Peter Bradshaw: What a Carry On!
From The Guardian 15/5/04
If Tony Blair should ever need a diplomatic pretext for breaking with America, or even launching a nuclear strike against it, he could do a lot worse than the recent statement by Tom Hanks on the subject of classic British films. Publicising the Coen brothers' remake of The Ladykillers, Hanks said: "I have never actually seen this particular Ealing movie ... I'm certainly aware of it. I know it the same way I know the Carry On films - I've never seen any of those, either." Hanks is due in Cannes to launch the film next week, and he may develop his thoughts on the Carry On films then.
In the meantime, here is what the Cannes festival jury president, Quentin Tarantino, said this week about the lack of a British film industry: "In Britain, in its heyday in the 1960s, every type of film was being made that could be made ... the Carry On films weren't art, but they were funny." Maybe Hanks and Tarantino will discuss this subject and expose their opinions on the Croisette - oh noooo, stop it, missus.
How disturbing that when Hanks and Tarantino need an example of instantly identifiable British film culture, they reach for the Carry On films. How humiliating to realise that they are being polite, because they believe that we like them, that we genuinely think they're really good. Hanks's apparent belief in the equivalence of the Ealings and the Carry Ons may be insulting, but we have brought it on ourselves with our incessant, tongue-in-cheek praise for the Carry On films, expressed in a smirking sentimental-ironic idiom that I, for one, don't blame the Americans for not understanding or indulging.
Does Tarantino really think the Carry Ons are funny? Well, he is a legendary movie and pop culture omnivore. But if he has watched a single Carry On film and enjoyed it, I will kiss his ass in Macy's window - as they say in Hollywood.
It has long been compulsory to say you adore Carry On films, just to show you're not stuffy or priggish or politically correct. But when we say Carry On films, we mean the clips played on TV. Or really just one single clip, the one in Carry On Camping where Barbara Windsor's bra flies off just as she's doing those exercises, and we cut to Kenneth Williams doing his startled moose expression.
Come on. Be honest. When was the last time you actually sat down and watched a Carry On film all the way through? It isn't possible without a great cloud of irritability, restlessness and depression descending on you. Perhaps the saddest thing was Jack Douglas, a regular in the later films. How many people thought his convulsive, jerky arm movements were really, tongue-out-of-cheek funny?
In his brilliant book on Charles Hawtrey, Roger Lewis recreates the milieu of sadness and second-rateness that pervaded these films. They were profitable for their notoriously autocratic and mean producer, Peter Rogers, due in no small part to the fact that he paid his stars next to nothing. Joan Sims died a few years ago, complaining to the last about the astonishingly low fees. The women got paid less than the men: an unanswerable charge of sexism there - though, to be fair, the same injustice reigns in modern Hollywood. Hawtrey got paid £5,000 per picture in 1958; the pay scale remained the same for 20 years.
None of which need matter to the audience, were it not for the fact that the tattiness and cheapskateness seeps depressingly through on to the screen. Lewis's book gives a list of the Carry On locations, which are a kind of prose-poem version of Betjeman's Metroland: the Odeon, Uxbridge; the Red Lion, Iver; Heatherwood Hospital, Ascot; Camber Sands, near Hastings. The list is fascinating and funny - but are the movies?
The last attempt to make a Carry On, long after the series had slid into borderline soft-porn in the 70s, was Carry On Columbus in 1992, starring Jim Dale and Bernard Cribbins with newer stars like Alexei Sayle, Rik Mayall and Julian Clary. It was considered a clunky disappointment, and everyone wondered how the joyous Carry On spirit seemed to have disappeared. But the truth was that Carry On Columbus was ghastly and embarrassing in precisely the same way the old Carry Ons were in their day - it's just that it wasn't possible to surround a new film with a fog of dishonest nostalgia.
"Can't we do better than this?" asked Ken Russell when his opinion of these cheesy old comedies was canvassed. Let's hope we can. But it's only possible if we chuck this pose that no one really believes in. So please Mr Hanks, please Mr Tarantino, you don't have to say you love these terrible films. At least not on our account.
Peter Bradshaw is the Guardian's film critic.