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Carrying on

A season of Carry On films will be screened in February at the home of serious cinema - the National Film Theatre. Next door, at the Museum of the Moving Image, an exhibition celebrates years of 'great British comedy' from the Carry On team. But was it all that great? And should Britain's most prestigious cinema really be celebrating cheap comedy?

YES - Robert Ross, author of The Carry On Companion (Batsford)

I have been a fan of Carry On films since watching them on TV when I was five or six. My enjoyment of them is a kind of nostalgia which I never grew out of. Of course everybody went off them a bit in the 1980s, but then there was a resurgence of interest beginning with the fashion for Frankie Howerd. The Carry Ons are continually appealing because they are reassuringly funny.

If you look at them coldly they are a series of 31 films, each of which was made in a few weeks for two and six. But they were reflecting a period of great social upheaval from the end of the 1950s to the 1970s; and because they were not trying to be serious they reflect these changes more accurately. Remember that the Carry Ons were made as entertainment for a working class audience that would relate to the works outing in Carry On At Your Convenience. But apart from entertainment value there is a social history there, written purely by accident.

Of course the Carry On films are not in the David Lean league. They were meant to be popular entertainment - the 1960s equivalent of George Formby. And, like the music hall and seaside postcards, they succeed in being funny, garish and flashy.

They always were a bit old-fashioned. In some ways they were quite archaic even when they were made. For example, national service was already coming to an end when they did Carry On Sergeant in 1958. But the comedy is timeless, partly because it is visual. And it is not the case that the 1960s left the Carry Ons behind. In 1969, when Monty Python started, the two most popular films in Britain were Carry On Camping and Carry On Again Doctor.

The Carry Ons were family films - the whole family could go to the cinema to see them, until the mid-1970s when they started getting a bit risqué. They have always been old-fashioned in a reassuring way, which appeals to the British mentality. Britain loves a format and we like to know what we are going to get. However sophisticated we become about sex, it is nice to regress and wallow in complete smut. Instead of being smart about sex, sometimes we just want to laugh about it.

Carry On films are a form of relaxation; they are comedy in the truest sense. But you cannot be funny without offending somebody. The Carry Ons were not nasty but they are very free in their subject matter and they can laugh about anything, whereas with much of today's comedy there is a lot of stepping over things. All the more reason to celebrate the warm, affectionate but unconstrained comedy of the Carry On team.

NO - Ed Barrett, journalist

When I was small I was forever pestering my mother to take me to a Carry On film. She always refused, and for years I nursed a grievance. Why should I be denied the smutty pleasures enjoyed by my friends? Then I saw one on TV. Or rather, I watched about half an hour before switching it off. I immediately understood my mother's intransigence. It was not, as I had assumed, based on prudery, but on another kind of embarrassment: a grown-up and entirely admirable disdain for the feeble, puerile dross that passed for British comedy.

We are constantly told that the British people 'love' Carry On films, just as we all love the Queen Mum. But I have not met a single person with a kind word to say about them. I know thousands flocked to them in the 1950s, but in those days people would watch anything: it made a change from mucking out the pigeons or walking the whippet. By the 1970s, the only people interested in them were children too young to know better.

Today the Carry Ons have been rehabilitated. First there was a new film, Carry On Columbus (1992), with alternative comedians such as Julian Clary and Alexei Sayle alongside stalwarts like Jim Dale. It flopped. Now we have the bizarre spectacle of the National Film Theatre, no less, staging a Carry On 'season'. So films once dismissed as vulgar rubbish churned out for the masses are now to be afforded the same recognition as precious French auteurs and worthy Latin American documentaries.

Now, I do not like precious, worthy films any more than I like Carry Ons, but I can at least understand how they fit into the concept of a national showpiece cinema. Most films at the NFT are shown because the management thinks they have some genuine merit. I simply do not believe that they view Carry On films in this light. More likely they are riding on the coat tails of a trend for ironic 'postmodern' detachment in which any old crap assumes a spurious importance.

Modern Carry On cheerleaders often point to the films' interest as social documents, rather than to any intrinsic worth. Yet, as it happens, they are useless as social documents because the Carry On world was always completely sealed off from the world outside, and the films tell us little of the society in which they were made. Admittedly, the innuendo and double entendres of the early ones indicate that they were made in a repressed age in which all references to sex had to be coded. But this coyness persisted long after it was necessary. The sexual revolution of the 1960s did not result in any sex taking place in Carry On films. It simply prompted them to reduce their entendres from double to single; and the cruder they became, the more preposterous they seemed.

Apologists will claim that the Carry On team contained great actors. But even if you consider Sid James or Hattie Jacques 'great', that does not mean that the Carry On films were any good. Richard Burton, Michael Caine and a host of other good actors made numerous bad films.

Finally, one especially irritating Carry On legacy is a peculiarly cosy tradition of British camp. This is the road that leads from Charles Hawtrey to Larry Grayson to Graham Norton. Purse your lips, say 'pants' a lot and you will go far. Carry on camp- ing if you must, but I will stick to Seinfeld.

