Ian reaches the tenth film in the Carry On series.
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…
Essentially, there are 30 Carry On films. Between Carry On England and Carry On Emmanuelle sits That’s Carry On!, an homage to MGM’s 1974 film That’s Entertainment! Which is to say, a dressed-up clips show that flagrantly cherry picks the best bits of its subject matter so that the producers can try and control the narrative of its legacy. And considering the placement between England and Emmanuelle, the nostalgia of That’s allows audiences to harken back to the franchise’s golden age. But even with a continuous framing sequence starring Kenneth Williams and Barbara Windsor, can it be properly described as a Carry On film? That’s a question for another day, but it is certainly regarded as an official entry to the canon by everyone from producer Peter Rogers to Carry On historian Robert Ross, and it features in the DVD boxset.
That last point cannot be said for Carry On Columbus, the 1992 franchise reboot attempt that most people tend to forget. Not without good reason either; an entire decade passes in between Emmanuelle and Columbus and the most recognisable Carry On players are largely absent, save for Jim Dale in the title role and supporting turns from Bernard Cribbins, Jon Pertwee and Leslie Phillips. Then again, it is a Peter Rogers production with Gerald Thomas in the director’s chair – for the last time, owing to his death in 1993 – and offers audiences a comedic adventure under the Carry On name. That it did not succeed affords Columbus its black sheep status, but it is still very much a Carry On film.
As the tenth film in the series, Carry On Cleo marks the end of the first third of the Carry On lifespan and can be treated as something of a yardstick accordingly. Despite the best efforts of That’s, the legacy of the franchise is ultimately one of seaside postcard smut. And whilst that is what the Carry Ons of the 1970s would descend into, following many 1960s flirtations, it is somewhat unfair to tar the first ten films with that brush. They are hardly chaste films, but the black and white, Norman Hudis-penned era with a standardised Carry On theme tune was a completely separate beast to, well, England and Emmanuelle. Aside from the franchise name and the dynamic of the Rogers/Thomas partnership, everything changes within that twenty year period. The look of the films change, the tone of the humour changes and despite having a core team of actors, the people onscreen come and go. So when That’s compiles its selection of clips it wants to define the Carry Ons by, it is telling that Cleo gets more scenes than any of the preceding films in the series.
Of course, it is all very well to present comedic sequences on their own and devoid of the context of the storyline; indeed, Seth MacFarlane has made a career on the back of doing just that. But it is much more difficult to pull off a film that is funny all the way through, which Carry On Constable proves so well. Yes, it’s true that “Infamy! Infamy! They’ve all got it in for me!” is one of the greatest comedy lines in cinematic history, but Cleo needs to be given its due as a whole because the entire film is an absolute riot. The story is a gleeful parody of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor’s 1963 Cleopatra – the sets of which were partially reused in Cleo thanks to the help of supporting actor Victor Maddern – and the credits playfully suggest that the film was based on “an original idea by William Shakespeare”. The script is sharper than Sean Bean’s sword in the Napoleanic Wars and works in Latin jokes, Prime Minister impressions and physical comedy, such as Kenneth Connor riding a prehistoric square-wheeled bicycle.
The film’s namesake is played by Amanda Barrie, who was one of the more prominent members of Hattie Jacques all-female taxi firm in Carry On Cabby. The role is more limited than Taylor’s and demands an inordinate amount of time of her bathing in milk, but Barrie is great fun in the role. Slightly ditzy yet sexually manipulative, Cleo has her own way of dealing with the powerful political muscle of Rome. The remaining players in the historic love triangle are Sid James’ Mark Antony, who falls for those very charms of the Egyptian queen, and Kenneth Williams as the somewhat pathetic Julius Caesar. After his wonderfully snide turn in Carry On Spying, Williams returns to his more usual role as the superior figure of authority who is powerless to prevent things from going wrong. From suffering a cold whilst invading Britain, to being pelted with fruit upon his return to Rome, mocked in the Senate and nagged by his wife and father-in-law, the image of Caesar as this ruthless, determined statesman is skewered wonderfully by Williams. The contrast is marked by Mark Antony, who recognises all of Caesar’s flaws but remains a loyal friend to him right up until the moment he finds himself in Cleo’s presence. Lust is a common driving force behind many a Carry On plot – usually with James as the perpetrator of said lust – but in Cleo, it serves as an undertone to explain Antony’s character turn. Even then, the character cannot bring himself to murder Caesar in person because he still sees himself as the dictator’s friend; a justification he uses when employing Caesar’s cousin to kill him instead!
