Tuesday 6 February 2018

Carrying On at the Holiday Camp


Lately I've been watching a lot of classic black and white post war British films. It's mainly thanks to the fabulous Talking Pictures TV and it's made me realise just how many wonderful old films I've never seen. Yesterday, Talking Pictures showed a real classic from way back in 1947 - Holiday Camp. And as I've discovered, there's a fair few Carry On connections with this lovely film.

Holiday Camp, directed by the legendary Ken Annakin for Gainsborough Pictures, is a perfect time capsule of post-war British life. As with most films made over seventy years ago, it has dated a great deal but there is much charm to be found in it nonetheless. In many ways this film is a much more innocent precursor to Carry On Camping. It's premise is quite simple - a motley group of British eccentrics gather together for a traditional holiday and this brings together a right old rag bag of stories. Holiday Camp features a little bit of everything: character comedy, farcical situations, drama, romance and even a touch of tragedy. It also features some of the best character actors around at the time.


The first major Carry On link with Holiday Camp is its main writer, the one and only Mr Peter Rogers. In the late 1940s Peter was working for Gainsborough and years before he became a film producer he was known as a writer. Coming from a background in the theatre, for several years he worked with Muriel Box. It was also at Gainsborough that Peter met his future wife, the trailblazing female film producer, Betty E Box, best remembered for being at the helm of the Doctor series of comedy films throughout the 1950s and 60s.

The central characters of Holiday Camp are the Huggett family, a working class bunch headed up by mum and dad, played by Jack Warner and Kathleen Harrison. They are accompanied by their grown up son and daughter Harry (Peter Hammond) and Joan (Hazel Court). Joan becomes romantically involved with Jimmy (Jimmy Hanley). I have recently really enjoyed seeing Warner and Hanley acting together in the 1950 crime drama, The Blue Lamp. It was in this film that Jack Warner originated his most famous role, as P.C George Dixon. Warner would go on to play the character for over twenty years in the BBC series, Dixon of Dock Green. Hanley was, at the time, married to the lovely British actress and star of Genevieve, Dinah Sheridan. And legendary character actress Kathleen Harrison, who lived to the grand old age of 103, is best remembered to me as the landlady of Stanley Baxter and Leslie Phillips in the 1962 film The Fast Lady.


The Huggetts were so successful in this film that they were carried over and featured in three spin off films all of their own - Here Come the Huggetts in 1948 and two more films in 1949 - Vote for Huggett and The Huggetts Abroad. These films made a star of a young actress who also featured in Holiday Camp - Susan Shaw. Susan, of course, went on to play Kenneth Connor's wife in the second film in the Carry On series, Carry On Nurse, in 1958. 

The main star of Holiday Camp is the renowned British actress Flora Robson. Robson, more often found in serious productions, plays Esther Harman and it's a stand out performance for me. Harman is a middle aged lady who has seen most of her life pass her by. Spending most of her adult life caring for an elderly, infirm mother, Esther's visit to the camp is her first proper holiday. During the film, the camp announcer's voice appears to mean a great deal to her but I won't give any more away. It's a lovely performance though. Esmond Knight, another legendary actor, plays the announcer who's voice is heard throughout the film. Esmond was the father of the brilliant Rosalind Knight, who would go on to appear in both Carry On Nurse and Teacher.


Another great actor starring in Holiday Camp is Dennis Price, playing the most caddish of all the cads he frequently played! Dennis, as Hardwicke, spends the film chasing all the available women and telling many a fanciful tale about his supposed war record and glamorous lifestyle. Hardwicke reminds me very much of Price's role in another of my favourites, The Naked Truth, in which he plays a conman blackmailing the likes of Peggy Mount, Peter Sellers and Terry-Thomas. However, in Holiday Camp, there is a much harder, nastier edge to his character. 

One of the ladies Price takes in is played by my favourite performer in the whole film, the one and only Esma Cannon. Esma, a diminutive 4ft 10, plays bubbly working class spinster Elsie Dawson. Elsie spends all her holidays at the camp intent on finding a husband. As she theorizes, if there are 2000 people in the camp and half are men, she stands a fair chance! Esma is an absolute star in this film, much younger than the Carry On roles we know her best for. Energetically joining in with all the camp activities and bobbing about with her hair in ringlets, she even takes part in the camp beauty contest. Esma also shares several very believable scenes with Flora Robson as her chalet mate. The contrast in the two characters is lovely and there is a genuine warmth between the two women. It's great to see Esma grab a major supporting role in a film like this given that she became so well known later in her career for scene stealing cameos.


There are other Carry On connections behind the scenes on Holiday Camp. The film's editor is Alfred Roome, who would go on to work on over a dozen of the later Carry Ons, his last film before retirement being Carry On Behind in 1975. And Julie Harris designed the actresses' costumes. Julie worked on countless films during her career, including none other than Carry On Cleo in 1964. There is also a uncredited cameo from future acting great Bill Owen, who would feature in four of the early Carry Ons. And watch out for a young Diana Dors doing the jitterbug in the dance hall! Yes, I know she never 'carried on' but come on, it's Diana Dors!!

Holiday Camp isn't the best British film ever made, not by a long way. So why should you check it out? Well it features a large cast of superb, prolific British character actors the like of whom we just don't see anymore. As a curious period piece, Holiday Camp is also an irresistible glimpse at the post-war Britain. There is a tangible sense of ordinary working class people learning to have a good time again after many years of war and hardship. And above all else, it's just such easygoing enjoyable lighthearted fluff.

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