Thursday 24 May 2018

Connor Carries On … As Major Leap

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 fifteenth role in the series, as Major Leap in the 1975 film, Carry On Behind!

In 1975, after the departure of so many of the leading lights from the series (James, Jacques, Windsor and writer Talbot Rothwell) what was left of the gang reconvened for an update on the classic Carry On Camping. In Carry On Behind, several familiar looking characters went off for a summer holiday at a caravan park. As with Camping, Behind was filmed not in summer but in the early spring so the weather was less than pleasant for all involved - the mud and freezing temperatures clearly visible for most of the film!

Behind is a real hotchpotch of sitcom sequences with no real storyline to speak of - just a bunch of English eccentrics delighting in some increasingly filthy innuendos! Unlike some of the period costume Carry Ons, Behind, set in the grimy world of the mid-1970s really hasn't aged well but lovers of seventies kitch will adore it! I admit I have a real soft spot for this film and it's become something of a guilty pleasure. For me it  is the last proper Carry On ever made. It's certainly much more naughty than previous efforts with much more obvious sexual references and a fair sprinkling of nudity. The whole thing feels much more like a Confessions film, and you can tell Peter Rogers was trying to keep the Carry Ons up to speed with the latest developments at the box office. 

The film features a mix of old faces and newcomers and it is really the cast which carries the film home. As well as regulars Kenneth Williams, Kenneth Connor, Jack Douglas, Bernard Bresslaw, Peter Butterworth, Joan Sims and Patsy Rowlands, I also really enjoy the performances from the likes of Windsor Davies, Carol Hawkins, Ian Lavender, Sherrie Hewson and of course, international guest star Elke Sommer. 

So what about Kenneth Connor's role in the film? Kenneth returns to a major starring role in Behind following his brief cameo role in the previous film, Carry On Dick. Major Leap, the owner of the caravan site the main characters all descend upon, is a rather upper-crust army type with a randy side and an eye for the ladies! Much like his character Stanley Blunt in Carry On Abroad, Major Leap is a picture of frustrated middle-aged British male. Kenneth's comic timing is sublime as ever and he pops up regularly throughout the action which is great as he gets scenes with the vast majority of the cast. 

The poor old Major tries it on with everyone from Carol Hawkins and Sherrie Hewson to Joan Sims and Elke Sommer, getting absolutely nowhere. Yes it's not exactly subtle material but Dave Freeman's script does well to follow on from the sterling work from the now absent Talbot Rothwell. Kenneth and Joan in particular, two old stagers of the Carry Ons dating back to the black and white days, work splendidly together as Leap attempts to woo Daphne Barnes with a few drinks down the pub and some military music back at his caravan to get her in the mood! Kenneth also enjoys a running gag with Peter Butterworth's lowly camp handyman, who turns out to be Joan's long lost husband at the end of the film. Kenneth and Peter are superb together and it's clear to see the two actors were the best of friends off screen as they work incredibly well in this film. Kenneth's airs and graces contrast beautifully with the bumbling, grimy Peter B!

In a film which misses the likes of Barbara Windsor, Charles Hawtrey, Hattie Jacques and Sid James, the importance of actors like Kenneth Connor cannot be understated. Connor, having rejoined the gang in the late 1960s, provides much needed continuity and the smaller cast of recognisable regulars gives Kenneth more screen time and more material to work with. As the series began to fade by the second half of the 1970s his presence would become more and more important. 

Connor is also involved in the farcical, climatic sequence at the end of the film which sees his character unveil his brand new clubhouse complete with over-painted sticky chairs and some rather unexpected entertainment in the shapely shape of a stripper played by Jenny Cox. Kenneth is a brilliantly funny mix of shame, embarrassment  and lechery as he watches the chaos unfold alongside his electrician (a fantastic cameo from Larry Martyn). Despite it all ending in utter failure as the party guests leave with dignity in shreds, Connor's Major Leap comes up trumps as he heads for the exit door with Jenny's dancer! 

The end of Carry On Behind is always a bit misty-eyed for me. Yes it's a knockabout farce which edges the series ever closer to Confessions territory but for me, Dave Freeman does an excellent job of maintaining the community feel of the earlier pictures. As Kenneth greets the various groups of holidaymakers as they leave his campsite, it really does feel like the end of an era. Audiences of the time wouldn't know it, but Behind really was the last film in the series to feature such a familiar, ensemble cast. The final two films in the original series would both feature Kenneth Connor in starring roles so we'll carry on with them next.

Stay tuned for my blog on Kenneth Connor's next role in the series, in the 1976 film Carry On England.

You can follow me on Twitter @CarryOnJoan and on Instagram

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