|cast: Sid James, Barbara Windsor, Charles Hawtrey, Bernard Bresslaw, and Hattie Jacques
directors: Ronnie Baxter, Alan Tarrant
200 minutes (PG) 1969-73
|The popularity of the Carry On films was such that by 1969 they were imported for the first time into the Christmas schedule with a television special. It would be the first of several yuletide outings for the team with varying degrees of success. Four are collected here on DVD, accompanied by a second disc on which are thrown down a number of special interview extras. Peter Roger’s Carry On Christmas (1969) was the logical title for the television debut of the team. The image quality and colours are superb, and the Dickensian street recreation promises us of the importance lent the production. For this 50-minute jaunt, the theme of A Christmas Carol is taken up, Sid James spoiled with some terrific lines in the pivotal role of Ebenezer Scrooge. Whether lambasting the carol singers, “You’d think they’d find something useful to do… like forging pension books,” or awakening from one nightmare, in character recounting, “It must have been that cheese I had for supper. I should have left it in the mousetrap,” there is no dearth of good lines for the ringleader.
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The ghosts of Christmas past (Charles Hawtrey), Christmas present (Barbara Windsor) and Christmas future (Bernard Bresslaw) all act as linking devices to episodes that do nothing to hide the fact that this is essentially a sketch show (‘Carry On Regardless’ anyone?) with most of the players taking multiple roles. Still, the team’s inaugural television bout is a lot of fun, moreso because the team are clearly enjoying themselves.
The most recent theatrical release had been Carry On Camping and most of the cast are carried over into the television production with comparative new lads Terry Scott and Peter Butterworth in a particular party spirit. Scott seems to be out to prove himself here with distinctive characters adopted and numerous examples of his comic timing.
If it isn’t Butterworth cracking up, it is guest star Frankie Howerd deliberately using only two thirds of his scripted words and trying his darndest to putting the professionals around him off-balance. Hattie Jacques gamely takes a lot of jibes about her girth from Howerd, though these are scripted, Howerd would never be so cruel. Charles Hawtrey was never more iron hoof than in this film, flouncing hysterically in a series of jaw-dropping appearances. If his actions alone don’t reduce you to a puddle of laughter, the lines will. “I say, you do have a narrow entrance,” would get Graham Norton clapping with delight.
The ghost of Christmas past serves up a tale of horror, with Dr Frank N. Stein (Scott) and Count Dracula (Butterworth) pondering a quandary, a mate for his monster. This time, like the lad he is, he creates the she-monster first, and what a delicious little bobbin it is, coming in the shapely form of Miss Windsor. Bresslaw is clearly to be her other one and a half, complete with flathead. It allows some lame horror gags to be trotted out, but its simply great seeing the gang have their fun. The second story spins out the fate of the poet, Robert Browing (Howerd) and his amour (Jacques). The sets look very wibbly-wobbly am-dram and some old revue visual gags are fed into the mix, but the dialogue is up to par. “I feel wan.” … “Okay, dear. You feel wan, I’ll feel the other.” The sketch introduced by the ghost of Christmas future is Cinderella in the kitchen, performed in rhyming couplets, clearly the role of Cinders going to Barbara Windsor, lusted after by the visiting Ebenezer: “Now that, although she may look rancid, is a bit of stuff I’ve always fancied.” Peter Butterworth’s ugly sister looks disturbingly like Hilda Baker, while Scott’s looks like Mollie Perkins. The quartet of Scott, Butterworth, Hawtrey and Bresslaw are, at one point, trotted out as a girls’ school, and there could not be a more laugh-inducing gallery of grotesquerie. The scripts by Talbot Rothwell carry over the best of the 1960s’ Carry On.
From hereon it goes downhill. For Carry On Again Christmas made in 1970 it was decided to go for a complete adventure, based on Stevenson’s Treasure Island. The special was shot in black and white, a pity, as the sets again, look fantastic. Little else about it is good though. It is weak comedy and there are no clear laughs and the team seem generally to be well aware of it. Terry Scott is an unhappy Squire Trelawney playing it relatively straight. Sid James is Long John Silver, and Barbara Windsor reprieves her turn from Carry On Jack, as the cabin boy who is actually a girl. Charles Hawtrey produces the odd smile with his body language, lunatic excesses and the odd ad-lib when the script permits, but he too seems disappointed with the lines. Kenneth Connor in his first Christmas contribution doesn’t appear too affected by the script, is enjoying himself, buried deep in a codger character. Bernard Bresslaw is the other major team member in the small crew. Joining in the farrago are Bob Todd (as Ben Gunn) and Wendy Richards, both perhaps envious of those with the established Carry On membership status and throwing a little bit more effort into it. No laughs, terribly disappointing. In the absence of an ailing Talbot Rothwell, the writing duties fell to David Freeman and Sid Colin. The director on the special was Alan Tarrant.
