Carry On films are often considered amongst the jewels in the classic British film franchise crown, alongside James Bond adventures and Hammer horrors. They’re also equally derided for being politically incorrect and very much ‘of their time’.
I’ve long been a fan of the series, thanks to lazy Sunday afternoon viewings of the films with my grandad, who would record them from the TV. He fostered my love for film from a young age, particularly classic British movies.
Whilst there are certainly moments that don’t pass muster in 2023, there are plenty of others that rank amongst the funniest and most iconic scenes in British cinema history. The films launched, or in some cases cemented, the film careers of some of the most recognisable faces and names in British film comedy.
The Carry On franchise began with Carry On Sergeant in 1958 and, in total, comprised 30 films up to the final film of the original run Carry On Emmannuelle in 1978, before a much maligned one-off return with Carry On Columbus in 1992. The series proved so popular that it also spawned a television series, four Christmas TV specials and a stage show.
Produced by Peter Rogers and directed by Gerald Thomas, the series featured an ensemble cast whose faces, voices and laughs are etched in film history. Sidney James, Kenneth Williams, Charles Hawtrey, Joan Sims, Hattie Jacques, Kenneth Connor, Barbara Windsor, Bernard Bresslaw, Peter Butterworth, Jack Douglas, Jim Dale – the list goes on.
The films remain a staple of ITV channels and, although being well served on DVD in the UK, most have yet to receive a Blu-ray release; only Carry On Jack, Carry On Cleo, Carry On Cowboy and Carry On Screaming currently have UK Blu-ray releases from StudioCanal.
Australian label Via Vision Entertainment have now brought us three four-film Blu-ray collections of the first 12 films in chronological order (Collection 1 comprises Carry On Sergeant, Carry On Nurse, Carry On Teacher and Carry On Constable; Collection 2 features Carry On Regardless, Carry On Cruising, Carry On Cabby and Carry On Jack).
The third volume, which is the focus of this review, contains two of the best in the series, in my opinion – Carry On Cleo and Carry On Screaming – together with the final outing released in black and white – Carry On Spying – and Carry On Cowboy.
Carry On Spying
Director: Gerald Thomas
Screenplay by: Talbot Rothwell and Sid Colin
Starring: Kenneth Williams, Barbara Windsor, Bernard Cribbins, Charles Hawtrey, Eric Barker, Dilys Laye, Jim Dale
Running time: 87 min
The first film in this collection is Carry On Spying, which is the final of the series to be shot in black and white. It’s an excellent parody of the then embryonic James Bond film series (only Dr. No and From Russia With Love had been released, with the game-changing, formula-setting Goldfinger still two months away at the time Spying was released), as well as paying homage to other classic spy films, including the outstanding The Third Man.
Carry On Spying opens in style as a spy, dressed as a milkman, breaks into STENCH (the Society for the Total Extinction of Non-Conforming Humans) and steals a top-secret chemical formula. Agent Desmond Simkins (Williams) and his three trainees (portrayed by Cribbins, Windsor and Hawtrey) are sent to recover the formula. From this basic set-up, the Carry On gang parody the spy genre in a globe-trotting affair starting in England before moving to Vienna, Algiers and then back to London.
The film marks Barbara Windsor’s debut in the series and the second of three appearances for Bernard Cribbins (his others were Carry On Jack and then, 28 years later, Carry On Columbus). Williams’ agent Simkins is a suitably entertaining, bumbling lead and feels like a one man show for the actor as he steals every scene, playing the character very differently to his other roles in the series. One could argue the boxset is a showcase for his talents alone, with each character portrayed very differently. Jim Dale is also great fun as a master of disguise, changing outfits in virtually every scene he is in.
The film features some good set pieces, particularly in the streets of Algiers and on a train, and the opening and closing leave a memorable impression. It’s a very strong and very funny entry in the series and gets the boxset off to a flying start.
