Thursday 31 May 2018

Connor Carries On … As Captain S. Melly

Next month 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 sixteenth and penultimate role in the series, as Captain S. Melly in the 1976 film, Carry On England!

Carry On England, a return to a period costume subject matter for the series, came at a dark time for the films. The film went into production just weeks after the death of their leading light, the irreplaceable Sid James. Despite this sad news, Peter Rogers and Gerald Thomas decided to go ahead with their latest project, a story about a mixed platoon of male and female soldiers during the Second World War. Now I normally like a period setting for a Carry On but this one, not so much. It's dull and dowdy with all the brown uniforms and low key sets. All shot in the Pinewood orchard which had previously produced the likes of Carry On Camping and Behind, England is a far cry from even the most recent Carry On films. 

The basic premise is slim - a new bombastic Captain is sent to take command of the platoon and instil some discipline into them. The soldiers don't take kindly to this and set about disrupting his tactics, driving him potty and hopefully, driving him away. Ok, it has potential as a Carry On story, however it's all in the telling and sadly this story is told without a modicum of the lighthearted, innocent mirth which graced so many of the previous films. For me there are just too many changes in personnel with this film which means it just can't succeed. Instead of keeping on Dave Freeman who had made a success of the Carry On Behind script, Rogers for some reason overlooked Dave and brought in David Pursall and Jack Seddon. Both experienced writers but not experienced in the art of Carry On. Eric Rogers, who had beautifully scored many of the previous films, was absent for England with music duties taken on by Max Harris. Again, the difference is palpable.

With the death of Sid James, Charles Hawtrey in permanent exile and Hattie Jacques, Barbara Windsor, Kenneth Williams and Bernard Bresslaw busy elsewhere, there is also a distinct lack of regulars in Carry On England. Joan Sims and Peter Butterworth are given pitiful roles which give them little more than cameo screen time. Jack Douglas is treated better but plays very much to type. There is a huge amount of new talent in England - again all successful elsewhere but not practiced in the world of Carry On. The like of Judy Geeson, Diane Langton, Patrick Mower and Melvyn Hayes can all act and act well, but they can't pull it off like Sid, Charles and Hattie. There is such a dearth of recognisable faces that one almost gets giddy with excitement when brief scenes with Julian Holloway or Patricia Franklin appear. The only regular Carry On actor to receive major screen time in Kenneth Connor, the subject of this very blog.

Kenneth grabs the starring role as Captain S. Melly (yes the script is that awful). Storming through the action with the best military character the film has to offer, Connor clearly relishes being top dog instead of supporting player. He goes gamely through all the uncomfortable, frankly denigrating comedy sequences which see his character fall for ever nasty prank the platoon can come up with, losing his clothes, falling into goodness knows what (twice) and basically being the laughing stock of the entire barracks. 

Despite England being pretty damn woeful, it does provide bucket loads of Kenneth Connor and once again proves what an excellent comic actor and an excellent all round actor Kenneth was. He must have been to make some of this awful material fly. At the heart of England is one blessed consolation. A superb double act between Connor and his second in command, the wonderful Windsor Davies in full It Ain't Half Hot Mum mode. Yes Windsor is really just recreating his small screen character for the Carry Ons, but he's a natural and just excellent at it. Combined with Connor's little man of authority and the film improves ten fold every time they have a scene together.

Sadly though that isn't enough to help Carry On England join the ranks of the true classics in the Carry On series. Indeed the film was removed from general release in many cinemas after only three days. Yes the film is dire, yes it's unfunny and has an air of mean spirited cheapness about it but it does have a fairly patriotic ending. Throughout the film the cast of characters have been pretty woeful at fighting the war. However they are given their moment to shine at the end of the film as they all come together to fight the enemy. Yes it's corny and lacking depth but given the majority of the film hasn't managed to keep the audience awake, the almost rousing finale, complete with archive footage of Churchill, does nearly get the patriotic juices flowing.

Personally, I'd rather forget Carry On England ever existed, despite it featuring several actors I cherish. Kenneth Connor works so bloody hard throughout the film to salvage what he can which begs the question, just how awful would it have been without him?

Stay tuned for the next (and final) blog in this series, in which I take a look at Kenneth Connor's role in the 1978 film, Carry On Emmannuelle. 

You can follow me on Twitter @CarryOnJoan and on Instagram

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