Wednesday 1 February 2017

Carry On Margo?


Sometimes casting decisions are taken for the good and some less so. The Carry On films utilised the services of a vast number of truly great British character actors during their twenty year run with many performers returning again and again. However every so often an actor is either cut from the final print and never returns or turns down a part and is never invited back again.

One actor falls into both categories. Dame Penelope Keith, a much-loved comedy great thanks to her memorable roles in BBC sitcoms such as The Good Life and To The Manor Born, has a small yet intriguing Carry On connection. Penelope worked as an actress in cameo roles and other small parts on stage and screen for several years before hitting the big time with her role as Margo Leadbetter in The Good Life in 1975. However eight years before Keith was on location at Maidenhead Town Hall for a scene opposite series semi-regular Peter Gilmore in the classic 1967 comedy, Carry On Doctor. 


Penelope Keith, then pretty much an unknown actor, was cast in the rather unflattering role of "Plain Nurse" in Doctor and from what I can tell, only appeared in one scene. This scene, although filmed, was cut and replaced with a similar scene, featuring Gilmore, Barbara Windsor's Nurse Sandra May and a "lovely looking pear". The rest is Carry On history! Despite the joy of the scene that took it's place, it would have been really interesting to see a pre-fame Keith playing a small role in this wonderful Carry On.

However, this wasn't the last brush with Carry On fame for Dame Penelope. Several years later, while at the height of her Good Life fame, Penelope was offered the role of Private Jennifer Ffoukes-Sharpe in the 1976 film Carry On England. Of course you can't begin to compare the truly risible England with Doctor, nearly a decade earlier. Times were a-changing at Pinewood and this film saw a host of new faces join what was left of the Carry On team for this Second World War romp. With the likes of Patrick Mower, Judy Geeson, Diane Langton and Melvyn Hayes in the cast, it was clear Peter Rogers and Gerald Thomas were hiring  well-known faces from the world of popular television and cinema. You can understand why they wanted a name like Penelope Keith involved, given her immense popularity. 


For whatever reason, Penelope turned down the role, probably due to her commitments to the BBC sitcom which had made her name. Instead series veteran Joan Sims took on the unflattering and forgettable role of Ffoukes-Sharpe and I really wish she had turned it down as well. The role did her no favours and she, together with the likes of Peter Butterworth, looked completely out of place and ill at ease with the material presented to them. Despite this I am amazed the production team opted to offer the role to Keith ahead of Joan, a part of the team since 1958. Looking back, I cannot imagine Penelope Keith in a Carry On - her style of comedy is completely different from the brash, innuendo-laden, knockabout farces the Carry Ons were. I love both styles of comedy and while it might be a shame it didn't happen, it was probably for the best.

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