The three leads are all fantastic, but arguably, a comedic reworking of Antony and Cleopatra could only go on for so long on the strength of that story. As such, a second storyline dances around the core idea and interweaves itself to keep the pace moving. In this case, two British subjects, or to be slightly less historically accurate, cavemen, are captured by the Roman army, taken to Rome and escape before they can be sold into slavery. One is Kenneth Connor’s Hengist Pod, a tradesman specialising in square wheels with his wife (Shelia Hancock’s Senna Pod) nagging him in the background. The other is the Pods’ new neighbour Horsa; the first major breakout role for Jim Dale after a number of notable supporting turns. By a quirk of fate involving Horsa’s incredible fighting prowess and Hengist’s lack of any such skill-set, the square wheelmaker becomes Julius Caesar’s new bodyguard and unwittingly plays a part in frustrating Mark Antony’s best laid assassination plans. There are roles for other Carry On regulars. Joan Sims, a notable absentee from the previous four films, returns as Caesar’s own nagging wife, whilst Charles Hawtrey plays her perverted seer of a father, with little time for his son-in-law. Indeed, the Seneca character is often at his happiest when he’s having visions of Caesar’s impending death. He also has his eye on the fur bikini-clad British slave girl Gloria (from Bristol, naturally) who happens to be the long-lost love of Dale’s Horsa.
If one can generously describe the first third of the film being set in Britain – realistically it’s barely a quarter of the run-time – with the second being mostly based in Rome and the third in Egypt, it is the Rome section of the film which really fires on all cylinders. Two scenes stand out in particular, both of which focus upon Hengist and Horsa trying to escape their situation. The first is a slave auction run by Warren Mitchell, of ‘Til Death Do Us Part fame, under the banner Marcius and Spencius – a joke that briefly got the production into some legal trouble when Marks and Spencer objected to the use of retailer’s logo colours. Jim Dale sparks a bidding war between an attractive young Roman woman and a more matronly patrician woman named Willa Claudia. The latter wins and Dale receives a very unfortunate branding. Hengist cannot even attract that kind of attention and is marked with a lion. Seeing his confusion, the gaoler explains “you’re going to the lions, mate”, which earns the response “well, I hope they're a nice family”. Horsa tries to comfort him by noting that all it takes is a head in the mouth and a quick snap of the jaws to end the ordeal. Hengist again gets the wrong end of the stick, noting “that's all very well, but how am I going to get his head into my mouth?” Given that, like Sims, Connor had been away from the Carry Ons for a few films, it was just a stroke of good fortune that Bernard Cribbins – the intended actor for Hengist – was unavailable because this is one of the actor’s finest performances in the franchise. It would also be Connor’s last Carry On foray for six years until 1970’s Carry On Up The Jungle.
That other favourite scene is set in the famed Temple of Vesta. Yes, it features “Infamy! Infamy!” but there is a lot that sets up that one moment and the resulting fight scene. Pretty much cornered by Roman soldiers, Horsa and Hengist decide to chance it by going into the restricted part of the temple, which only Vestal Virgins and eunuchs can enter – Horsa: “if anyone asks, we’ll say we’re eunuchs”. Hengist: “Yeah. What have we got to lose?” – and lose their pursuers. It just so happens that Caesar’s assassination is due to take place at the same temple and the vestal priestesses, having abandoned their sacred beliefs to make the runaway slaves comfortable, flee when they hear Caesar asking for their advice. As such, a partially disguised Hengist adopts a high-pitched voice and politely turns Caesar’s request down. A surprised Caesar turns to see his chief bodyguard and delivers the famous line which Talbot Rothwell borrowed, with permission, from comedy writers Frank Muir and Dennis Norden who had written it for their radio series Take It From Here.
Without wanting to create the impression that Dale and Connor get all the best lines, there is great interplay throughout. During the plotting of Caesar’s Egyptian assassination, Cleo remarks “I’ve got a poisonous asp!” to which Antony’s response is an almost inevitable “I wouldn’t say that!”. Sid James also sparks off Williams nicely in one of the rare franchise instalments where their characters genuinely like one another. Reporting back to Caesar on what Egypt is like, Antony concludes with “and The Sphinx!” to which Williams nods sagely and responds “not surprising – no drains”. Away from the dialogue, the physical comedy ranges from Hawtrey tip-toeing around Cleo’s palace in an over-sized pot to Cleopatra being unrolled from a carpet too quickly and crashing into a table. I also didn’t mention what happens to Caesar’s sedan chair when approaching the Temple of Vesta, but it never fails to crack me up. Jon Pertwee makes a cameo as an even crazier soothsayer than Hawtrey’s character, near-hidden under a long, flowing white wig, whilst Tom Clegg starts the mould of characters being made up to look ethnically like other races in playing Cleo’s bodyguard Sosages. There will be other opportunities to examine this custom, particularly when Bernard Bresslaw joins the core cast in the next film Carry On Cowboy, but this is the first instance of such a character in the franchise.
Even when the film actively shows men ogling a vision of the naked Cleopatra as she gets out of her milk bath, it is hard to consider Cleo as an overtly lewd movie, even despite it being Mark Antony’s lust that drives the plot along. Cleo is simply a cut above anything that came before it – even my beloved Spying – because everything works and everyone is on top of their game. For a film series to get exponentially better is quite an achievement, particularly given the rapid production and low cost of the Carry Ons. But with the tenth instalment, the series had truly found its formula, and Rothwell would continue to mine this rich vein for the rest of the 1960s. Come the twentieth instalment – Carry On Loving – there will be different things to comment upon when that yardstick is reached. But for now, let us sit back and applaud the film with which the Carry On franchise finally attained lasting “infamy”.
Carry On Ranking: