Sunday 3 February 2019

The Star Of … Carry On Teacher

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 focus on Kenneth Williams in Carry On Nurse. With the series beginning to gather momentum a third film quickly followed in the spring of 1959. Carry On Teacher, probably the most innocent of all the films, takes its lead from the popular St Trinian's films with a dash of Ealing comedy for good measure. With a cast brim full of young actors, mostly plucked from the Corona Academy, Gerald Thomas showed his directorial skill by coaxing excellent comedy performances from the likes of Richard O'Sullivan, Carol White, Larry Dann et al. 

Featuring a smaller cast of character than previous entries, Teacher sees the first signs of a core team being pushed forward with familiar faces Kenneth Connor, Leslie Phillips, Hattie Jacques, Joan Sims, Charles Hawtrey and Kenneth Williams taking centre stage. With guest star Ted Ray putting in a sublime performance as head teacher William Wakefield and Cyril Chamberlain grabbing more screen time than usual, there is plenty to keep fans happy. The basic premise of Teacher sees a bunch of well-meaning if badly behaved children decide to take action to ensure their beloved head teacher doesn't leave for his dream school in a prestigious new town. Taking advantage of the arrival of two very contrasting school inspectors, the kids begin a campaign designed to create as much upheaval as possible. This provides plenty of slapstick moments and delightfully childish set pieces which, in the hands of anyone other than this band of seasoned pros, might have fallen flat.

Teacher is the sweetest, softest and most gentle of all the Carry Ons. It's a lovely Sunday afternoon film and I have a deep affection for it. As for my star of the film, well it's the only actor involved who hasn't been named checked yet - the glorious Rosalind Knight, here playing snooty school inspector Felicity Wheeler.

Rosalind debuted in the series with a cameo in the previous film, as Nurse Nightingale in Carry On Nurse. In a cast bursting with familiar and well-loved actors, Rosalind pops in for a few scenes as the earnest but accident prone Nightingale and is absolutely wonderful. Her scenes with Ann Firbank and Susan Beaumont are a delight and it's clear to see she'd be back for more fun with the gang. And less than six months later she was. Felicity is a much bigger, starring role and Rosalind grabs it with both hands. In the 2015 Carry On Forever documentary Rosalind spoke about the part and even went back to the school used for Maudlin Street. It was great to hear how much she relished the part of Miss Wheeler and how much she enjoyed working with Kenneth Connor as bumbling Science master Mr Adams.

Rosalind Knight came from a theatrical family, with her father being the renowned actor Esmond Knight, her mother Frances Clare and her step mother Nora Swinburne. She had started to appear in films a couple of years before Nurse and Teacher with an eye-catching role as a glamorous six former alongside Dilys Laye in the 1957 film Blue Murder at St Trinian's. It's easy to see why Peter Rogers and Gerald Thomas cast her in two of the early Carry Ons and she plays her roles with aplomb for an actress who was so young and relatively inexperienced in film making.

The strength of Rosalind's role in Teacher comes from two onscreen partnerships. The first, with fellow inspector Alistair Grigg, played with wolfish glee by Leslie Phillips. The two characters are polls apart and Leslie's louche, relaxed approach to discipline amongst teenagers contrasts vividly with Rosalind's strict and uncompromising Miss Wheeler. We always need contrasts in comedy and these two actors provide it in spades. At the heart of Teacher for me though is the comedic romance between Felicity and Gregory Adams (Connor). Ray's William Wakefield quickly spots the spark between the pair and decides to push them together mainly for his own ends.

What follows is a delightful collection of set pieces where Connor's bumbles, prat falls and jumbles his words with glorious comedic nervous energy. Rosalind proves to be the perfect comic foil and as the film progresses, Connor's character slowly cracks her tough exterior. Their on screen romance is the perfect example of the tender side to the early Norman Hudis Carry Ons. Before the films were wall to wall innuendo, slapstick and over playing, there were moments of genuine romance and social comment. Following on from Kenneth Williams playing it for real in Nurse with Jill Ireland, here we have almost serious dramatics from Connor, himself a very serious proper actor, falling for Rosalind's strict inspector. When they finally admit their feelings for each other, the audience is right behind them. Knight and Connor obviously got on well and their partnership on screen is simply wonderful. I only wish they had worked together more often.

In Carry On Land, everyone gets a happy ending. Couples get together or reunite, Williams, Jacques and Hawtrey camp about and the kids win the day as William Wakefield decides to stay put at Maudlin Street. As the music swells and the children cheer in the playground, it's quite hard not to be caught up in the moment. For me Rosalind Knight is the star of Carry On Teacher, thanks to her brilliant performance as Felicity Wheeler. Her partnership with Connor is superb and my only complaint is that Rosalind didn't return for more Carry On adventures. However given the depth and variety of her subsequent career, she probably made the right decision!

Stay tuned for the next instalment of this series when I write about my own personal favourite 'star' of Carry On Constable.

You can follow me on Twitter @CarryOnJoan and on Instagram  

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