Friday 5 April 2019

Five of the Best: Carry On Debuts

Over the years many actors came in to swell the Carry On ranks. Some stuck around and became firm favourites while others popped in and out and some just made one off appearances. No matter, what this blog is concerned with is which actors made the biggest first impression.

Nobody did big actors and big characters quite like the Carry On films. Larger than life performances which often practically jumped out the screen and hit the audience in the face. No room for subtlety here, however even with these pantomime turns there was still great skill, total professionalism and sometimes, real heart and soul. Over twenty years and thirty films hundreds of great British character actors added proper depth, quality and class to these cheaply made, quickly churned out comedies and that's why they've lasted so long and still entertain us. Most of the actors are no longer around and they come from a breed raised on drama school and rep theatre week in week out for years so they learned their craft and perfect their timing.

We simply don't see their like these days in the age of instant fame and Instagram stories. The likes of Peter Butterworth, Joan Sims and Joan Hickson slaved away for years in regional theatres and small yet eye catching roles before getting their big breaks and that's what made their contributions later on so valuable. Their experiences guided and informed their talent and we all benefited from that time and time again. 

So who made the biggest initial impression on me when they first appeared in the Carry Ons? Here's my admittedly very personal Top 5, in my particular order:

Barbara Windsor as Daphne Honeybutt - Carry On Spying (1964)

Fresh off the back of success on the small screen in The Rag Trade and in the cinema as Maggie in Joan Littlewood's sublime Sparrows Can't Sing, Barbara was riding the crest of a wave when she was cast in Carry On Spying opposite Kenneth Williams, Bernard Cribbins and Charles Hawtrey. She shines alongside these more experienced male co-stars and really holds her own in scenes with the formidable Williams. So much so that the pair became lifelong friends and confidants. As Daphne Honeybutt, Barbara exudes comedy confidence and not only adds glamour and feminine charm to the film but also plays the most intelligent, resourceful of all the agents. Barbara definitely had star quality and immediately fitted with the Carry On series. More than that, her debut in the series is in my opinion her best performance because there is subtlety, innocence and genuine charm in her character not the cliche she could become by the early 1970s.

Leslie Phillips as Jack Bell - Carry On Nurse (1959)

Leslie is an incredibly experienced actor with scores of credits to his name but in spite of this he remains instantly recognisable and constantly associated with the Carry On films, even though he only made three in the original run of films followed by a cameo in Columbus many years later. Such is the strength of that wolfish upper class persona he created. I love his early black and white appearances, there's such comedic charm and handsome charisma there as he enjoys romantic liaisons with the likes of June Whitfield, Joan Sims and Shirley Eaton. His debut, as bunion-afflicted Jack Bell in Nurse is sublime and earned him his unforgettable 'Ding Dong' catchphrase. Leslie doesn't even appear in Nurse until over half way through but really hits the ground running and freshens things up no end. He really adds something the Carry On films had missed previously and it's a joy to behold.

Imogen Hassall as Jenny Grubb - Carry On Loving (1970)

By the time Carry On Loving was made in 1970 the Carry Ons were part of the British film establishment. Their stars were household names and many had been appearing every year in the series and were hugely successful elsewhere. Despite this, the producer Peter Rogers obviously felt the cast needed freshening up so added some more youthful talents, rising stars if you like, to add a new dimension. Loving, a sexy seventies update on the episodic Carry On Regardless of ten years earlier, was the perfect time to add the likes of Janet Mahoney, Richard O'Callaghan, Jacki Piper (having debuted in Up The Jungle) and Imogen Hassall. Imogen in particular was impressive in her role as dowdy Jenny Grubb who transformed so glamorously half way through the picture. Paired with Terry Scott, Imogen shines. She brings glamour for sure, but also proves her acting credentials and demonstrates a clear flair for comedy. Sadly this was Hassall's one and only Carry On role and I have no idea why she wasn't asked back as she was sublime. We all know Imogen's real life took a tragic turn and for me, not keeping her on as a series regular was one of the Carry Ons' biggest errors of judgement.

Kenneth Cope as Vic Spanner - Carry On At Your Convenience (1971)

Kenneth would have been quite a coup for the Carry On team when he joined for his first of two films in the Spring of 1971. Cope was already a big name thanks to his regular role as Jed Stone in Coronation Street and his starring turn with Mike Pratt in Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased). Still, Kenneth was the Carry On new boy for Convenience, which remains a controversial film for fans mainly due to its treatment of the trades unions and the working class. While it may have misfired at the time, Convenience is possibly the purest Carry On of them all - set in a toilet factory and even a trip to Brighton thrown in. Perfection. Kenneth is given a difficult role, playing the deeply unlikeable and irritating little union leader Vic Spanner. Forever chasing Jacki Piper's Myrtle, saddled with a thick best mate in Bernie (Bresslaw) and brow beaten by his domineering mother Agatha (Renee Houston). Despite this, Kenneth manages to produce a beautifully comedic performance and really does give it his all. He also fits in seamlessly with the established cast.

Jim Dale as Expectant Father - Carry On Cabby (1963)

Unlike Sid James, Kenneth Connor or Joan Sims, Jim Dale had to work his way up through the ranks of cameos and small part player to fully fledged team member. It wasn't until his fourth film in the series, Carry On Cleo, that he was billed as part of the main team. To be fair, JIm was a relatively untested actor having first claimed fame as a pop star in the late 1950s. His rise to Carry On stardom and romantic lead was thoroughly well deserved and his later roles in the likes of Cowboy, Don't Lose Your Head and Doctor are superb performances which blend pure comedy flair with excellent timing, depth of character and a natural gift of physicality. His debut in Cabby is a fairly small part but it's immediately eye-catching and he sets up a great, easy going chemistry with established leading man Sid James. It's a joy to watch and it really is age and experience versus youthful energy. Watching it back now, it's no surprise Jim went on to such success.

So there you have it, my own favourite five Carry On debuts. So what are yours?

You can follow me on Twitter @CarryOnJoan and on Instagram

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