Talbot Rothwell is back on the scripts for the third dive, Carry On Stuffing (1972), co-written with David Freeman, directed again by Ronnie Baxter. It returns to the portmanteau approach with a turn of the 18th century banquet as the venue for a round of storytelling. The team is led by the girls Joan Sims, Barbara Windsor and Hattie Jacques and a handful of male regulars Kenneth Connor, Peter Butterworth and Jack Douglas, with the numbers made up by Norman Rossington and, in silent but busty maid role, Valerie Leon. The first tale is The Last Outpost with the team besieged a la General Gordon, only able to hint at the laughs from the classic dinner sequence from Carry On Up The Khyber to which it so clearly alludes. It is amusing, but loses in comparison. A madrigal sketch resembles a Two Ronnies music number with Henry getting “his Hampton Court” the laugh at the end of every couplet. The Sailor’s Story is a headless horseman yarn with a mild peppering of laughs and the Aladdin finale clues one in as to just how closely the team tried to take it to the original successful format in hope of a similar critical reception to the 1969 show. Kenneth Connor wisely deserts a couplet when trying to find something that rhymes with ‘golfing instructor’. Solid lewd laughs abound. Invited to take his turn telling a tale is an elderly Kenneth Connor character. “It’s time to do your bit.” … “I can’t do that. She’s in London.” The colour and image is a bit fudged. It is the only one to be filmed partially on location and at least has a go at some fun names in the Carry On tradition, as exampled in Lady Rhoda Cockhorse and a butler called Ringworm. It’s an occasionally desperate 50 minutes, but thankfully amusing at times.
The final Carry On Christmas (1973) is Talbot Rothwell on top form again, and here dispensing with any attempt to portray it as anything more than a sketch show. Sid James is back, as a store Santa, and the thread is a slender one, as he merely recalls the stories, how people once came together at Christmas set against the unfriendly now, some of it his own doing. The sketches are funny, a decent team collected, James, Bresslaw, Windsor, Connor, Sims, Butterworth, Douglas… who are clearly more convinced that the material is funny and ready to have fun with it. Bresslaw has a particular range allotted him, from prehistoric teenager and Georgian fop to a high camp Little John. This is as raunchy and daring as the first Carry On Christmas. The first had gone surprisingly far in its double-entendres and hit an ugly highpoint with Hawtry rummaging around in Terry Scott’s knickers for his missing songbook, so this would appear to go that one risqué step further.
Barbara Windsor is a 13-year-old in school dress on Santa Sid’s knee. Her provocative attitude shocks mother, Joan Sims, who doesn’t know how she came by such ways. “We had a French student staying with us. She must have got it from him.” … “I wouldn’t doubt it!” responds Santa Sid. The old man in the Santa suit lusting after the pretend schoolgirl would be a complete no go today and is especially astonishing presented as 1970s’ Christmas entertainment. The tale set in prehistoric times is especially amusing and offset against the double-entendres are some smart gags. The prehistoric family are surnamed Pod, the wife Sims is Senna, the son Pea. Don’t Lose Your Head resurfaces in a Georgian drawing room scene with a guest appearance from Julian Holloway. Then it is off to the trenches for a quick-fire set of dirty puns as Babs and Joan surprise the lads as a pair of Parisian whores. Unerringly funny, a complete story would have been preferred and the result is the standard revue. It is an addition, if only ruder in nature, to the specials that were by then synonymous with Christmas from Stanley Baxter and Morecambe and Wise. The only faltering comes in the shorter sketches like the embarrassing ballet sketch that hopes to get the laughs that the first Christmas Special did by having the lads dress up as big girls.
An additional disc is provided though the contents are unimpressive. One is a caught interview between Peter Rogers and Marc Sinden before an audience of fans at a dinner event. With so many of the team gone, Jack Douglas presents one set of Christmas Carry On memories, Rogers goes through all the films in another filmed interview and Wendy Richards is called on for her recollections of Carry On Again Christmas. Surely, they could have squeezed them onto the one disc with the four specials. The menu sequence is unnerving, a raucous and frightening, desperate-to-please piece of music and the heads of the Carry On stars appearing from a Jack In the Box barking choice catchphrases. It’s quite a horrible front page. Overall, this is that must for completists. It is passable fare but best left to the highlights, the first and the final Carry On Christmas specials.