Saturday 21 January 2017

In Praise of Carry On Spying


Carry On Spying is one of those films which is quite often overlooked. It came at a time of transition for the Carry Ons. There had been a change in writing personnel the previous year as Norman Hudis, who had written the first six films of the series passed on the baton to newcomer Talbot Rothwell. After the communal cosiness of the previous films, the Carry Ons of 1963 and 1964 saw less familiar faces involved and a change in approach.

The coy 1950s had given way to the broader, brash 1960s and the arrival of Rothwell saw more innuendos with the films pushing the boundaries more and more. They also shifted from focusing on traditional British institutions like the NHS, the army and the police to parodies of other film series and even costume epics. Carry On Jack had been the first costume romp the previous year and while this must have been a shock for the viewing public, even more so was the lack of familiar faces with only Kenneth Williams, Charles Hawtrey and a brief cameo from Jim Dale. 


Spying, released in 1964 features a similarly compact cast of faces and while any film without the likes of Sid James, Hattie Jacques, Joan Sims and Kenneth Connor misses their talents keenly, Spying is much more of a traditional Carry On than Jack. It really did begin the idea of a Carry On parody which would reach new heights later that summer when Carry On Cleo went into production. I often think Cleo dwarfs Spying rather unfairly as although the Amanda Barrie romp is joyous and right up there with the best, for me Spying is also a classic Carry On. Targeting the extremely successful James Bond films which were also produced at Pinewood Studios, Carry On Spying sees the gang delve into the world of espionage as the team travel across Europe and North Africa (via Pinewood sound stages and back lot) and it really is a riot.

Spying may also be overlooked as it is made in black and white. Indeed it is the last Carry On to be produced this way. However I think it is beautifully shot with Gerald Thomas and Alan Hume in their element. While the film is primarily a parody of Ian Fleming's super spy, Gerald really filmed it as a homage to The Third Man, a film he himself worked on as a young editor. There are delightful touches, particularly during the Vienna sequence and the lighting and set ups are a cut above. Eric Rogers is also on tip top form with Spying's score. Rogers too had taken over from original Carry On composer Bruce Montgomery only a year before and he was definitely capturing the bright, sparky contemporary theme Peter Rogers was looking for.


While the storyline is as unimportant as in any other great Carry On, the whole film moves at one hell of a pace. From London to Vienna to North Africa and the Orient Express, you can tell this film has been made on a budget but the sheer pantomime joy of the production carries it along and keeps the audience onboard. There are enough knowing winks to the Bond series without tipping the scales and it's all lovely stuff. This was the era which saw the Carry On team take a few risks for the sake of some stand out laughs - no part of British life was safe from the Carry On treatment and the entire film is robust with confidence in the Carry On brand.

Of the regular actors present, Spying gives Kenneth Williams one of his few true starring roles in the series. He gives us his classic snide characterisation which is fantastic but perhaps a slight stretch to keep it going fora full 90 minutes. He just about gets away with it though! Adding to the camp humour is the glorious Charles Hawtrey, grabbing more screen time than usual due to the smaller cast of lead actors. as Charlie Bind, Hawtrey basically plays Charles Hawtrey and the film is none the worse for it! Spying also sees Jim Dale grab another small but important supporting role as Carstairs. Jim is convincing as the dashing spy and pops up effectively throughout. After Spying, Dale would be promoted to juvenile lead for Cleo and was really off and running from then on in. 


Probably most importantly, Carry On Spying saw the debut of an actress who pretty much came to sum up all that "Carry On" meant to the British public. Despite only appearing in nine original Carry Ons over a ten year period, Barbara Windsor was such a powerful force that she remains closely linked to the franchise even today. As Daphne Honeybutt, Windsor plays the smartest of all the agents and joins the already long running team with confidence, fitting in immediately. For me, this is Barbara's best role in the series. There is a sweetness and innocence to her performance that is sorely lacking from later efforts in the likes of Girls and Dick. The black and white photography also suits Barbara really well as she looks stunning throughout.

Spying also stars a range of classic British comedy players, chief amongst them being Bernard Cribbins. After joining the team for the previous film Carry On Jack, Cribbins was obviously being seen as a viable alternative to Kenneth Connor, however Spying would sadly be Bernard's last Carry On until Columbus in 1992. Bernard is great in these two early Carry Ons and I really wish he'd made more. Another irregular actor appearing in Spying is the glorious Dilys Laye. Dilys really deserved to be a star - she worked tirelessly over the years and was both extremely talented and absolutely gorgeous. She fitted in extremely well with the team, appearing in four films during the 1960s. I only wish she had starred in more. Spying is one of my favourites of all her performances - Dilys is terrific as the vampish agent Lila, even performing two stand out songs "The Magic Of Love" and "Too Late" during the Cafe Mozart scenes. What a lady!


Brief mentions to some of the other talents involved: Eric Barker and Richard Wattis (why wasn't he asked back?) provide strong support as two of Britain's most reliable and well respected character comedy players; Judith Furse (although dubbed by John Bluthal) puts in a great performance as the mysterious Dr Crow and Victor Maddern, a familiar face to Carry On fans, grabs his best supporting role as the fiendish Milchmann. 

Sadly Carry On Spying is very rarely shown on television these days - ITV3 seem obsessed with Carry On Girls for some unexplained reason. So although it's unlikely to pop up on telly in the near future, why not check out Spying on DVD? It's definitely worth a watch!

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