The Carry On formula always contained something bad, nothing new, everything borrowed, plenty blue – and lots of good humour to hide the holes in the plot and situations.
A scathing female film critic once described the series as “a tangle of defunct spare parts assembled by a ham-fisted lunatic run amok.” But, with two exceptions, all the Carry On films were among the Top 10 money-making films of the year in Britain. The films were (and remain) a phenomenon.
Shot on a shoe-string budget by technicians and actors who could scarcely remember which was which, they have been successful in countries as far apart as Russia, Thailand, Germany, Japan and Australia.
The age of the jokes is part of the funniness: situations are twisted and drawn out for the sake of introducing one awful pun, and there is constant harping on about sex without anybody actually getting any.
Many filmgoers must have felt they could write the screenplay themselves if they had a collection of seaside picture postcards – or access to the scripts of previous Carry Ons.
Yet the series was unique in its continued money-making success, and success brought a modicum of respect. Critics became less scornful but analysed how each new film maintained the well-worn formula.
It all began in 1958 with a script about National Service called The Bull Boys, which nobody wanted to know about.
At that time Peter Rogers, a scriptwriter who had turned producer on his severance pay when he got the sack during the early fifties slump, was working as a successful independent film producer.
His films were never art, but he had the knack of cashing in on trends and talent – he made the first two Tommy Steele films.
Initially, there was no idea in anybody’s head that there would be a Carry On series. Rogers took The Bull Boys to Stuart Levy at Anglo-Amalgamated but Levy didn’t like the title, so they devised Carry On Sergeant, which was just a well-known expression in the Army.
Made for the relatively small sum of £70,000 at a time when all too many people still had mixed memories of their National Service days, Carry On Sergeant was a “burster” at the box office (to use Rogers’s own expression), but still, nobody was thinking of a series.
Then Rogers had an idea for a comedy about nurses and somebody suggested Carry On Nurse. It was as unplanned as that.
Made on the same budget as Sergeant, 12 million people went to see it in Britain in 1959, making it the top money-maker of the year.
In America, where low-budget British comedies were rarely screened, it ran for two years in one Los Angeles cinema alone. Double-meaning and real rudeness and vulgarity about buttocks, bosoms and bedpans had never before reached the American screen.
The commercial message got through to the producer and distributors. Rogers was asked to do five in a row, and for many years audiences were given an average of two Carry On’s a year – and loved every minute.
When the original scriptwriter, Norman Hudis, left to write television in Hollywood, Rogers found a script by BBC writer Talbot Rothwell called Poopdecker RN, and together they transformed it into Carry On Jack, a send-up of every Hornblower-type film ever made.
Rothwell subsequently became the permanent Carry On writer.
The series had to survive only one major crisis. After Carry On Screaming (1966), the original distributor thought the bonanza was coming to an end and the films were beginning to cost more to make, and therefore taking longer to turn a profit.
Rogers took the formula to the Rank organisation but they didn’t want to keep someone else’s title. Using exactly the same team and formula, they made Don’t Lose Your Head (which should have been called Carry On Pimpernel) and Follow That Camel.
Neither was a success in Britain, although they were Carry On’s in all but name. When Rogers saw what was happening, the films were released overseas with “Carry On” before their titles, and they made money once more.
A notable flop was Carry On at Your Convenience (1971), which made fun of trade unions and thus alienated its core viewer base.
After that, the studio returned to the original titles – because the title is the star of a Carry On film.
The series proper ended with Carry On Emmannuelle (1978), made after Rogers left Rank, which sums up the attempts at keeping up with the times. However, it actually did less well than the compilation film That’s Carry On (1978), for which Barbara Windsor had returned to shoot one day’s worth of linking sequences with series stalwart Kenneth Williams.
In 1992 Carry On Columbus proved to be a belated and commercially unsuccessful attempt to extend the series.