Wednesday 3 January 2018

Connor Carries On ... as Dr Binn

Next June will mark Kenneth Connor's centenary. This feels like the right time to celebrate the man's legacy and what better a legacy that his seventeen glorious performances in the Carry On films. As I've already done with the three main leading ladies of the series, I plan to embark on a series of blogs profiling each of Kenneth's roles in the Carry Ons, giving my own take on his contributions.

Kenneth is another one of those actors who worked steadily, prolifically and across all mediums throughout his career. From his very early days in film before the outbreak of World War Two, through the 1950s which saw him become an integral part of British radio comedy to the Carry Ons and his unforgettable roles in several 1980s sitcoms, Connor was an incredibly gifted actor. He worked right up until his death at the age of 75 in November 1993. However unlike Sid, Kenneth Williams or Barbara Windsor, I feel that Connor never really got the credit he deserved. He didn't have an outrageous private life, no scandals to be told. He shunned the limelight and his many performances as the ordinary man in the street mirrored his own life away from the cameras. 

Kenneth was also one of the precious few actors who's career spanned pretty much the entire run of the Carry Ons. He was there at the very beginning in Carry On Sergeant and, a five year gap in the mind 1960s aside, remained loyal to the films until the very end of the original run in 1978. Connor, along with Williams and Eric Barker were the only actors to appear in the very first and the very last of the series. Kenneth was still around when Columbus was made in 1992 but declined to take part, probably very wisely. This new series of blogs will be a celebration of all those wonderful comedy performances in the Carry Ons - from bumbling romantic lead through to crumbling character parts, Kenneth could play them all.

So let's continue with Kenneth's sixth role in the series, as love struck ship's doctor Arthur Binn in the first ever colour Carry On, Carry On Cruising, released in 1962.

  I may as well say it straight away, I adore Carry On Cruising. It's not a typical Carry On classic in many ways as it is still fairly innocent and innuendo-light and although the cast are a joy, the film misses several key players audiences at the time would now be used to seeing. Charles Hawtrey was replaced by Lance Percival as the ship cook relatively late on due to a dispute about billing (which would rumble for years to come). Joan Sims was also absent and Cruising would mark the first of four early sixties Carry Ons that Joan would miss. Other notable faces such as Hattie Jacques and Leslie Phillips were also glaringly absent and this was the first of several Carry Ons of the era which would feature a smaller core cast of players. The big ensemble efforts of Nurse, Constable and Regardless were for now a thing of the past.

Having said all that, fewer competing big names allowed those who were present more room to manoeuvre. Most of the action is shared between Sid James, Kenneth Williams and Kenneth Connor and these three heavyweights of British comedy are given some priceless material and they all interact beautifully together. Liz Fraser is back again following her debut in Regardless however her role here is pretty much the foil to newcomer Dilys Laye. While that may seem odd, it is easily explained by the fact that Dilys took on the part at very short notice from her longtime friend and colleague Joan Sims. The role was written for Sims and you can therefore see why Dilys is so much to the fore. And of course she is brilliant at it and once again begs the question why wasn't she a more regular part of the team? Esma Cannon is also a familiar and welcome face as one of the cruise passengers and does a sterling job in a role that often sees her acting comedy on her own, not an easy task.

The basic premise of Cruising follows all the other Carry On plots devised by writer Norman Hudis, who's last screenplay for the series this was. Captain Crowther (Sid James) has five of his crew replaced at short notice before a new cruise voyage begins. Not only does he get the five most incompetent crew men ever to sail the seven seas, but the passengers turn out to be a rather strange bunch too. The SS Happy Wanderer is the cruise ship and after this voyage, Crowther hopes to get a job as captain on a transatlantic ship, promising the crew members their jobs will be safe under the new captain. Starting off from England, the Happy Wanderer calls at unnamed ports in Spain, Italy and North Africa before going home again.

One of the most bumbling of all the new crew is of course Dr Binn, played with effortless ease by Kenneth Connor. Connor dominates the film and beautifully moons about the deck after Flo Castle, the object of his affections. Sadly for most of the film they endure a spiky relationship with Dilys' Flo not at all interested in the bumbling doctor. Dilys and Kenneth share wonderful chemistry and apparently for years afterwards people thought they really were husband and wife, so the actors must have been pretty convincing. Both veterans of revue in the theatre, Connor and Laye have excellent comic timing and the whole story fairly zips along. Cruising once again demonstrates the depth and quality of Kenneth Connor's acting. In these early films, before the crumbling character parts became his staple, Connor injects real pathos and romantic charm to his Carry On roles. 

  Of course there is plenty of comedic misunderstandings between Laye and Connor too but their storyline is always played for real which is what makes the comedy so refreshing when it comes along. Kenneth also shares some wonderful scenes with other members of the cast. There are moments of glorious physical comedy with the pint-sized Esma Cannon as they come a-cropper together jogging along the deck and in one scene splash about in the pool! Apparently Esma couldn't actually swim so these scenes were going above and beyond the call of duty - what a pro! Sid and Kenneth Connor are always great together and Cruising is no different. Sid, as the figure of authority, looks down on Kenneth's Dr Binn and his patience is tested many, many times!

However, it's Connor's scenes with Kenneth Williams which really carry the film. The two bumbling new recruits are a joy and in a fairly wordy script, they bounce the dialogue back and forth with consummate ease. The two Kenneths were always good friends and they admired each other both on and off stage and this camaraderie is clear to see in performance. I adore the very obvious bull shippers gag and the punchline of the ripped trousers is typical of early Carry On humour at its best! 

All is well in the end as the new recruits finally achieve Captain Crowther's approval and Kenneth wins the heart of Dilys Laye, thanks in no small part to his night-time performance of "Oh Bella Flo" with its subtle line of "Oh bella Flo...let's have a..." well you know the rest. It always makes me smile. In Carry On Cruising, Kenneth Connor once again shows us what a talented comic actor he was - hilarious, charming, with excellent comic timing and real heart and depth. 

Stay tuned for my next blog in this series when I look back at Kenneth's role in my own personal favourite from the entire series of films, Carry On Cabby. 

And you can read more about my love of Carry On Cruising here: Carry On Blogging: In Praise of Carry On Cruising 

Interested in my favourite scene in Carry On Cruising? Read my blog here: Carry On Blogging: My Favourite Scene - Carry On Cruising

You can follow me on Twitter @CarryOnJoan on Facebook and on Instagram

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