Carry On Cleo
Director: Gerald Thomas
Screenplay by: Talbot Rothwell
Starring: Sidney James, Kenneth Williams, Kenneth Connor, Charles Hawtrey, Joan Sims, Jim Dale, Amanda Barrie
Running time: 92 min
Up next is Carry On Cleo, one of the triumphs of the entire series, which is frequently hilarious and packed with memorable wordplay and wonderful performances. It also looks amazing, thanks to fantastic costume and production design, helped no end by some of the sets from the 1963 epic version of Cleopatra, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, which the filmmakers were able to make use of.
Sidney James, Joan Sims and Kenneth Connor return alongside Kenneth Williams, Charles Hawtrey, Jim Dale and, in the title role, future Coronation Street staple Amanda Barrie, who had earlier made her only other Carry On appearance in Carry on Cabby.
Cleo opens during Julius Caesar’s invasion of Britain and introduces us to the main players: Cleopatra (Barrie), Caesar (Williams), Mark Antony (James), hapless inventor Hengist Pod (Connor) and the talented and forward-thinking Horsa (Dale). Pod becomes Caesar’s bodyguard after attempts on his life when returning to Rome, before Mark Antony is sent to Egypt to force Cleopatra to abdicate, but falls in love with her instead, and plots to assassinate Caesar. Loosely (very loosely) based on William Shakespeare’s plays about Caesar, Mark Antony and Cleopatra, the darkness of this story makes way for gags galore.
Williams is again on top form, with a performance that is the opposite of the style of his character for Spying. He has the most memorable line, “infamy, infamy, they’ve all got it in for me”, in a brilliant script that’s filled with quotable scenes. The wordplay in particular between Cleopatra and Mark Antony is often laugh-out loud funny. It’s one of the best scripts in the series.
In closing, Carry On Cleo remains a joy and, in my humble opinion, is still one of the best British film comedies going.
Carry on Cowboy
Director: Gerald Thomas
Screenplay by: Talbot Rothwell
Starring: Sidney James, Kenneth Williams, Jim Dale, Charles Hawtrey, Joan Sims, Angela Douglas
Running time: 95 min
Carry on Cowboy is the weakest film in the set for me, and one of my least favourites in the series. I’m a huge fan of Westerns and thought this would be right up my alley, but, like my previous viewings of the movie, it didn’t raise a smile as much as the others in the set.
The plot sees outlaw The Rumpo Kid (James) take over the saloon in Stodge City and turn the town into a haven for criminals. Meanwhile, English sanitation engineer Marshall P. Knutt (Dale) is mistaken for a peace marshal (due to his first name) whilst scouting for work in Washington DC and is sent to Stodge City to restore order.
There are some good sight gags and one-liners, but the script isn’t as strong as the previous two outings and there are few surprises. It again looks the part, however, with the Stodge City set – created on the Pinewood Studios backlot – well designed and complemented by some colourful costumes.
The cast have fun with their American accents, there’s a nice cameo from the third Doctor Who Jon Pertwee (who has similarly memorable small roles in Cleo and Screaming in this set) and there are eye-catching Carry On debuts for Angela Douglas, Peter Butterworth and Bernard Bresslaw.
The finale closes the film in strong style and the gang are as watchable as ever but overall there’s a noticeable a step down in quality, particularly when compared to the other films in this set.
Carry on Screaming
Director: Gerald Thomas
Screenplay by: Talbot Rothwell
Starring: Harry H.Corbett, Kenneth Williams, Jim Dale, Charles Hawtrey, Fenella Fielding, Joan Sims, Angela Douglas
Running time: 97 min
Carry on Screaming is a hoot, a fine return to form and one of my personal favourites in the series; frequently funny and a loving parody of Hammer horror films.
The film opens in suitably creepy form as Doris Mann (Douglas) and Albert Potter (Dale) are enjoying a romantic liaison in the woods which turns eerie when Doris is kidnapped by a monster who just leaves a finger behind.
Harry H.Corbett, that wonderful comedian of Steptoe and Son fame making his only Carry On appearance, is then introduced as Detective Sergeant Sidney Bung alongside Constable Slobotham who are investigating a series of disappearances.
