Monday 29 January 2018

Connor Carries On ... as Hengist Pod!

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 eighth role in the series, as Ancient Briton Hengist Pod in Carry On Cleo, released in 1964.

So much has been written about Carry On Cleo, one of the best known, most fondly regarded films in the entire series. So great is Cleo that even those sad souls who claim not to love the Carry Ons show grudging respect for the film. Kudos indeed! Taking advantage of a load of left over sets and costumes once the epic Elizabeth Taylor film Cleopatra had departed Pinewood for the warmth of Italy, Peter Rogers produced a plusher, richer looking film than usual. Cleo was oh so much more than just a parody of big budget Hollywood films though, it was and is quintessentially British in every way. 

The familiar cast of characters are playing their usual parts, only this time in funny period costumes. I always think the period Carry Ons have worn better than some of the modern day films from the 60s and 70s. They have a timeless quality to them and in many ways just don't date. Cleo sees a clutch of favourites having a ball with one of Talbot Rothwell's very best scripts. Everyone is on fine form here: Sid James playing a very Hancockian, Cockney Mark Anthony; Kenneth Williams wailing and snivelling as the pathetic Caesar; Charles Hawtrey as the cheeky old sage Seneca and Joan Sims, playing it for real in almost Shakespearean tones as Calpurnia. Amanda Barrie is just glorious as the dippy, bewitching Cleopatra and with a supporting cast of the likes of Warren Mitchell, Sheila Hancock, Wanda Ventham, Peter Gilmore and Jim Dale, you just can't go wrong.


Ah, but what of our main man, Kenneth Connor? Well for me, Cleo provides Kenneth with one of his very best Carry On roles. Times have changed since the early days of the series when he was the main star attraction in the likes of Teacher, Nurse and Regardless. Cleo sees the Sid James and Kenneth Williams adversarial starring combo reach new heights following its first try out in Cruising two years before. Those two fine comic actors would take top billing in the vast majority of the films which followed which meant a returning Connor in 1969 moved over to take on supporting roles and cracking character parts. Cleo can be seen as the middle ground in Connor's Carry On career. While Sid and Kenneth Williams grab top billing, Kenneth C really does grab one of the finest roles. Playing to type in the Horace Strong, Gregory Adams vein of early roles, Kenneth's Hengist is the rather hopeless, clumsy, pathetic little every man. Picked on by his domineering wife (Hancock), laughed at for his dreadful inventions (the square wheel), he is always running away from the fight until a typical Carry On mix up sees Caesar believe Hengist is a champion fighter and makes him his bodyguard! 

At the heart of the film is a wonderful buddy friendship between chalk and cheese characters - the bumbling, accident prone Hengist and the courageous, handsome warrior Horsa, played by Jim Dale. Connor and Dale didn't really get to work an awful lot together in the Carry Ons as when Jim grabbed most of his starring roles Connor was off doing other things. However here they work splendidly well together. Another great double act is Connor and Sid James as the macho Mark Anthony. Sid just can't believe Kenneth is capable of slaying Rome's finest soldiers and sends him up rotten whenever he gets the chance. Sid's irresistible twinkle is used to great effect in these scenes and the two old pros are obviously having a wonderful time together.


Another favourite scene sees Hengist take the place of Williams' Caesar for an assignation with Cleopatra. Following a priceless cameo from Jon Pertwee as a soothsayer who conjures up visions of a plot against Julius, Hengist must tackle Cleo in her boudoir. The scenes between Williams, Connor and Barrie are beautifully camp and knowing, perfectly timed and just a joy. Again, it made me wish these fine actors had worked together more often. At the end of the film, Hengist is victorious as he proves for real that he can tackle the muscle-bound enemy and win through. As he departs Egypt with Caesar and Horsa, he grabs Cleo's love potion and hot foots it back to England! Old Senna Pod just didn't know what was in store! 

Sadly after this, Kenneth decided to take a break from the Carry Ons to focus on other work. The next five years would see Connor concentrate on theatre roles and while it was great to see his career flourish in this way, it's always a bit of a shame to think he missed out on so many of the prime, classic Carry Ons of the mid to late 1960s. Fear not though, as Kenneth did return to Carry On Up The Jungle in the autumn of 1969 and that's what the very next blog in this series will be all about!

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

No comments:

Post a Comment