Ian enjoys a change of pace and tone as Carry On begins a new era.
GeekPlanetOnline’s cinematic Odysseus, Ian Wilson, is a man on a mission: to brave the sniggers, the nudges and the single-entendres to revisit and rank every film in the Carry On... series. With just as many clunkers as classics he may well be calling for Matron sooner than you think…
Spare a thought for the screenwriter. They’re not the people that get the press attention at the premier of their film, nor are they paid anything like the people who are hired to personify the characters that they have written. I’m not necessarily saying that actors have a free pass, because if they’re terrible, they’ll stink up the film no matter how well it is written. But no actor gives a career-defining performance without a great script for them to work from, unless of course they’re portraying a mime or some other mute character. Norman Hudis did write the most successful film in America in 1959 (Carry On Nurse) but has not gone down in British cinematic history as one of the great screenwriters this country has ever produced. There’s a good reason for that – he wasn’t one of the great screenwriters this country has ever produced. But even his contribution to the Carry On franchise has been overshadowed by his replacement in the writing chair, Talbot Rothwell.
From 1963, Rothwell was responsible for writing some of the most iconic Carry On films for the next six years. The 1970s were less kind and he had to retire through ill health after completing 1974’s Carry On Dick, by which time the series had lost its lustre. As poor to middling as his later output was however, it was still a cut above what was yet to come for the remainder of the series. His career in comedy started the same way that a number of Carry On performers got their break: during the Second World War. Serving as a prisoner of war after having his plane shot down over Norway, Rothwell started writing content for his prison camp’s various concerts, working closely with future Carry On mainstay Peter Butterworth. Following the war, Rothwell started writing for television in the 1950s and moved into screenplays in the following decade, which brought him into contact with Peter Rogers. Although the first screenplay he sold to the franchise was Carry On Jack, the first one that moved into production was Carry On Cabby, a screenplay he adapted from a script submitted by Morecambe & Wise writers Sid Green and Dick Hill. The script turned out really very well for almost everyone within the Carry On team, except for one. Upon reading the script, and the part that he would have played, Kenneth Williams labelled it as an “inferior” screenplay and chose not to participate. Relations would get warmer however, and a mere three films later, Rothwell would be partially responsible for feeding Williams what has been voted the greatest line in British cinema. More on that when we reach Carry On Cleo.
Even without Williams, the film saw the return of Charles Hawtrey and Hattie Jacques. And whilst it may seem that the return of the former was more significant, as Hawtrey had removed himself from Carry On Cruising over a petty issue of star billing, this film gives Hattie Jacques her meatiest role in the franchise. Whilst she is more iconic as the Matron character, Cabby allowed Jacques to infuse comic lines with drama. And in many ways, with the central theme being a disintegrating marriage, this is one of the most serious films in the entire franchise. The theme of a relationship on the rocks is nothing new and the Carry Ons often play such situations either for laughs or as a framing device to line up various jokes. In Cabby however, Jacques plays the neglected wife of cab firm owner Sid James, whose love of his day job and reluctance to consider future plans of relocation or family, is driving a considerable wedge between him and his wife. Events come to a head when Sid’s character is ultimately unable to return home in time to make his anniversary dinner with his wife. Happily, what follows is not quite akin to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, because ultimately that isn't what the audiences of 1963 were paying to see. But the rationale for Jacques subsequently trying to beat her uncaring husband at his own game with a taxi rank of beautiful women drivers has a solid, dramatic foundation rather than just being done as a dislikeable whim – arguably why such a film would not get made nowadays.
