Thursday 12 January 2017

How They Came To Carry On ... Shirley Eaton


The glamorous girl next door Shirley Eaton enlivened several early, rather coy black and white Carry On films. She was the young female lead in the very first in the series, Carry On Sergeant, playing Mary Sage, the new young wife of lead character Charlie, played by Bob Monkhouse.

In a very male dominated National Service comedy, Eaton's performance stood out and it was no surprise to see her back later in 1958 for a starring role in the smash hit, Carry On Nurse. Released in 1959, Nurse performed strongly not just in the United Kingdom but also on the other side of the Atlantic. As Nurse Dorothy Denton, Shirley shone and her romantic storyline alongside Terence Longdon added a strong backbone to all the knockabout comedy provided by the likes of Kenneth Connor, Kenneth Williams and Joan Sims. Shirley made her final Carry On in late 1959 when she came back to Pinewood for a cameo role as Sally Barry in the police comedy, Carry On Constable.


Shirley only had two or three scenes in Constable, however Rogers and Thomas were obviously keen to feature as many familiar actors in the film as possible. Her scenes with Leslie Phillips were great fun and the pair had delicious chemistry. Sadly Shirley did not appear in any further Carry Ons. I remember the actress saying she didn't think the characters she played would have fitted with later, ruder entries in the series, and I can understand that. However I wish she had appeared in a few more early 1960s Carry Ons. Of course Eaton retired from acting by 1969 so there would have no 1970s Carry Ons for her anyway. 

However, what brought Shirley Eaton to the attention of the Carry On producers in the first place? How did she come to Carry On? Acting from a very young age, Shirley trained at the Aida Foster's school in North London, taking to the stage as a girl. Breaking into television in the early days of the medium, Shirley appeared frequently with the duo of Terry Scott and Bill Maynard in Great Scott! It's Maynard! Before Shirley came to work for Peter Rogers, she first of all acted in films produced by his wife, the legendary Betty Box. 

Shirley has spoken of how Betty spotted her playing the small role of a harem girl in the 1954 comedy film You Know What Sailors Are. On the basis of that small role, Box cast Shirley in the first ever Doctor comedy, Doctor in the House, released later that same year. Playing the small role of Milly Groaker, Shirley shared scenes with Dirk Bogarde as Simon Sparrow and Joan Hickson, playing her mother. This eye-catching guest role led to Box casting Eaton in a further Doctor film, Doctor At Large, in 1957. In this film she had the larger role of Nurse Nan McPherson. There is no doubt that becoming a reliable actress in the Doctor comedies played a part in Rogers and Thomas adding Eaton to the line up for their own fledgling comedy series.

If Peter Rogers went regularly to the cinema in the 1950s, and I believe both he and Gerald Thomas did, he would have seen Shirley star in a further two important and popular broad comedy films. The first of these, Sailor Beware! was a translation of Falkland Carey's successful stage play. Eaton played Shirley Hornett and the film centred on the plans for her wedding to Albert Tufnell, played by future Nurse On Wheels star, Ronald Lewis. Peggy Mount played the formidable mother, Emma and she was ably assisted by the likes of Esma Cannon, Gordon Jackson and Geoffrey Keen. The film was a huge success as was the wonderful comedy The Naked Truth, released in 1957.


The Naked Truth is a glorious British comedy, directed by Mario Zampi. The Naked Truth sees the editor of a famous scandal magazine and focuses on the attempts of various high profile figures to despatch the troublesome Nigel Dennis, before he can ruin their careers. Dennis played by the reliably suave Dennis Price. Shirley Eaton plays the young starlet Melissa Right and is given superb support by the likes of Terry-Thomas, Peter Sellers, Joan Sims and Peggy Mount. Quite a cast! 

Given the films Shirley was making and the people she was working with, it was surely only a matter of time before she worked for Peter Rogers. Of course this is all with the benefit of hindsight, but I'm glad Peter did cast Shirley in those early Carry Ons. In doing so he began a fond tradition of the Carry On blonde. While the likes of Liz Fraser, Angela Douglas and Barbara Windsor would follow, Shirley Eaton was the first and a proper Carry On original.


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