Monday, 21 June 2010 21:07

Carry On Scribbling: Carry On Constable

Written by  Ian Wilson
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Carry On ScribblingCarry On Scribbling #4: Carry On Constable

However much previous instalments of this column have argued about the significance of the featured film, most people do not remember much about either Carry On Nurse or Teacher. The latter has the problem of not having a memorable enough scene that transcended into popular culture, whilst the later (and funnier) medical Carry Ons overshadow the impact of Nurse. As a result, it is an easy mistake to make when thinking the next major film of the franchise is Carry On Constable. After all, it boasts the debut of Sid James, the regular cast have all settled into their respective character types and it has the landmark scene of four cast members running bare-bottomed away from some freezing showers, which has gone down in Carry On lore. The problem is that Carry On Constable really isn’t very funny.


Call it rose-tinted specs or retro-goggles, some films really just don’t hold up years later. Sometimes the lack of a timeless quality to a film can really hurt its legacy, such as Tim Burton’s Batman.  It isn’t entirely fair to condemn a film for not predicting the cultural shifts in decades to come, especially if said film is clearly set in contemporary times and/or is operating on a strict budget and schedule. Adding to my predicament is that I’m reviewing a comedy film from 1960. I hardly need to tell you that humour has evolved somewhat in the past fifty years, to the point where comedy racism has had to shift from ethnicity to nationality-based stereotypes, which is why Enid Blyton’s stock has started to go down. It is hard enough to make a really good 90 minute comedy film nowadays, let alone half a century ago, and whilst I have a genuine love and appreciation for the Carry Ons, there’s no point in reviewing a film if you can’t be critical in a fair way. The 'official' Carry On historian Robert Ross rated this film 4 out of 5 Sid Jameses, noting that he “gave it an extra Sid for having an extra Sid!” I’d call the man a cretin were it not for the amount of research he’s put into the subject matter, so I’ll merely say he’s probably not detached enough to dish out ratings, be they numbers, stars or even Sids.


It doesn’t help that we’ve seen the same formula before from writer Norman Hudis, who has again composed a chain of command structure that sets up a number of loosely connected skits with a repetitive narrative. Sid James takes on the role of the put-upon boss in charge of some bumbling idiots, who make him look bad in the face of his superior. This role is played by Eric Barker, who was William Hartnell’s superior in Sergeant, but is much more of an antagonist in this film. James doesn’t have a bet to win in impressing his superior, but has to try and stop himself getting transferred by his mean-spirited, short-sighted boss who spends the majority of the film threatening him. Not only is it never established why James’s Sgt Wilkins wants to avoid a transfer when he clearly hates the man, it plays out more like a nonsensical drama than a feel-good comedy. As you’d expect the comedy is largely left to Kenneth Williams, Kenneth Connor and Leslie Phillips as newly-trained constables and Charles Hawtrey as the special constable, whose “oh hello!” entrance into a film would become a staple of the franchise. Bizarrely, the female characters are somewhat sidelined and only really used to further romantic plot threads, despite Hattie Jacques playing the female equivalent of Wilkins and Joan Sims as her overtly competent constable.


In lieu of a plot for the comedic roles, it would be easier to talk about the character types. Connor’s Constable (Charlie) Constable is another nervy character, although the angle this time is that he’s very superstitious and has fallen for Joan Sims in one of the few Carry Ons where she’s held up as a desirable character. Connor plays this role to the hilt, however reminiscent it might be of his past characters, and is probably the most effective of the lot. More predictably, Williams is the aloof intellectual who praises the merits of criminology despite being hopeless at it, as seen when he tries to arrest a plain clothes detective for looking shifty and almost giving his life-savings over to a con artist. Phillips tries to chat up the first WPC he sees and is amiably annoying as he stumbles from catching up with a society friend of his to offering marriage advice to Shirley Eaton, in a cameo role. Charles Hawtrey descends further into camp, be it with his flowers and birdcage entrance to make the station “bright and gay”, or through pursuing shoplifters in drag with Kenneth Williams whilst in a department store. If any of these scenarios sound mildly humorous to you, then that’s pretty much as funny as it gets. Even the famous shower sequence, which surprisingly makes the first example of Carry On nudity  male, does not provoke anything above slight amusement. And by the time they happen to catch a gang of criminals at the end of the film, it is so out of character and forced that you start to think you’re seeing an early pre-cursor to the Police Academy series.


The film does have plus points, as the principal cast all give good performances. Indeed, it’s almost worth watching solely to see Sid James in a non-lecherous, dirty-laughing role. There is also a memorable skit where Kenneth Williams helps to escort an elderly woman across a busy road, only to be clobbered by her as she’d spent 10 minutes trying to get across to the original side before he showed up. But his refusal to admit culpability after his countless mistakes in many ways sums up the film. Unlike the targeted teachers of the last film or the challenges of army life in the first film, the audience is not given enough reason to root for the protagonists. The recruits may feel bad that their lack of experience might cost Wilkins his job, but they don’t learn anything from their mistakes and Wilkins doesn’t attempt to help them until the last act of the film. As their antics are only mildly amusing, you don’t actively look forward to seeing them on screen and it’s only because of the uniforms and the Constable Constable joke that I know that Connor, Williams, Phillips and Hawtrey are actually in character. James, Barker and Jacques do act and help provide the film’s narrative, but they aren’t truly the focus of the film. This wouldn’t matter if the principal cast were involved in longer skits or funnier skits or interlinking skits, but this isn’t the case.


Although this isn’t the worst offender of rehashing the same basic film with a different thematic twist – the next instalment of this column gets the joy of reviewing Carry On Regardless – this film characterises the entirety of Hudis’ time with the Carry On franchise and does so without much in the way of laughs. Maybe I’m just too young for it as a callow 25 year old, but there are timeless Carry Ons out there. Constable falls more into the category of memorable, although I personally don’t characterise this film by bare bottoms, even if the poster would have you believe that to be the classic highlight. It works best as a form of escapism, in a world where Charles Hawtrey could be a policeman and his struggles at rescuing a cat are, for him, on par with containing a riot. That’s quite funny on paper, but nothing goes on to materialise on the screen.


Carry On Ranking:


1.  Teacher

2.  Sergeant

3.  Nurse
4. Constable

Last modified on Saturday, 04 December 2010 13:51
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