Tuesday, 19 March 2019

Carry On Blogging Interview: Samira Ahmed

Last year I listened to Samira Ahmed present a brilliant podcast for 'The Boring Talks' on Why the Carry Ons are better than Shakespeare. Intrigued, I got in touch with Samira and asked if she might be interested in doing an interview for the blog. I was absolutely delighted when she agreed and here is the result. It's a really eloquent, interesting read and bound to create some talking points!

Samira Ahmed is someone I'm sure you'll know well from television and radio. A prolific writer, journalist and broadcaster, Samira currently presents Newswatch on BBC Television and Front Row for BBC Radio 4. She has also made a wide variety of documentaries, hosts many fascinating talks and events and contributes to lots of high profile publications. Given all this, I'm incredibly grateful she has taken the time to talk to me. I hope you enjoy.

I've heard you talk about reconnecting with the Carry Ons as an adult, but can you remember when you first discovered the films and the impact they had on you at the time?

They started to appear on TV in the mid 1970s when I was a child. I remember seeing Carry On Doctor on a Saturday evening so it felt like a big event. I got genuinely moved by the plight of hapless but good hearted Jim Dale, loved by patients and nurses but persecuted by the senior management. Bernard Cribbins in Carry On Jack affected me the same way. The best Carry Ons had a sense of right and wrong about them, and about the ordinary rising up against the Establishment. That changed later on. Carry On At Your Convenience has some very dodgy pro boss-class politics which would fit with how the cast were treated in general.

We had Carry On Again Doctor taped on our early Betamax player so I knew that one particularly well.  Carry On Up The Khyber was particularly loved by my extended Indian and Pakistani family who enjoyed sitting round together to watch it. Older visiting relatives thought it sent up Empire rather well, though I suspect the dads and uncles quite liked the naughtiness of it all too.

In your podcast for The Boring Talks, you argued rather convincingly that Carry On films are actually better than Shakespeare. What has the reaction been to this bold claim?

To be fair it was the producer Luke Doran who pushed me to say that! I was happy with “as good as”. Where I would say the Carry Ons surpassed Shakespeare is in their double drag – men dragging up as women, passing as women and learning what it is to be a woman. I think the scene where Kenneth Cope dragged up a a student nurse gets harassed and sexually assaulted by Terry Scott in Carry On Matron is a moment of wonder.  You could even say it’s a “teachable moment”. That’s why I show that clip to students. To help them understand the weird sexual politics of the 70s and how something could be horrifying and funny at the same time.

Fans of the Carry Ons love my theory but I know some people just hate the films and find them really offensive. But that’s about personal taste and I’m totally fine with that. No Shakespeare scholars have given me a hard time yet. The issue is the films are fading from popular memory. They’ll never be shown again on TV I don’t think and I’m not sure how young people will encounter them if they’re not watching them with older relatives who can help them understand the context.

I should say there are films I’ve never got on with; Carry On Henry and Carry On Dick have always seemed too vulgar for me. And I dread to think what Carry On Emmannuelle and Carry On England are like. I’ve never watched them.

It was really refreshing to hear you speak up on the side of the Carry Ons. Why do you think there is still such snobbery (in certain quarters) towards these classic comedies?

I think too many people are focused only on the later cruder ones which often looked cheap with contemporary settings.  There’s a huge evolution from the first 1950s Ealing comedy esque capers. Some like Cruising are really glamorous. There’s no denying a fair amount of the most famous Carry On films’ humour has dated, though there was actually very little that was outright offensive. (I always cite the rape-y humour of Angela Douglas being “helped” by men in Follow That Camel as one of the few genuinely shocking jokes). Even at the time they relied on quite a 1950s even a pre-war coyness about sex. The amount of male embarrassment in the Carry Ons is remarkable. The male heroes are always terrified of powerful sexy women, even while apparently being obsessed with sex. I have a theory that many men now find that uncomfortable which is why they sneer at the films. The Carry Ons mock them in a way that On The Buses (which you probably know I loathe) didn’t. On The Buses revelled in a nasty leering predatory male attitude to women. I don’t think the Carry Ons were so loaded against women. They were full of strong older women, which is why I did make the comparison to the women in Shakespeare in the Carry Ons’ favour. Perhaps it’s also getting older and being less anxious about things. But I can see why many women don’t buy that. The way Joan Sims is portrayed in Khyber is mean – that she’s this fat, older, nagging woman that no reasonable man would love. Even though her acting is great, and I’m hugely on her side. I don’t think the film producers wanted you to be.

I was really interested to hear clips from the Carry Ons are used when you work with film studies students. What kind of reactions do they get?