Signs of the times

'Suddenly we stumbled across a whole world of worry that no one had ever talked openly about before. Customers spoke of the agonising experience of trying to discreetly remove pips from their mouths...'
Tesco's fruit manager Peter Dunrose describes the trauma of the 'fraught social dangers of eating oranges in public' as revealed by a report investigating why people favour seedless satsumas

'What is the next few days going to do, apart from making our politicians feel a little better?'
Flight lieutenant John Nichol, who was taken prisoner during the Gulf War, on the recent air strikes on Iraq

'It was very noisy. We had to edit out all the sounds before showing the interview'
The BBC's John Simpson recalls his interview with Colonel Gaddafi, who farted repeatedly

Fashion journalist Susan Irving is suing a hotel for £75 000 after having a pot of tea dropped in her lap. She says she is suffering from post-traumatic stress, depression, nightmares and flashbacks

'The only purpose in creating wealth like mine is to separate oneself from the riffraff'
Nicholas Van Hoogstraton who is denying the 'great unwashed' and 'disgusting creatures' (that's ramblers to you and me) access to his land

Lancashire and Cumbria police offered rewards of £500 to people who grassed up drunk drivers over the holiday period

'The BBC would not, under any circumstances, condone such behaviour. We are investigating the matter and will take the appropriate disciplinary action'
A BBC spokesman referring to the antics of Abigail Saxon, a religious affairs producer who ran naked three times around a restaurant for a bet during a 'team lunch'

Pulse FM, a pirate radio station which broadcasts in Glasgow and Paisley, is under investigation by the authorities after giving out the time and venue for a local gang fight
'Statistically, you stand just as good a chance of winning the lottery if you don't buy a ticket' Lottery presenter Bob Monkhouse

'Nobody knows who I am anyway'
Social security minister John Denham, after Joanna Lumley suggested he wore a yellow fright wig so nobody would recognise him


On the road

'Get your kicks on Route 66.' 'Wir fahr'n fahr'n fahr'n auf der Autobahn.' Sadly, the British equivalent seems to be, 'Queue, queue, queue on the M22'.

The first stretch of motorway in Britain (the Preston bypass) was opened 40 years ago, followed a year later by the M1. In those days motorway openings were state occasions performed by government ministers and even royalty. And motorways made a real difference to people's lives. For the first time families could make long journeys without having to submit to the constraints of the rail network. Motorways took Britain out of the world of the station buffet and Brief Encounter. But 40 years on there has never been a convincing British road movie, and the dream of a fully interconnecting network of fast roads is still just a dream.

In the past 20 years only 3500 miles of road have been built in the UK, and the vast majority of these are minor roads and residential streets. In all of Britain there are only 2000 miles of motorway. Compared to the rest of Europe and the USA, this is pathetic. The Trans-European Networks will soon link Istanbul with Nizhiny Novgorod, Madrid with Oslo, and Venice with Helsinki. In California, San Diego boasts the world's first fully automated highway, a kind of conveyor belt allowing cars to drive themselves at speeds of up to 80mph, approximately six metres apart: all the benefits and none of the drawbacks of public transport, while retaining the flexibility of personal car mobility. You can even read On The Road while travelling on it. Meanwhile, in this country there is still no motorway link between Newcastle and Scotland.

All we have are a few fast stretches (I will not say where) and Tom Robinson's pedestrian '2,4,6,8 motorway'. Nothing to match Kraftwerk and the Autobahn. But even in Britain there are times when you can forget about traffic lights and roundabouts, and put your foot down.

Austin Williams is coordinator of the
Transport Research Group


Love for sale

As Valentine's Day approaches we can expect to be bombarded with ballads, packaged, promoted and targeted to bring undying love into our lives. There will be 'pledge' ballads (BWitched's 'To you I belong'), the 'spurned' ballad (Robbie Williams' 'Angels'), and the 'unconditional love' ballad (Bryan Adams' 'Everything I do'), all adhering to the formula of raw intro, big chorus and lots of strings for the finale. Was the food of love always as pre-packaged as this?

'Pop music is marketing', says Gennaro Costaldo, PR manager for HMV, 'and because of this, the industry is seen as nasty for manipulating the public. That's rubbish and it credits the public with no agency whatsoever. People aren't naive, but everyone will buy into a fantasy or a dream if it is presented in a desirable way.' By way of inviting us to step into a dream, in the run-up to Valentine's Day HMV will have displays of romantic records at the front of their stores with tie-ins and tasters blasting from the in-store radio station. In the week of Valentine's Day 1998, six of the Top 10 singles were love ballads; and if the marketing men have their way, 1999 will be just as romantic.

It would be easy to think that the age of precision marketing has brought about a spiral of musical decline. There is no doubt that the same chord sequences keep cropping up along with lyrics so predictable that a seven-year old could guess what is coming next. But pop music has always been a limited medium working to a set of rules. 'Progressive rock' may have aimed to turn pop from pap into art, but thankfully it ended back in the 1970s.

Andrew Allen, music lecturer at the Colchester Institute, sees neither an excess of marketing nor a dearth of musical standards: 'There is little difference in standard between the charts in the 1950s and the 1990s. The criticism is that today's Top 40 is manufactured, and that the emotions involved are manufactured. But the same could be said about Motown.'

Pop is no more throwaway, transient and packaged than it was before. Furthermore, it remains a strong bonding agent with the power to make us connect with the people around us. Robbie Williams knows all about this. At his concerts he no longer sings 'Angels', his career-making, heart-breaking ballad. Instead he holds out the microphone and conducts the audience in a mass singalong. Anybody in the crowd who is not moved by the overwhelming sense of togetherness which this creates is surely missing the point of the pop ballad. It may not have the spirit of a poem by Keats or the depth of a painting by Raphael, but for as long as the song lasts it will take you there.

James Hall is an incurable romantic

Reproduced from LM issue 117, February 1999

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