Friday 12 April 2019

The Star of … Carry On Cruising

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 and my star of Carry On Constable was the debuting Sidney James. Most recently I decided that my star turn from Carry On Regardless was that man Kenneth Connor again. Today we're moving on to the very first colour film in the series, Carry On Cruising.

I adore Carry On Cruising. It's not a typical Carry On classic in many ways as it is still fairly innocent and innuendo-light and although the cast are a joy, the film misses several key players audiences at the time would now be used to seeing. Charles Hawtrey was replaced by Lance Percival as the ship cook relatively late on due to a dispute about billing (which would rumble for years to come). Joan Sims was also absent and Cruising would mark the first of four early sixties Carry Ons that Joan would miss. Other notable faces such as Hattie Jacques and Leslie Phillips were also glaringly absent and this was the first of several Carry Ons of the era which would feature a smaller core cast of players. The big ensemble efforts of Nurse, Constable and Regardless were for now a thing of the past.

Having said all that, fewer competing big names allowed those who were present more room to manoeuvre. Most of the action is shared between Sid James, Kenneth Williams and Kenneth Connor and these three heavyweights of British comedy are given some priceless material and they all interact beautifully together. Liz Fraser is back again following her debut in Regardless however her role here is pretty much the foil to newcomer Dilys Laye. While that may seem odd, it is easily explained by the fact that Dilys took on the part at very short notice from her longtime friend and colleague Joan Sims. The role was written for Sims and you can therefore see why Dilys is so much to the fore. And of course she is brilliant at it and once again begs the question why wasn't she a more regular part of the team? Esma Cannon is also a familiar and welcome face as one of the cruise passengers and does a sterling job in a role that often sees her acting comedy on her own, not an easy task.

The basic premise of Cruising follows all the other Carry On plots devised by writer Norman Hudis, who's last screenplay for the series this was. Captain Crowther (Sid James) has five of his crew replaced at short notice before a new cruise voyage begins. Not only does he get the five most incompetent crew men ever to sail the seven seas, but the passengers turn out to be a rather strange bunch too. The SS Happy Wanderer is the cruise ship and after this voyage, Crowther hopes to get a job as captain on a transatlantic ship, promising the crew members their jobs will be safe under the new captain. Starting off from England, the Happy Wanderer calls at unnamed ports in Spain, Italy and North Africa before going home again.

So who is my favourite in Carry On Cruising?

Well it's not quite a no brainer as I had a bit of a tough choice between two of the ladies. While Esma Cannon puts in a superb performance, mainly on her own I might add, as mad little spinster Bridget, for me the knock out turn comes from the delightful Dilys Laye as Flo Castle. Dilys, as I've already mentioned, was catapulted into Cruising at very short notice due to Joan Sims being indisposed. Given the very short amount of time she had to get across the part, get her costumes together and meet her fellow cast mates, Dilys does a sublime job. Flo is a major starring role and her plot, looking for a husband on the ship, is the driving force of the entire film. Yes, Laye had been in films for several years by this point but mainly in supporting roles or eye-catching cameos. This is quite different, it's a starring role. 

I know it was meant for Joan and I could see Joan working so well once again with Liz Fraser and with Kenneth Connor as a love interest, however despite Joan being my ultimate heroine, I cannot imagine anyone other than Dilys in the part. This goes against some comments a few years ago by writer Norman Hudis and while he certainly knew his stuff, Dilys for me is the best thing in the film. She's quite simply never off. It's a hugely confident, brilliantly timed, hilarious and energetic performance and you can't help but get caught up in the magic and the glee of it all. I only wish Peter Rogers had made Dilys a permanent member of the team as the actress, many years later, admitted she'd have loved.

Dilys also works so well with the rest of the cast, it's not just her own performance which makes her my star. Dilys works really well with Liz Fraser as the two best friends enjoying a luxurious cruise. Liz was definitely the more experienced film actor of the pair but here she's pretty much second fiddle to Dilys. Yet it still works. Dilys is also superb in her scenes with a rather naive, innocent Sid James as Captain Crowther. Dilys is the stronger of the two in their very mild flirtation scenes and it's great to see Sid playing a gentler character than the kind he became famous for later on in the series. And who can forget Dilys and Esma Cannon and their glorious drinking session! Two ladies comedically having a few too many is ahead of its time and really very modern for a film made in 1962 at a time when men were the stars and given the better parts.

Dilys is also amazingly good in her romantic interludes with one of my other favourite actors, the brilliant Kenneth Connor. Many years later Dilys admitted she was often mistaken for Kenneth's real life wife, so convincing were the pair in that film. I love the gentle, bumbling romance as Flo does her utmost to spurn Dr Binn's advances. Of course, as with the best of these scenarios, the audience is completely on Kenneth's side and rooting for him throughout. And of course they get there in the end. It's funny, honest, real and very sweet without being over the top. Qualities I so admire about the early Carry Ons and of Norman Hudis' scripts and aspects that were perhaps lacking from the films later in the run.

So there you have it, Dilys Laye, in her first Carry On appearance, is my star turn in Carry On Cruising. Let me know if you agree! 

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  1. Absolutely agree with everything you've said here. I adore this film - love the bar scene with Bridget and Flo and think it's one of the best films in the Carry On series. I think it's a shame both Esme and Dilys weren't in more Carry Ons. Weirdly, I'm not even sure it would have worked with Joan Sims getting together with Kenneth's character - and I LOVE Joan Sims, just think that it wouldn't have worked in this particular film.

    1. Thanks Mel. Yes Dilys and Esma are so good and right in their parts that I don't even miss Joan, even though she's always my favourite.