Cleo, Camping, Emmanuelle and Dick

Charles Spencer enjoys a nudge and a wink at Cleo, Camping, Emmanuelle and Dick,
playing at the Lyttelton Theatre first published in The Telegraph 23 Sept 1998

THERE are a few puritanical killjoys who have raised their eyebrows and sniffed disparagingly at the idea of the National Theatre doing a play about the Carry On films. Isn't it all a bit vulgar, a bit puerile, for Britain's flagship theatre to be taking on such sleaze?

A plague on such prigs and prudes. It's a real pleasure to report that Terry Johnson's play is every bit as vulgar, every bit as puerile as any fan of low comedy could possibly wish. There are more terrible puns and leering innuendoes here than seems indecently possible. But as Johnson showed in his masterpiece, Dead Funny, it is possible to combine wild laughter with deep pain, and though this new piece isn't in quite the same league, it is often powerfully affecting.

These days the Carry On films are the subject of National Film Theatre retrospectives and media studies courses, and it's not quite as silly as it sounds. The films provide a real insight into British popular culture and character, and in particular our peculiar, embarrassed attitude to sex, brilliantly identified by George Orwell in his essay on saucy seaside postcards, of which the Carry On films are a direct descendant.

Things may be different in the bedroom, but when the British talk about sex they tend to view it in an essentially comic light, and this strikes me as a notably sane attitude. Watching President Clinton giving his evidence one just longed for the great fruity rasp of Sid James's laugh when the matter of the cigar came up - if you'll forgive the Carry On-ish double entendre. It would have brought an irreverent blast of common sense to the absurd proceedings.

The play is set in Sid James's caravan-cum-dressing room at Pinewood Studios and follows three of the team - Sid himself, Kenneth Williams and Barbara Windsor - from the making of the great Carry On Cleo in 1964 to the final Carry On Emmanuelle in 1978, when the pictures had begun to seem dated and stale.

Part of the pleasure of the evening is watching such fine impersonations of well-loved stars. In looks, voice and bubbly personality, Samantha Spiro is uncannily like the young Barbara Windsor, brassily absurd but exuding an irresistible generosity of spirit. Geoffrey Hutchings hasn't quite got the wrinkled walnut face of Sid James, but he gets the cackling lechery off to a tee, while Adam Godley superbly captures the swoopingly camp disdainful voice, the amazing facial mugging and, above all, the corrosive misanthropy and self-contempt of Kenneth Williams.

The first half is like a Carry On film in itself, as libidinous Sid tries to get off with a succession of women including Barbara Windsor, his torch-carrying dresser (excellent Jacqueline Defferary) and the busty starlet Imogen Hassall, played by the busty starlet Gina Bellman in a manner that entirely explains Dennis Potter's infatuation with her. The comic coup de théâtre that ends Act One, following a wonderfully malicious act of sabotage by Kenneth Williams, is sheer joy.

Things become much darker after the interval. Sid has become seriously infatuated with Barbara and is growing old and ill. Barbara's unseen husband, the lowlife villain Ronnie Knight (he won't enjoy this play) is up on a murder charge, and Kenneth Williams is suffering agonies from both his piles and his desperately low self-esteem. There's still a good deal of entertaining bickering, plenty of off-colour one-liners, but you have come to care about these people now and their unhappiness matters.

Johnson, who directs his own play with relish, charts the end of an era - British comedy was changing fast and in a couple of years the alternative comedians would arrive on the scene - and also achieves a poignant sense of mortality. It's a lovely piece, affectionate, richly funny and hugely touching.

 

Link to the review of the Sept 2006 production at the Bolton Octagon Theatre.

 


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