Tuesday 15 January 2019

The Star of … Carry On Sergeant

I have decided to dedicate a new series of blogs to what I consider to be the very best performances in each of the thirty original Carry On films. As ever, it's a purely personal take on these films from yours truly and of course you are welcome to agree or disagree as you see fit! 

Since I started the blog in 2015 I have often championed the underdog or the under appreciated. The Carry On series employed hundreds of cracking comedy actors during their twenty year lifespan and while I've done my best to celebrate as many of them as possible, there is still much to do to preserve their legacy. Some of the actors featured in this new series will be household names and leading lights, others perhaps not so well known. Whoever they are, I hope you enjoy reading about my chosen few.

To begin at the beginning, we're going back nearly 61 years to the very first Carry On to be made, Carry On Sergeant. Often overlooked as it lacked some of the crucial elements that made the later Carry Ons so popular, Sergeant may have missed the likes of Joan Sims, Sid James and Barbara Windsor, but it remains a heartwarming film and despite its vintage, very funny still. Sergeant, of course, tells the story of a platoon of misfits going through the unpleasant rigours of National Service training in the coy post-war Britain of the 1950s. It's all quite tame, innocent fare but as always with the Carry Ons, Peter and Gerald brought together a formidable band of talented actors to enliven the script.

Key to their early success was employing a bunch of excellent if largely unknown performers who would subsequently become stars in their own right. The likes of Kenneth Williams, Hattie Jacques, Charles Hawtrey and Kenneth Connor would be known to some in the audience but they were by no means megastars. Other actors involved, such as Shirley Eaton, Eric Barker and Dora Bryan, were relative old hands in film making and had many titles under their belts. As with many of the series entries, Sergeant is very much an ensemble piece and is very shared. Peter Rogers claimed that "Carry On" was the only star and you could argue he was right. However, in the case of Sergeant, one actor in particular shines brighter than all the rest combined. 

Playing Horace Strong, the superstitious anti-hero of the piece, was the fantastic Kenneth Connor. Kenneth had been acting since a very young age and had made a bit of a name for himself, particularly on radio where he worked a great deal with members of The Goons and future Carry On Teacher star, Ted Ray. Kenneth's film career had just got going when unfortunately, so did the Second World War, but the new medium of commercial television had started to see Connor's promise in the mid to late 1950s. So he was possibly a voice audiences had heard even if they couldn't place the face or the name. 

We all know what a talented actor Kenneth Connor was. As I've written before he was perhaps less celebrated when compared to the larger than life tabloid fillers such as Sid, Barbara or Kenneth Williams, but for me Kenneth Connor was just a wonderful, very natural, tremendously dedicated actor. Along with Kenneth Williams and Eric Barker, Connor was the only actor in the entire team to feature in the entire original run of films and the two Kenneths really did enjoy (or should that be endure?) terrific Carry On longevity. Connor was quietly dependable but supremely talented and never put in a dud performance, no matter what the medium or the quality of the production. His Carry On career took an interesting path too. Starting out as the relatively youthful, clumsy and bumbling unlikely romantic lead in the Norman Hudis era, Kenneth returned in the late 1960s to play bumbling, randy middle aged middle men and frustrated local bureaucrats. His talents transcended a generation. 

Although he appeared in seventeen of the films, countless televisions and a couple of stage shows, for me at least, Kenneth's very first comedy character role in the series, as Horace in Sergeant, might very well be his finest hour. In a cast bursting with fresh talent, with everyone getting their turn to shine, Connor soars above the pack with a beautifully touching, funny portrayal of man who just can't get on in life no matter how hard he tries. Horace is continually sent up by his fellow soldiers and is a constant let down whenever a physical challenge appears on the horizon. He's one of the major reasons for Able Platoon's poor performance and he repeatedly tests the patience of all those around him.

His saving graces take the form of two wonderful, if very different women. As soon as Dora Bryan's romantic dreamer cum NAAFI worker Norah spots poor Horace, he's a goner. She swoons, she moons, she goes goggly-eyed as only the delicious Dora could and the pair are a match made in heaven. No matter how hard poor Norah tries to catch Horace's attention, he blanks her, ignores her or runs away scared in the face of womanly temptations! Dora and Kenneth are totally, utterly sweet together on screen and form the heart and soul of Sergeant. A shame Dora Bryan never made another Carry On, although if she had then it's probable that Joan Sims wouldn't have got a look in. 

Spotting the romantic tension between Norah and Horace, the camp's Medical Officer, the formidable Captain Clark steps in. Although Hattie Jacques' role in Sergeant is relatively small compared to some of her later, more celebrated parts, she does provide one of the few other female voices in the film. As the stern medic with a heart of gold, Hattie shines. Her scenes are pretty much all with Kenneth Connor and the pair have a regular running gag throughout the film as Strong continually attends her clinic with his latest medical preoccupation, only to be sent away and told to keep taking the tablets. It is Clark however, who sees the light at the end of the tunnel and whips Strong away before the last ditch attempt to gain any kudos - the passing out parade. The pair visit a team of medical specialists in a quick fire scene which sees Horace undergo endless analysis and tests before finding out the root of his ills - his love for the inimitable Norah.

Returning to base a new man, Horace then astounds the fellow soldiers in a truly brilliant scene. Connor manages to keep the essence of Horace while completely transforming his manner, his stance, his walk and even his voice. It's a beautifully played comedic scene and as is often the case, the actors involved raise the bar far above the material and the budget. With Horace a new man with the love a good woman, the platoon turn their performance around and come out on top. The finale is fantastic, patriotic and fairly brings a lump to your throat. As is often the case in the Carry On World, alls well that ends well. 

Looking back at Sergeant, again with benefit of hindsight right enough, it is easy to see who the real stars are and who would become the mainstays of the comedy film series that even when Sergeant was released, was really in nobody's mind. To most of the actors Carry On Sergeant was just another film. Coincidentally, apparently it was Kenneth Connor as the lone voice who felt that it was the start of something very special. Connor, Williams, Jacques and Hawtrey would form the backbone of many films that followed and in this film they were supported by countless other top talents. Despite this, the film, for me at least, belongs to the superlative Kenneth Connor and his superb turn as Horace Strong.

You can follow me on Twitter @CarryOnJoan and on Instagram 

No comments:

Post a Comment