Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Carry On Crying

I've always thought that the most revealing (ooh er) moment in the Carry On films was not Barbara Windsor's bra snapping off - as assumed in many of the reviews of this new book - but a scene later in the same film when the Carry On regulars take issue with a bunch of hippies.

Carry on Camping was made in 1969 towards the end of the, err, classic run of Carry on Films. Here, the essentially 1950's world of the Carry On films comes up against - however flippantly - the late '60's counter culture. Although faintly ludicrous this meeting shows up the films' deep conservatism. The hippies in question turn up next door to the dreadful camp site on which the Carry On team are having a suitably dreadful holiday. Our heroes are appalled and, disguised amusingly as hippies, infiltrate the party to get it broken up and the hippies removed from the camp site.

In an interesting post recently, Infinite Thought's blog referred to George Orwell's essay on the saucy seaside postcard tradition. As Orwell points out, the heart of the postcards' humour lies in a thoroughly miserable view of human relationships. Men will always be sex obsessed but frustrated. Women will always be either nubile under 25 year olds or bitter old harridans. Men desire sex and women desire marriage (although the sexually predatory older woman, usually played by a man in drag, is a comedy staple of the Carry On films too). Marriage is always represented as a deeply unhappy institution in which the woman yearns for romance and the man itches for a bit on the side. The Carry On films are rooted in this culture.

In Carry on Camping the main characters, played by Syd James and Bernard Bresslaw, begin the film by attempting to trick their wives into going on holiday in a nudist colony. Their wives are of course horrified by this prospect (male lechery must after all find its opposite in female prudery) and they all end up staying on a normal campsite. The domestic drudgery of this situation is alleviated (potentially) by the arrival of a group of hot young women under the prudish care of Kenneth Williams. Syd and Bernie then spend the rest of the holiday desperately trying to get off with Babs Windsor. That Syd and Bernie will fail in this is of course a given from the outset. Their various attempts will be endlessly frustrated through comic ineptitude with the ever present raised saucepan of their wives hanging over them.

The hippies arrival at the end of the films is a direct challenge to this accepted status quo of social and sexual dysfunction. Trapped in a world of thwarted ambition and terminal misanthropy the Carry On cast are utterly repelled by the concept of genuine free love. Ironically - for a series of films obsessed with the desire for sex - their humour lies in the fact that sex will always be out of reach. Even when it is available through marriage it will be deeply unsatisfactory. The hippies represent a genuine alternative to this dead end and therefore must go. Interestingly their successful removal reunites the dysfunctional married couples who, for the first time in the film, reveal some genuine affection for each other and start having fun.

The comedy of the Carry On films is rooted in dissatisfaction. The character's attempts to break out of this situation only serves to reinforce their limited horizons. Their jokey anarchy and free spirit is only ever skin deep. Even the series' title Carry On implies staunch resignation as much as it does a party spirit. And, if there was a party it would undoubtedly be rubbish. No wonder Morrissey was such a fan.

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