Saturday 28 May 2016

Five of the Best: Carry On Female Role Models


Carry On films are famous for their female characters. Some of the most iconic roles in the series were played the main female team members - Hattie Jacques, Joan Sims and Barbara Windsor. However, sometimes these days the films are considered sexist and out of touch with more modern attitudes. That's probably true and many of the female roles in the films were just as decoration or to please the male characters. 

I would argue though that at least some of the female characters in the films were and remain role models. While none of the films could be considered feminist in the messages they send out, some do feature really strong, intelligent women. Here are some of my favourites:

Hattie Jacques as Peggy Hawkins, Carry On Cabby (1963)

As close to a feminist Carry On as you're every likely to get, Cabby sees bored, frustrated housewife Peggy Hawkins take her husband on at his own game. Peggy uses considerable business acumen to set up a rival cab firm in direct competition with her husband (Sid James). Of course Hattie only employs glamorous lady drivers but that's not the point. Peggy is superb showcase for Hattie's acting talents and allows her to play a strong, passionate, vulnerable woman which she does to great effect. 

For much of the film the women are in charge and the men are made to look like idiots who misjudge what the women in their lives are capable of. Of course the film ends with Sid and the lads coming to the ladies' rescue when they are kidnapped, however for the Hawkins' life has changed and the final message is that Charlie now sees his wife differently. 


Barbara Windsor as Daphne Honeybutt, Carry On Spying (1964)

Barbara Windsor's characters in the Carry Ons are hardly feminist icons. They are fluffy, blonde dolly birds who are, on the whole known for their figures and bra-popping antics. However Barbara's first (and my favourite) of her Carry On roles is much different. Yes her character is there to provide glamour, but she is also the most intelligent character in the film. As Daphne Honeybutt, one of the British agents on the trail of the mysterious Dr Crow, she frequently outwits her male colleagues (Williams, Hawtrey and Cribbins).With her photographic memory and love of adventure, Daphne is by far the best character Barbara is given in the series. In fact the female characters in Spying are much stronger than the men. Dilys Laye is also given a great, strong woman to play in Lila. 


Joan Sims as Belle, Carry On Cowboy (1965)

Joan spent a lifetime in nagging wife roles supporting the likes of Sid James and Kenneth Williams. They were always well played but rarely flattering nor challenging to the actress. However the beauty of the Carry Ons was their ability to turn this on its head every so often and joyfully exploit Joan's wonderful acting range. One of her finest and strongest roles is that of Saloon owner Belle in Carry On Cowboy. Belle is a strong, capable woman who runs her own business and takes on men at their own game. Her first appearance in Cowboy is one of the finest entrances of Joan's film career. Not only does she look fantastic but she takes on the brutish Rumpo Kid at his own game whilst the men present (Williams, Butterworth) hide and cowtow before him. Joan plays Belle as a powerful, strong and sexy woman and it's a brilliant performance. Of course Sid's Rumpo casts her aside but it's Belle who rescues him at the end when the game is up


Fenella Fielding as Valeria Watt, Carry On Screaming (1966)

One of the strongest, most memorable female characters to grace any Carry On is that of Fenella Fielding's Valeria Watt in Screaming. The image of Valeria in that stunning red dress has gone down in cinema history and it is truly iconic. Fenella's character is probably the strongest in the film. She takes charge of every situation, coping when her sniveling brother Orlando (Kenneth Williams) falls to pieces. She uses her feminine wiles to fox and dupe the dopey police detective Sergeant Bung (Harry H Corbett). She is the smart, quick thinking character in the film - glamorous yet intelligent and resourceful. Fenella created one of the all time great comedy horror characters in British cinema and it's a fantastic performance even after many, many viewings!

Patsy Rowlands as Mildred Bumble, Carry On Girls (1973)
My final choice is Mildred Bumble, a beautifully played creation by series stalwart Patsy Rowlands. Carry On Girls is one of the few films in the series to actually tackle the thorny issue of feminism, something which was a growing trend in the 1970s. While the film presents the feminists (June Whitfield's gloriously awful Augusta Prodworthy is the main protagonist) as the more intelligent characters, Girls does of course, fall down on the side of Sid and his beauty contest. Despite featuring a suggestion of feminist politics, Girls is an old fashioned Carry On romp which stars a host of bubbly, voluptuous ladies (Margaret Nolan, Barbara Windsor, Valerie Leon). 


However despite this, there is one strong female character who is often overlooked. Patsy Rowlands plays the downtrodden, dowdy Mildred Bumble with skilful relish and it's a joy from beginning to end. Is she a strong woman? Yes I think so. She has obviously put up with Kenneth Connor's irritating little man of a husband for far too many years, but she finally finds her voice and joins up with Augusta's band of protesters. Mildred gets her own back at the end of the film, pulling the trap door trick on Frederick and the audience is right behind her! 

So there you go, I hope you agree with my choices. I think these female characters do highlight that the Carry Ons did, occasionally feature strong, intelligent women and it wasn't always only about boobs and bottoms. Carry On!

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  1. Lovely stuff. Spot on about Mildred Bumble, her strength is in not giving a fig about her husband's airs and graces, and refusing to conform to his idea of a mayoral spouse.

    I'd add Matron in Carry On Matron too, she's just a thoroughly decent woman. It's great that Hattie got to play a Matron with such warmth and kindness. Also, Professor Anna Vrooshka seems a brainy, adventurous sort of woman, game for a laugh, calm in a crisis.

    1. Glad you enjoyed! Patsy Rowlands is one of the best things in C.O Girls. Fair point about Matron, good to see Hattie playing a softer character