I talked about that Carry On Matron clip to a bunch of award-winning film graduates. It’s partly just to broaden their horizons. Partly to help them appreciate the way something can be offensive and yet revelatory. Films are products of their time and of the attitudes of the people making them. They tend to be surprised and in a way excited to have someone throw a new way of looking at things at them. I made my children sit down and watch one of the On the Buses films when it was on ITV2 or 3 a few years back. I remember saying, “You need to watch this. This is what it was like for women in the 70s.” It was a real “a lesson from history” moment. Some of the films of that time are really nasty and cruel towards especially older or plain women. I think it was a reaction against the Women’s Lib movement, just like the backlash against Me Too and feminism now by some men whose self esteem relies on them feeling superior.

Some would argue that the Carry On series is sexist in its treatment of female characters but I think the women are often stronger than the men. What’s your view?

As a young girl I identified with the romantic leads like Angela Douglas and Liz Fraser.  There was often a sweet fairytale element to their plot lines. And often the women were brave – like Juliet Mills and Angela taking on a male identity in Carry On Jack or Carry On Cowboy. Hattie Jacques I always loved because she so often played on being incredibly strong and formidable with a secret girlish vulnerability underneath.

I enjoyed all the strong older women – married, middle aged, and sometimes old and cheeky like Esma Cannon in Carry On Cruising. There were the exotic roles they got to play – Joan Sims in Cowboy and in Follow That Camel – which seemed such fun. Some of the later ones like Camping went too much towards the On the Buses model of leering over younger girls.

But the best of the Carry Ons were full of strong women. And more and more I became aware of how crippled the men were by embarrassment.

Now here’s a confession that will put me at odds with your fans. Don’t hate me but: I’m not a fan of Sid James in the Carry Ons. I love him in Hancock and all his other films; I think he was a great actor. But I didn’t buy into the idea that he was this cool  hero that we were supposed to identify with. I think he was presented like he was the James Bond of the Carry Ons but I never really warmed to him in them. I watched Don’t Lose Your Head again a few years ago and was amazed that he was playing the lead rather than Jim Dale. It felt like a dirty old man’s middle-aged fantasy. Harry H Corbett in the Sid role in Screaming is much, much better. Genuinely sexy as well as comic. Too often I thought we were supposed to identify with Sid as a hero and I didn’t. His best Carry On role in a way is the dodgy tropical doctor with his polygamous marriages in Carry On Again Doctor.

You talked quite a bit in the podcast about the use of drag in the Carry Ons, particularly men like Bernard Bresslaw dressing up so unconvincingly as women. Why do you think these scenarios fit so well with the traditional Carry On narrative?

I’ve always loved drag so much. I’ve been trying to make programmes about the history of British drag for years. There’s obviously the old music hall tradition of drag acts the Carry Ons draw on. I don’t know, there’s something lovely about big obviously hairy strong men playing old women in particular. Bresslaw had a sweetness about him which is why he was so charming.

More broadly I grew up watching Danny La Rue, Dick Emery and Monty Python – Terry Jones was especially good at doing sympathetic old women – as much as the Carry Ons.

I know there are some people who think drag is insulting to women, but I don’t think you can make such a sweeping statement. The best drag makes fun of men, it makes fun of gender roles – men learning the horrors of high heels, tights and corsets. I love the idea in Carry On Up The Khyber that dragging up as palace dancing girls and having to dance in front of the enemy could be the most dangerous and terrifying thing a bunch of male soldiers have ever done. Imagine Henry V having to do that instead of just winning the Battle of Agincourt by killing people and threatening those who don’t surrender with rape, which is what is in Shakespeare? And in a totally unexpected way, the Carry Ons had moments of real liberation. Again I cite Carry On Matron -- Barbara Windsor and Kenneth Cope falling in love while both wearing dresses and lipstick as a genuinely modern moment that stands the test of time.

I started my blog as a tribute to my heroine, Joan Sims. I think comedy actors like Joan, Hattie Jacques and June Whitfield were pioneers. What do you think their legacy is and has been?

I think it’s really significant that your blog was inspired by these women. I agree it’s their talent that gives the Carry Ons their strength and heart. When June Whitfield died recently I was really struck talking to other writers about how under appreciated she’d been in official histories of British comedy till very recently. Because she was often in a supporting role, even though the shows only worked because of her presence. I was listening back to her work with Jimmy Edwards and remain in awe at her talent. I think they have influenced many performers who came after, not least because they were still working into their later years like Joan. One of their strengths is the way they worked in a company – the team of Carry Ons or Take It From Here or Hancock’s Half Hour or the News Huddlines. Graeme Garden recently told me how they deliberately cast all these amazing talented women they admired in The Goodies -- Joan Sims and June Whitfield in that Come Dancing/gangster episode are amazing. These women really stand out in those sitcoms for how seriously funny and professional they are; really talented actors who outshine all the men onscreen. I think their legacy is alive everywhere we see great British female comedians.  

