Thursday 4 October 2018

Why must Comedy Snobbery Carry On?

This morning I read an article on The Guardian website about a recent fan convention in Hungary for the Perry and Croft sitcom You Rang M'Lord? The article referred to the comedy series, broadcast between 1988 and 1993, as "dodgy" and "old" - hardly a ringing endorsement. Sure, the Upstairs Downstairs parody is not perhaps the best remembered or favourite of all Perry and Croft's work but a recent repeat of the series showed to me at least, that it stood the test of time.

I understand the possible incredulity that the show was still so massively popular in Hungary but I found the efforts of the legion of Hungarian fans deeply touching. They crowd funded to organise a special 30th anniversary event which saw five original stars from the series fly over for a weekend of special celebrations. Odd to the Guardian journalist perhaps, but it warmed my bitter, cynical little heart. I grew up watching You Rang M'Lord? and it was one of the series that provided a helpful gateway to the very best of British comedy for me. I look back on it very fondly and I still love it now. And I make no apologies for saying so. Sure, Carry On Blogging is no Guardian Culture section, and neither does it claim to be. Thank goodness. But I know what I like.

This article, although by no means the worst piece I've ever read on so-called populist British comedy, still set my mind racing about comedy snobbery in media, and particularly amongst newspaper critics. It's certainly nothing new. I remember Fenella Fielding being shocked when she read a review of Carry On Screaming way back in 1966. Fenella described it as a 'posh paper' and said she was appalled by how much hatred these critics had for Screaming. I think those critics have since been made to eat their words as Carry On Screaming is now widely seen as a classic of its kind. Carry On comedies have long been chastised or at best ignored by proper critics and when anybody with a remotely serious profile gives them credit, they are quickly lambasted. 

At the 40th anniversary of the series in 1998, the What's A Carry On? documentary brought us an interview with the academic Professor Colin MacCabe who claimed two of the Carry Ons were amongst the best 100 British films ever made. The films he chose, Cleo and Up The Khyber, are often cited as the best in the series so it was no surprise to fans. However fellow film expert and historian Tony Sloman was appalled to see two Carry Ons in the Sight and Sound list of films and in the documentary declared MacCabe's decision as "clearly an abrogation of responsibility". Undeterred, early the next year MacCabe wrote a piece for The Guardian titled Why Carry On Cleo and Carry On Up the Khyber are two of the best films ever. Touche! 

My question is, when will such dreadful cultural snobbery ever come to an end? Well I think I'm pissing in the wind if I think it'll just disappear. Sixty years on from the very first Carry On film and forty years since the last of the original run was released, it shows no signs of abating. The review of What's A Carry On? in The Guardian (a regular offender) describes the film series as "absolute tripe". Don't hold back there Adam Sweeting. And no, I won't be taking a minute to support The Guardian by donating money at the bottom of the article.

There was a rash of articles in the quality press around the sixtieth anniversary of Carry On Sergeant and they all took the same boring, repetitive line. The Telegraph described the films as "crude" and "rude" in an article on 31 August. By 17 September the same paper was asking Should the Carry Ons be consigned to history? Sigh. Thankfully, and it's a small mercy perhaps, you can only access these articles if you are prepared to wade behind the newspaper's paywall. 

Back in 2008 as the series turned 50 years old, even the BBC had a go, describing the films as "low brow and smutty". By far the worst piece I've ever read about the Carry Ons was written by Guardian columnist (yes them again) Tanya Gold in April 2008. Entitled, rather humourlessly "Infamy? They've Got It" Ms Gold manages to tarnish one of the Carry Ons' finest tag lines in one cheap headline. Gold went on: "The Carry On films were crass and populated by misfits. And sadly, they mirrored people's lives". Well, Tanya, the Carry Ons are often criticised these days for dealing in stereotypes but I think you were front and centre when it comes to those. Not only does Gold not get her facts right - she can't even spell Peter Rogers' name correctly - she also dirties her keyboard by going into lurid detail on the private lives and deaths of many of the actors we know and love. Shame on you Ms Gold.

Worse still perhaps, is Gold's description of the actresses in the Carry Ons. According to Tanya, "they are either stupid and beautiful (Barbara Windsor), bossy and masculine (Hattie Jacques), or ugly and bitter (Joan Sims). Carry On everywoman, personified by Sims, is a loveless harpy, atrophied by loneliness and only able to rage" To say I disagree with Gold on her description of three actresses I'd defend to my last breath is an understatement. I'm not sharing a link to the article on the blog as I don't want it to tarnish me any further.

So what is it that seems to threaten these high brow, lofty critics about the Carry Ons? Is it because they were wildly successful and made money at the box office at a time when the British film industry was in massive decline? Is it because they were populated by a vast range of incredibly gifted, clever and original comedy actors who the nation and many further afield have come to love and respect? Or the range of amazing people behind the camera who brought the films to life with care and skill well beyond their pay grade? Or is it because ordinary bods on the street loved them for their straight forward, down to earth humour which didn't challenge but merely sought to entertain? I'm eternally grateful to the Carry Ons and their stars for being with me from childhood to the present day. I've lost count of how many times Sid, Joan, Charles, Hattie and the gang have cheered me up and helped me forget my worries for an hour and a half. And that, to me, is priceless.

I'm not taking a swipe at more learned forms of art. I love a trip to the National Theatre or the Royal Court. I'm never off BBC4 and I adore an afternoon in one of London's amazing galleries or museums. Even if I don't understand Beckett or think the latest installation at Tate Modern is a bit 'out there' I still give it a chance. I don't instantly pick it apart or demean those responsible. The BFI, an institution I adore, is putting on a series on "Comedy Genius" which covers everything from Lucille Ball to Jo Brand. I love them for this and all the more for a special screening of the joyous Carry On Cleo. However, does Cleo have to be packaged with a day of talks on "Great British Smut"? Are the Carry Ons smutty? I don't think so. Indeed I can think of much more recent, current comedy on television and in film which I'd class as ruder and cruder. 

I've got over 17,000 followers on Twitter, so there's obviously still a very real love for the Carry Ons and the easy going antics of Sid James, Kenneths Williams and Connor, Charles Hawtrey, Bernard Bresslaw, Peter Butterworth and Jim Dale. And of course those three GORGEOUS ladies - the stunning Barbara Windsor, who's characters often easily bettered the men; the warm, loveable, sexy Hattie Jacques who brought layers to every character she played and the gorgeous, talented Joan Sims - a woman bursting with talent. That's how these wonderful women should be remembered, not the negativity that fills certain newspapers.

So will the Carry Ons and other favourites ever escape the comedy snobbery routine? I very much doubt it. Will I continue to defend them? You betcha. 

You can follow me on Twitter @CarryOnJoan and on Instagram


  1. Great article. Particularly surprised by the rude comments made by Gold on the Carry On actresses - Hattie Jacques and Joan Sims both played quite a varied range of characters, Barbara Windsor admittedly had a more limited range, but she was not stupid.

    1. Thank you Louise. Yes her comments on these fine women were completely out of order.