The reason Jacques is so good in this role is that she makes a change from the authoritative, haughty characters that she has played thus far, and plays a less educated woman, lacking in confidence and esteem due to the state of her marriage. Again, some 50 years on, it’s interesting to consider what a feminist critique of this film might be. Such academics may be horrified to see a wife not being more assertive towards her husband, then absolutely loving the middle third, before finding the final act unsatisfactory for enforcing the status quo of marriage and the reunion being too convenient. That’s simply my guess, but lord knows they’d find this film a great deal more appetising than, say, Carry On Girls. The emergence of “Glamcabs” after Jacques’ Peggy finally snaps could be considered a tad sexist, as Jacques and her right hand woman Esma Cannon, in her final Carry On appearance, hire staff purely on aesthetics of their female applicants. But playing upon the fundamental weakness of all men – admit it, fellow males – Glamcabs becomes such a success that even when Sid’s taxi firm starts to sabotage the vehicles of their rivals, the smitten customers actively step in to help repair the taxis as a means of impressing their beautiful drivers. At every step, the women triumph over the men, not least because it is Sid’s firm that is set up as the unsympathetic side. Their final attempt to sabotage the competition leads to their utter humiliation as the women soak them with fire hoses and drive them from their premises.
Focusing upon Sid and his firm, the film never goes so far as to outright portray him as a villain. Single-minded and opposed to change, Sid nevertheless offsets his nastier edge by showing his human side. His reason for missing the anniversary is somewhat valid, and leads to a great extended skit with Carry On newcomer Jim Dale, playing the expectant father and husband to a wife who has two successive false alarms in one night. And once his wife starts going off to her unknown job from early in the morning until late at night, James is shown to possess practically no domestic skills whatsoever, which doesn’t help his move at all. Whilst the ultimate revelation leads to Sid kicking his wife out of their home, he remains unhappy and becomes an outward alcoholic as he faces his firm going over at any moment. The final act however restores his professional and matrimonial standing after Jacques and Liz Fraser are kidnapped by armed criminals, led by Peter Gilmore, a good friend of the aforementioned Jim Dale and the eponymous star of The Onedin Line, who would crop up in a number of other supporting roles within the franchise. As a sympathetic antagonist, Sid James was in his element and Rothwell would continue to cast him in these roles as opposed to the more straight-laced characters of the Hudis era.
However, both James and Kenneth Connor would have a two film break before they would reappear in the franchise. A shame, as this film saw them cast together as best friends, not knowing how to take the sudden shake to their comfortable status quo. Connor is not given as much to do in this film overall, a truism of the Rothwell era as he would only appear once more in the next five years before appearing more regularly from Carry On Up the Jungle onwards. It’s a shame in many respects as Connor gets to show both his outgoing persona amongst the staff and his girlfriend (the aforementioned Fraser) in addition to his nervy, stuttering Carry On roots when he’s picked to be the covert Glamcabs mole and is forced to enter the changing room in drag before being too uncomfortable to undress and fleeing in terror! Hawtrey’s return is a similar joy as a wannabe cab driver who formally drove military vehicles. The sheer incompetence displayed, be it the continual spilling of tea or the hilarious scene where James attempts to give him a driving lesson until Hawtrey continually circles a roundabout, is hilarious stuff. It may not quite fit within the tone of the film, but Hawtrey’s contribution (apart from the final couple of minutes) is well-needed. What would have been Kenneth Williams’ role, the shop-steward Allbright, is played by Norman Chapell and would not be the first time that the franchise took a pop at the unions. Also of note is one of the more prolific Glamcabs drivers in Anthea, as played by future Coronation Street actress and Cleo namesake Amanda Barrie. Again, more on her in three instalments’ time.
Cabby is essentially a transitional film, if you look at the Carry On franchise as a whole. There is still a nod to the real-life institutions of the time, but Rothwell doesn’t use the framing scenario to line up jokes, preferring instead to construct a narrative built upon jokes which fit the chronology of the story. And Rothwell makes look it effortless on his début outing, grounding the jokes in a dramatic realism for the most part. This isn’t going to last, for better or worse depending on the film, but Cabby marks the beginning of the pre-existing Carry On team being moulded into a formula that would consolidate its place into British cinema history. It would take a few films to fully settle in, but with Rothwell providing the scripts for Gerald Thomas to bring to life and Peter Rogers to ensure the production went smoothly, the Carry On films were about to hit their golden age.
Carry On Ranking: