Why Carry On Cleo and Carry On Up The Khyber are two of the best films - ever

By Professor Colin MacCabe

Friday January 29, 1999

Why Carry On Cleo and Carry On Up The Khyber are two of the best films ever By Professor Colin MacCabe Friday January 29, 1999 They were shot on minuscule budgets and their director, Gerald Thomas, worked at such speed that he was always ahead of their strictest 9-to-5 schedules. They were regarded as the lowest of the cultural low. And yet, 20 years after their demise, the Carry On films are not only endlessly repeated on television but are being accorded the honour of a complete retrospective at the National Film Theatre which starts on February 16. It seems, rather surprisingly, that they still retain the capacity to shock and annoy. When a couple of years ago I placed Carry On Up The Khyber and Carry On Cleo in a list of top 10 films of all time, I wasn't sure whether I was lodging my tongue firmly in my cheek or sticking it at the pompous idiots who had never recognised these films for the perfect gems they were.

The reaction was more than gratifying. A recent documentary had a leading fount of pomposity bursting with outrage and dyspepsia at my choice as though to recognise the value of the Carry Ons was to place Throne and Altar in danger.

In a way, it does. The first and most important thing to say about the Carry Ons is that they are devoted to puncturing the absurd claims of authority whether that is represented by Caesar or the Commanding Officer, Robespierre or Matron. Indeed, perhaps the most endearing charm of this series is its assumption that there is no difference between petty and real Hitlers; that at bottom, and I use the term advisedly, authority is little more than a ridiculous attempt to deny the reality and presence of the body.

I don't want to propose for a moment that these films are subversive or radical. There is no hint of replacing the existing order of authority but there is equally no suggestion that the order is anything other than ridiculous. The humour of the Carry On films is perhaps best described as plebian, a continuous outpouring of derision at class pomp and pretension. It is usual to characterise the Carry On films in relation to Angus McGill seaside postcards and that peculiar British attitude to sex which regards it as, in essence, socially embarrassing.

There is no doubt that the lineage is correct. But the deep springs of the creativity for the Carry On films are to be found in the second world war and the extraordinary flowering of humour which came out of that most democratic of combats. The first film was indeed Carry On Sergeant, a 1958 debunking of National Service and "carry on" is itself a military term - the order from a superior to an inferior to keep everything in order. The first films all focused on particular figures of authority: Nurse, Teacher, Constable and were immensely successful. However, the series really hit its creative stride in 1964 with the ninth film, Carry On Spying, a hilarious spoof of the Bond films and also added Barbara Windsor to the troupe of regular actors.

The pastiche of serious big budget films allowed the Carry Ons to reach a new comic level and none was better than Carry On Cleo, shot with such speed on the discarded sets of Fox's ill-fated Richard Burton/Elizabeth Taylor Cleopatra that it appeared in the cinemas before the original. It is this film that allowed Kenneth Williams as Caesar to utter his single most memorable line, "Infamy, infamy, they've all got it in for me" and Sid James's Mark Anthony his equally classic "Blimus!"

This is the classic period of Carry Ons where a group of instantly familar actors - Sid James, Kenneth Williams, Barbara Windsor, Charles Hawtrey among them - reduce the Roman Empire or the French Revolution to the "bedpanorama of history". Talbot Rothwell's scripts of this period are masterpieces of the pun and the double entrendre. They also promote a complex inverse chauvinism that ridicules the claims of British authority and derring do while firmly believing that the virtues embodied in the unlikely figures of the lecherous Sid James or the camp Kenneth Williams are essentially British.

There is little doubt that for almost all its very diverse fans, the Carry Ons reached their zenith in 1968 with Carry On Up The Khyber, a neo-Kiplingesque tale of a very unlikely Raj with Sidney James as a Victorian pro-consul and Kenneth Williams as the rebellious Khasi of Kalabar. Its thorough debunking of every myth of Empire nevertheless managed to celebrate British sang-froid and savoir-faire.

In many ways the Carry Ons are like the Wodehouse novels: they produce an imaginary and coherent vision of an England that never existed but in which we can all feel at home. It is perhaps no surprise that their great period coincided exactly with the Wilson government, another sustained exercise in wishful thinking. The advent of the Heath government signalled a terrible decline. The Carry Ons depended on censorship and repression and could not long survive the permissive society of the seventies. They limped through most of that decade before expiring with the dreadful Carry On Emmanuelle (1978). The attempt to revive them with Carry On Columbus (1992) only proved how dependent they were on their original stars and context. ?

Colin MacCabe is professor of English at Exeter University.


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