The two police officers and Albert investigate the disappearance of Doris and eventually stumble upon the very spooky Bide-A-Wee Rest Home, where they encounter an eclectic family portrayed by the likes of Kenneth Williams, Fenella Fielding and Bernard Bresslaw.
That’s the set-up, with each element (spooky woods, eerie house, kooky characters, dramatic music, and Edwardian setting) paying very fond homage to the atmospheric Hammer films.
The cast is wonderful, each playing their role to perfection, and there are two excellent small roles: Charles Hawtrey as lavatory assistant and former gardener “Dan Dann the gardening man” and another fine cameo from Jon Pertwee, this time as a police scientist.
The production design is again first rate, the house in particular, with its secret hatch to a basement laboratory, and the film is a real treat from its opening to its perfect final shot.
Screaming is top tier Carry On, with the team at the top of their game in an excellent parody. It’s a real treat from start to finish.
Carry On Collection 3 is released on region free Blu-ray by Via Vision Entertainment on 8 November 2023. The box-set is limited to 1,000 copies. Picture quality for all four films is generally excellent, with some small drawbacks. In particular, the black and white cinematography of Spying looks astonishing, and the colours really pop on Cleo and Screaming, with the set and costume design of the former looking outstanding. My only gripes are the opening of Cowboy and the forest scenes in Screaming are very soft and muted, and really stand out compared with the quality of the rest of the transfers. Each film has mono audio which sounds great with clear dialogue.
On-disc extras are not plentiful (each film getting just an archival audio commentary from the early 2000s, trailer and photo gallery, with Spying also including textless opening titles). Whilst that isn’t a lot of additional content, the commentaries, each moderated by film historian and classic comedy expert Robert Ross, pack in a wealth of anecdotes, memories and insights.
Carry On Spying’s commentary with actors Bernard Cribbins and Dilys Laye is a lot of fun. It’s packed with anecdotes, insights into other parts played by some of the actors with even the smallest of roles in the film, as well as comments on some of the movie homages, not just the 007 series but also films like The Third Man. Like all the commentaries in the set it’s a joy to listen to.
Carry On Cleo’s audio commentary features Cleo herself Amanda Barrie and fellow star Julie Stevens. They both talk about the expectations of starring in a Carry On and what made them take their parts. They also touch on the fact that the filmmakers were able to make use of the sets leftover from the lavish Elizabeth Taylor version of Cleopatra. The pair also share thoughts on Sidney James and what he was like on set and as a person, and the often discussed possible rivalries between some of the core group of actors but how the cast was so professional that these rivalries didn’t play out on set. Another fine commentary.
Carry On Cowboy’s audio commentary features Angela Douglas and starts with discussion about the Wild West town set which was built on the Pinewood Studios backlot, before paying tribute to some of the Carry On stalwarts, and looking at the enduring popularity of the series. Douglas is informative and clearly having a great time reminiscing about the making of the film. It’s a very entertaining and information-packed commentary.
Finally, Carry On Screaming features an audio commentary which sees Angela Douglas return, this time with the accompaniment of Fenella Fielding. They play off each other well, talking about their memories of the film and the cast. It’s another strong commentary, although there are a few more silent moments than in the other commentaries.
Each disc also features a trailer and a photo gallery of posters, press book and production stills for that disc’s film. The Carry on Spying disc also includes textless opening titles. All are welcome inclusions.
The package also includes a 112 page booklet featuring the press books for each of the first 12 films in the series (the 12 which have been released on Blu-ray by Via Vision across Collections 1, 2 and 3). It’s a nicely produced addition and there’s some fascinating archival material, including comic strips for Carry on Cleo and valuable insights into how each film was marketed.
In closing, Carry On Collection 3 is a wonderful trip down memory lane featuring two of the absolute best Carry Ons (Cleo and Screaming), together with the also excellent spy parody Spying, and the entertaining, though in my view lesser, Cowboy. Via Vision’s limited edition package contains generally excellent audio-visual presentations, four entertaining audio commentaries, and a beautiful booklet of press books for the first 12 films in the series.