One critic I’ve railed against described the Carry Ons as “a world of misery and it knows it” however I think they are light, frothy and delightfully uncomplicated. What do you think?

I went and looked up the article. It’s a bit harsh but I can see her point of view. I disagree that they’re always light and frothy and delightfully uncomplicated. I’d say they were delightfully and deliberately complicated in the convoluted situations they came up with, but for laughs. There was definitely something sad and creepy about some of the later contemporary dramas like Abroad and Camping. But it’s a sweeping generalization. And the best early ones like Constable, Cabby and Spying did as you say offer lightness and froth. But they also felt like proper homegrown cinema. I remember watching them on TV and getting a sense of a more optimistic worldview in the late 50s and early 60s. There’s also something quite painful in our age of cuts to policing and local services, to seeing a fully funded welfare state being celebrated on screen as entirely normal. I would say I feel I have real anger towards the producers for how they exploited their actors though. Reading about Liz Fraser’s treatment, for example, is horrible. But that’s as true for Laurel and Hardy.  

You recently introduced a special screening of Carry On Cleo at the BFI, interviewing Amanda Barrie at the same event. What was that like?

Amanda Barrie’s performance in Cleo has always been a favourite of mine since childhood. I was surprised at how insecure she was at the time and how modest she still is, talking about her work on that film. She was beautiful and funny, with some amazing slapstick moments. Because for so long we have been told in mainstream reporting that men are better comedians, I think it’s really important to remind ourselves how many great comic actresses have always been there on screen; just not counted.

We had a great chat beforehand and part of what I respect about her and her generation of professionals is how they see themselves as jobbing performers and they bring such class to everything they do. Which is why I think they’re so outstanding in soaps. Many soap actors are the best.  

A question I ask everyone I interview, if you had to choose, who is your favourite Carry On performer and why?

I can’t just pick one! Joan Sims and Hattie Jacques for their combination of good humour, highbrow talent and dignity.

© Copyright - Samira Ahmed

Jim Dale because of his combination of physical stuntwork and good looks. Check out that gorgeous pinstriped suit he wears at Carry On Again Doctor when he’s become a rich private consultant. When I interviewed him a few years ago I got a sense that his early experience as a pop star had left him scarred and afraid of being the heartthrob. Which might explain why he was always playing the fool, rather than the confident straight lead, as if ducking the attention.

And I’ve always loved Roy Castle for his ability to play dead straight with such humour.  Even though he’s only in one Carry On it’s unimaginable without him. He was a great comic actor. In Dr Who and The Daleks as well. There’s something about those actors who could connect with children as well as adults. I really miss him.

Finally, why do you think the Carry Ons remain so popular so many years after they were made?

Well are they? Clearly they have their devotees and there’s a huge nostalgia factor. But I suspect they are declining from public memory. Do they have the cult status of shows like The Prisoner? Or The Avengers? Or the James Bond films? Or will they die with those of us old enough to remember when they were popular and mainstream? I wonder if they now ought to be on a curriculum somewhere and studied. Perhaps they defy categorization. They were genuinely popular in their time and on TV. But the story behind their creation is an unpleasant one about exploitation. Are young people discovering them and liking them? That’s the test. Bond films have been trying to move with the times with some success. But the Carry Ons relied on a model of excruciating embarrassment about sex which I suspect people raised in the age of Love Island can’t fathom.

I’ve felt sad at realizing something I love may be fading out of sight. Perhaps that’s why I felt compelled to write and talk about it while there are still enough of us out there to share the memories. Whether the Carry Ons have a living future as a shared cult, rather than one as a historical curio, I don’t know. Sorry to be so sad. Answering your questions has left me hankering to go back and watch the early ones though. I’m going to go and watch Carry On Constable now.

A huge thank you to Samira for taking the time to answer my questions in such an eloquent, thoughtful and considered way. It was an absolute pleasure. 

You can listen to Samira's interview with JIm Dale for BBC Radio 4's Front Row here and you can read more about it here.

And you can find out more about Samira on her website: http://www.samiraahmed.co.uk/ and also over on Twitter @SamiraAhmedUK

You can follow me on Twitter @CarryOnJoan and on Instagram