Tuesday 12 February 2019

The Star of … Carry On Constable

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.

The first in this series saw me write about my love for Kenneth Connor's role as Horace Strong in Carry On Sergeant and then, moving forward to later in 1958, we focused on Kenneth Williams in Carry On Nurse. My star of Carry On Teacher, released in 1959, was that wonderful character actress Rosalind Knight, playing strict school inspector Felicity Wheeler. Today I'm moving on to a rather momentous film in the long running series, Carry On Constable. 

Filmed in late 1959 and released the following year, Constable continued the familiar Norman Hudis pattern of focussing on a beloved British institution and letting those well known Carry On faces run amok within it. Constable tells the simple story of a group of raw recruits flung into the heart of the action at a London police station after many of the regular officers go down with flu. Given that those bumbling new recruits are Kenneth Williams, Kenneth Connor and Leslie Phillips and you pretty much know what you're going to get! Add in Charles Hawtrey's effete Special Constable Gorse and you have a right shower (literally). Following on from Teacher, Hudis again makes the most effective characters the women with both Hattie Jacques and Joan Sims playing strong female characters. With a nod to previous efforts, there is a starring role for Sergeant leading man Eric Barker and cameos from the likes of Terence Longdon and Shirley Eaton, bringing some lovely continuity. 

So who is the star of the film for me? Of course, it has to be a debuting Sidney James as Sergeant Frank Wilkins. Sid breezes into the mayhem as only he could. Grabbing the starring role from the off, his top billing position would be held almost continuously across the series until his departure in 1974. While the two Kenneths, Charles and Leslie grab most of the action and the laughs, Sid calmly does his thing and is amazingly assured given he was new to an already established hit comedy series. Sidney just does what he always did and makes it look oh so easy. 

Peter Rogers and Gerald Thomas had hoped to sign up Ted Ray's services again following his successful star turn as William Wakefield, head teacher of Maudlin Street School in the previous film, Carry On Teacher. Sadly Ted was signed to a rival company and the good will which allowed him to work for Peter in both Teacher and that under appreciated comedy Please Turn Over, did not extend to making him a Carry On regular. Peter and Gerald then made the inspired decision to hire Sid James and the rest, as they say, is history. Sid was a household name by the late 1950s thanks to over a decade working his way through the ranks of British film, including some classic Ealing comedies and some unforgettable work on radio and television with Tony Hancock. Having already worked with the likes of Hattie Jacques and Kenneth Williams, it was such a natural fit for Sid to join the Carry On fun.

In Constable, Sid is the authority figure Hudis always needed as calm centre of the film providing the contrast to the high jinks and slapstick going on all around him. Sid was the everyman here, with the audience rooting for him against his superior, the irritatingly suburban and nagging Inspector Mills. At the heart of the film also is the gentle friendship turned romance between Sid's character and Hattie's Sergeant Laura Moon. The pair have such easy chemistry and are a joy to watch. Watching Constable back now, it's hard to believe it's Sid's first outing with the team, it's just so effortless and he gels extremely well with every single member of the gang.

His underplayed disbelief at the superstitious Constable Constable (Connor) is one of the highlights as is his gentle mocking of the supercilious Benson (Williams). I also love his age and experience versus youthful vigour relationship with Leslie's character. It's all funny and yet also believable. One of the joys of Sid's casting is that he was mainly known at that stage for playing slightly dodgy articles on the wrong side of the law and here he is playing a fine upstanding policeman! The about face casting works a treat though as while we all invest in his turn as a copper, it's still clear Sid's Wilkins has still seen plenty of life. His partnership with fellow old timer Cyril Chamberlain is also very natural and enjoyable. 

Sid is relatively subtle and down to earth in this early Carry On role is also a very refreshing turn of events. There are elements of his Hancock persona for sure - after all Peter Rogers would have been daft not to incorporate this most successful of comedy characters - however there is very little of the lusty woman chaser we'd see in the later Talbot Rothwell films. He's positively restrained! There are glimpses of his cheeky side though, particularly when he comes across a ravishing Shirley Eaton about to err with cheeky P.C Potter and once again when he interrupts Kenneth Connor and a scantily clad Dorinda Stevens. There is much more character to Frank Wilkins though than some of Sid's later performances which while always a dream to watch, did become much more formulaic. Which is no fault of the actor by the way.

Sid's earliest Carry On roles are definitely his most interesting for me. He is the authority figure in the next two films too - Regardless, as the boss of Helping Hands and as Captain Crowther in Cruising, which happens to be one of my favourites of all his roles. There is much to enjoy in Constable though and it's easy to see why Sid so quickly became the Carry On lynchpin performer Peter and Gerald were so obviously looking for. 

Constable works so well as the audience gets behind Sid's authoritative yet sympathetic leading character right from the start. The end of the film is also very satisfying as not only is Sid's Frank Wilkins promoted but he also paves the way for a delightful romance with Hattie's Sergeant Moon. The stage was set for many more Carry On adventures for our Sidney and for that reason alone, Mr James is my star of Carry On Constable. The world of Carry On would never be the same again! 

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