Carry On Cruising
Within the last five years, technology within the entertainment industry has been thrust upon the consumer at a fairly alarming rate. HD TVs being pushed alongside America’s TiVo technology (or as it’s best known over here, Sky Plus) then led to the idea that all films should be touched up graphically and re-sold as Blu-rays. And now there’s the all-pervasive 3D, which is doing its best to stay relevant with a slew of mostly animated movies, 3D televisions and 3D channels. I’ve not subscribed to the thought process that I need any of these inventions because, like the Luddite that I am, I’m happy to make do with digital film and television, which only came into being at the turn of the millennium. To me, the advancements that I’ve listed above are all the variations on a theme of graphics and aren’t nearly as ground-breaking as the invention of talking pictures or Technicolor. Some 40 years after it was being used in Hollywood, 1962’s Carry On Cruising marked the first Carry On film to be shot in colour.
There are a number of other aspects of Cruising that makes it stand out in the series. This would not include the aspect of filming on a cruise ship, on the simple grounds that the production couldn’t afford it. Exterior shots were filmed in Southampton docks and the very first frame thanks P&O ferries for their assistance with the production, but ultimately the entire ship was made up of a number of sets in Pinewood studios. What is notable is that this would be the last Carry On film to be written by Norman Hudis, although occasional supporting actor Eric Barker is credited with coming up for the idea behind the film after suggesting a coach holiday theme. Peter Rogers decided to glam up the type of holiday, although coach trips would eventually show up in Carry On Abroad and Carry On At Your Convenience in the 1970s. And it’s a typical Hudis set-up as well, as the premise is set around Sid James as an authority figure seeing his ambitions frustrated by bumbling new members of staff, which inevitably include Kenneth Williams and Kenneth Connor. Hudis’ departure was not one of acrimony – to the best of my research, at least – but he was unavailable for the next entry Carry On Cabby and his shoes were filled for next 11 years by Talbot Rothwell.
There were also notable changes to the cast. I would have added Charles Hawtrey to the list of bungling clowns, but the role written for him – that of the seasick ship’s cook – was instead played by Lance Percival, from That Was The Week That Was. Hawtrey had got into an argument with Peter Rogers after he had demanded top billing for the film and a star on his dressing room door. With the best will in the world, the cook character wasn’t even the fifth most important role in the film and with Rogers unwilling to cave into such a demand, Hawtrey was dropped from the film. Another notable absentee is Joan Sims, although her absence was due to being unwell as the film was about to start filming. As such, revue actress Dilys Laye was drafted into her role with three days notice. Laye would go on to appear in supporting Carry On roles for the rest of the 60s, and I had the good fortune to see her acting live in Alan Bennett’s Single Spies in Leicester before her death five years ago. As good an actress as she was, Laye was clearly a stand-in for Sims, as Hudis again repeats the tropes of having her get drunk and disorderly as well as competing with Liz Fraser. If anything, her hiatus from the series until Carry On Cleo, combined with the new direction under Rothwell, allowed Sims to move from the love interest position to the older, plumper woman who often played a comic harridan.
Whether he knew it would be his final fling with the Carry On films or not, Hudis writes his most consistent script for Cruising as it gets the best out of the principal characters. Sid James’ Captain Crowther has the stern authority of his Constable role, but the man management skills he displayed in Regardless, which makes for a nice character arc when his opinion of his subordinates changes once they stop their disastrous attempts to impress him. Williams is again bookish and superior, but he’s continually good-natured, which leads to a cracking scene where he plays table tennis with Esma Cannon as a dotty old bat of a passenger! Perhaps the most welcome character tweaking is Kenneth Connor’s doctor, as it bears resemblance to his character in Teacher. Yes, he’s the nervy bumbler around the woman he fancies, but ultimately, he is very competent at his job – something that I couldn’t believe when watching him in Constable. Hudis wasn’t able to completely eliminate the skit-based nature of his films and the other new characters on board the ship, including Cyril Chamberlain and Brian Rawlinson’s stewards and Jimmy Thompson’s bar man, aren’t given much of a chance to shine. Lance Percival has more to do and makes the most with it. A particular favourite scene he’s in is when he’s waiting for Williams and Connor to concoct a seasickness cure for him: “I know a cure for mal de mer.” “I’m not treating a mare!” The cure involves Percival having an injection into his rear end at three points in the film, which leads to his screams of anguish being drowned out by the ship’s horn!
The writing throughout is pretty strong as well, both as full scenes and fun lines. I think the most risqué line of Hudis’ entire writing career came up when Connor and Williams were trading anecdotes about Spain whilst dressed as a matador and Zorro respectively, which is visually hilarious in itself. In pretending to be Spanish, Connor makes up having an uncle who was big in the livestock transit industry, saying “he’s one of the biggest bull-shippers in all of Spain!” Connor also prepared very hard for his scene where he has to serenade Dilys Laye’s Flo character, practising the guitar between filming as he had no previous experience of using one. The scene in question comes across very well, even if the doctor accidentally ended up serenading the ship’s drunk by mistake. Even though she doesn’t feature much in that scene, Laye really takes to the scenes that were written with Sims in mind, be it the physical comedy of failing to follow a gym instructor that she’s besotted with or flinging herself passionately at Sid James, who, untypically in a Carry On, rejects the advances of a younger woman in terror! And that’s not forgetting the aforementioned drinking scene that Flo goes through alongside Esma Cannon, who decides to take up drinking by starting with the most alcoholic drinks there are available, and Liz Fraser, who tries to act as the voice of reason. As such, Flo staggers out and starts dancing with Connor as James looks on unimpressed, again blaming his rookies for the misconduct.
That scene aside, the weakest moments of Cruising come with drinking, as the barman’s main role is to serve the ship’s drunk. The running “gag” is that every time the cruise ship makes port, the drunk hurriedly rushes...to the bar, saying he’s uninterested in visiting the country they’ve arrived at. The other role the barman had was to try and work out the captain’s favourite drink, as only the previous barman knew how to make it. When James attempts to experiment and make it himself, Williams barges in and assumes the entire drinks trolley is what the captain has been drinking, leading to Williams sadly informing the other officers that he’s the new captain in light of his superior’s alcoholism. The command lasts all of 10 seconds and the lack of a decent punchline from James when he arrives on the scene renders the whole gag to be a waste of time. Hudis has written weak sequences before, particularly in Constable, but given how Cruising hits the mark so much more often than in any of his other previous scripts, it makes for a particularly jarring scene. Another underlying weakness is in the love story, where the message seems to be that if you persistently hound a woman just one step short of physical harassment, then eventually she’ll give in and accept your marriage proposal. I know for a fact that if I tried that in real life, I’d end up with a restraining order of some kind.
As the sum of its parts, Cruising is probably the best of Hudis’ scripts for the Carry On franchise, with the added scope of the location as well as the colour film footage helping to enhance it above his other solid works. Over the four years that Hudis worked for Peter Rogers, you can see the evolution of the franchise through his scripts, as a cluster of popular 1950s comic actors were chosen from Sergeant and moulded into the Carry On team, with actors that weren’t working out let go and other popular stars joining the core nucleus. Ironically, it would only be Carry On Again Doctor that you would find all of the biggest names of the franchise in the same film, as each big Carry On star would skip a film now and then, either for other things going on in their career or for health reasons, which was particularly true for Sid James. The absence of Hawtrey and Sims in Cruising did not hurt the film for me when I was rewatching it, which is quite ironic when you remember why Hawtrey wasn’t involved. But not every film can hide the fact that it’s missing some key members of the established cast, which we’ll see next time in Carry On Cabby – the first Carry On not to feature Kenneth Williams.