Peter Roger's Obiturary

From The Independent, April 2009.
By Robert Sellers.

Though in his long career Peter Rogers produced some 100 films, it was as co-creator of the Carry On series, along with the director Gerald Thomas, that he will be forever known.

As much a part of British life as fish and chips and wet bank holidays, the Carry On films remain amongst the most popular film comedies ever made; a genre almost in themselves. As for Rogers and Thomas, once labelled "the rudest men in the movies", no other producer/director team worked together for so long almost 40 years until Thomas's death in 1993 or so happily. Both men surely deserve their place amongst those other great partnerships of British cinema: Powell and Pressburger, Broccoli and Saltzman.

Peter Rogers was born in Rochester, Kent in 1914. He began his career as a journalist on local newspapers before moving on to Fleet Street, where he worked on Picture Post. After being hospitalised during the Second World War, he wrote radio plays for the BBC before entering the film industry in 1942. Rogers worked under J. Arthur Rank, with responsibility for "Thought for the Week", a five-minute religious short that played every Sunday in Rank cinemas across Britain.

In 1946 Rogers joined the quintessentially English Gainsborough Pictures as an assistant story editor. It was here that he met his future wife, Betty Box. At the time a novice producer, Box would become an influential figure in British films, responsible for the Doctor film series starring Dirk Bogarde, the only real comedy rival to the Carry On films at the UK box office. Rogers and Box married on Christmas Eve 1948, and went on to produce numerous films together, notably the war comedy Appointment with Venus (1951), starring David Niven. Keen to make a professional name for himself outside of his union with Box, Rogers turned independent producer, churning out a series of films aimed at the children's market. He scored big with The Dog and the Diamonds, which won acclaim at the 1953 Venice Film Festival.

In 1957 he teamed up with the journeyman director Thomas. On paper, it looked an unlikely partnership: the two men were like chalk and cheese. But although Thomas's showman sensibilities often conflicted with Rogers' more introvert and unassuming nature, they were destined to make cinema history. Their first outing, Time Lock, a nail-biting drama about the plight of a young boy accidentally trapped in an impregnable bank vault, which also saw an early film appearance from Sean Connery, made little impact. It was their next film that proved the turning point.

The pair had acquired a script called The Bull Boys by the novelist R.F. Delderfield, a straightforward account of army national service. It was Rogers who saw the potential for a broad comedy and looked for a suitable new writer. Eric Sykes turned it down first, declaiming all film producers as "shits". So Rogers went to see Spike Milligan, then suffering from one of his bouts of clinical depression. The comedian was sitting at his office desk, holding a gun, explaining that he was going to kill his wife. Rogers advised him that it might be easier to settle instead for a divorce. In the end, Rogers hired Norman Hudis, whose script accentuated the kind of barrack-room life then popularised by the TV series The Army Game. The title was changed too, to the catchier sounding Carry On Sergeant.

Made for just 74,000, Carry On Sergeant was the third top grossing British film of 1958. Neither Rogers nor Thomas had envisaged the film as the beginning of a series, but its success simply necessitated a follow-up. Carry On Nurse came out a year later and was an even bigger smash.

Rogers oversaw the production of a further 29 Carry On comedies (all directed by Thomas), as well as TV specials and a West End production, Carry On London, that ran for 18 months. In the process he made minor comedy players like Sid James, Charles Hawtrey and Kenneth Williams into household names. Together with numerous other familiar faces (among them Hattie Jacques, Jim Dale and Barbara Windsor), this repertory of actors lent the series a family atmosphere, both on and off screen. Rogers equated the first day of shooting on a new Carry On as very much like the first day back at school after the holidays.

However, despite their success at the box office, the actors received paltry sums for their Carry On appearances and much resentment arose between them and Rogers, the man who held the purse strings. "I'll do anything for my actors, except pay them," he once said, with more than a hint of truth behind the jest.

The Carry On films were made as quickly and as cheaply as possible, shot mostly in and around Pinewood studios even when the story was set in exotic climes. In Carry On up the Khyber, for instance (Rogers' own personal favourite entry), Snowdonia stood in for India. In Carry On Follow That Camel, the Sussex coast was an unlikely Sahara desert. So tight were these budgets that Carry On Camping, set during the summer, was actually filmed in the middle of winter and the trees and the muddy ground had to be painted green! Poor Barbara Windsor spent most of her time shivering in a bikini. When snow started to fall, Rogers hopefully suggested that they could pass it off as apple blossom.

Rogers was playfully dismissive about the success and artistic merits of the Carry On films. In 1995, when the Barbican in London held a retrospective season, he declared that he'd no intention of going to see any of them. "What a punishment," he said. "Even the Marquis de Sade couldn't have devised a worse torture". Indeed, Rogers never once sat through a Carry On movie with a public audience. Nor was he apologetic about the comedy style of the films never changing; he always maintained that familiarity bred affection, not contempt.

What did fill him with patriotic pride was the fact that every one of the Carry On films was British made and British financed. Unlike many of his fellow producers, Rogers didn't have to rely on backing from America, a country he refused even to visit, although it never ceased to amaze him how popular the series was internationally, having always assumed that the innuendo was peculiarly British.

Away from Carry On, Rogers kept a deliberate distance from the whirl of show business. A naturally shy, self-effacing man, he genuinely disliked the limelight, rarely turning up to movie premieres or parties, indeed avoiding meeting people at all if he could help it.

For much of his life, Rogers lived in Beaconsfield, only a short distance from Pinewood Studios (where he retained a palatial office suite), with ground large enough for him to indulge his love of animals. Occasionally he returned to writing, working on screenplays for film and radio. He was also a skilled pianist and a keen ballet enthusiast.

But for most of his professional life, Peter Rogers, along with Thomas, was Mr Carry On. Once asked why he kept making them, Rogers' answer was so very typical of the man: "Because the people want them."

Peter Rogers, film producer: born Rochester, Kent 20 February 1914; married 1948 Betty Box; died Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire 14 April 2009.


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