables in 1978. Had Britain really changed that much in those years? Probably.

To flesh this out, as it were, let's take two films from the series with a similar theme - Carry On Cruising, released in 1962 and Carry On Abroad, brought out exactly a decade later. Both films dealt with foreign travel and the challenges of taking Brits abroad. Both are excellent examples of Carry On comedy but they are light years apart in terms of content.

Carry On Cruising was the first film in the series to be released in colour. It revolves around a fairly upmarket ocean liner taking passengers on a cruise around the Mediterranean. Quite a commonplace activity in 2015, but in early 1962 just how many working class people (the Carry On's core audience) would have been able to treat themselves to such a holiday? The film is very reminiscent of one of the lighter, frothier Doctor films. It's all coy romantics from the likes of Kenneth Connor and Dilys Laye. Laye and Liz Fraser are the lovely young ladies on board however it's all sweet, innocent japes and nothing is taken too far. Laye wants a husband - that's the main plot thread. Everything is very polite and bright and middle class and the ladies parade around in an endless stream of gorgeous gowns and swimming costumes. 

Cruising is a delightful example of early 60s froth. It clearly shows a Britain emerging from the austere 1950s and beginning to live again. It lacks the social comment of earlier entries like Nurse and Teacher but it is still an enjoyable watch. Let's fast forward ten years now and see what had changed by the time Carry On Abroad was released in 1972.

Abroad is one of my all time favourite Carry Ons. It was a timely pastiche of the then ever growing popularity of the package holiday. The 1960s had seen a growing affluent middle class with a taste for foreign travel. Package holidays to Spain and Italy were commonplace as Brits became increasingly adventurous. At the same time, horror stories of awful accommodation and dreadful food were the stuff of legend. What better than to take the nation's favourite band of eccentrics and send them off a fictitious Spanish island?

From the very beginning, Abroad is a very different film from Cruising. Sex is very much on the agenda. From marriages on the rocks to young girls out for a good time and Barbara Windsor's suitcase full of underthings, it's all in your face from the opening credits. Britain was arguably a much more liberal place by the early 1970s and this is reflected in the attitudes in Abroad. Infidelity was very much a possibility and for the first time a potentially gay couple are seen on screen. A very cliched example of course, but there nonetheless. The film is also much more risqué with Barbara Windsor flashing much more than is strictly necessary throughout the 90 minutes. 

At the end of the film, all is well in the world of Carry On. There is no infidelity (on screen at least), warring couples are reunited and one of the (possibly) gay young men finds the lure of Sally Geeson just too much to refuse. Everyone returns to Sid and Joan's pub for what must have been the best lock-in in cinematic history. 

So Carry On Abroad provides the much needed happy ending, very much like that of Carry On Cruising ten years before. Were the two films that different all things considered? And can the Carry Ons really be taken seriously as a telling demonstration of how this country changed in the mid twentieth century? 

Thank you to @aitchteee for letting me use the wonderful drawings.

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  1. Brilliant article. I was just watching Abroad today. It would have to be my favourite as all of the gang are in it. I was reading that the film was made in the Pinewood car park and it was Winter and the girls were freezing in their bikinis. Superb performances all round.

    1. Thanks! Yes they filmed the vast majority of it at Pinewood, either in the car park or on one of the back lots. Incredible really!