“Infamy, infamy, they’ve all got it in for me,” is regularly voted the funniest film one-liner of all time. It is from Carry On Cleo from the Carry On franchise, which made 31 films and other shows from 1958 to 1992. The series was produced by Peter Rogers and directed by Gerald Thomas, and shot at Pinewood Studios, home also to Britain’s other most famous film franchise, James Bond. The films featured a regular cast of actors and actresses who played stereotyped British comedy characters, from the innocent but sexy glamour girl (Barbara Windsor) often pursued by the wily and lecherous older man (Sid James) who is usually held back by his plain and long-suffering wife (Joan Sims) to the effete Kenneth Williams, camping it up in what should be hyper-masculine roles, such as that of Julius Caesar in Carry On Cleo (1964).
Carry On was very much in the lowbrow tradition of British smut and innuendo, celebrated earlier in seaside picture postcards and the music hall, based around sexual and lavatorial topics which the British middle class used to deny were funny – or that they even existed. British English famously hasn’t a language in which to discuss these topics other than the medical or the euphemistic or even nursery language, so the films exploited comedic possibilities arising from the breaking of these taboos. In Britain, as Philip Larkin said in his poem Annus mirabilis, ‘Sexual intercourse began/In nineteen sixty-three’, and many of the Carry On films were made during the supposedly “swinging” 1960s. The films probably showed a more realistic view of the times, although the exciting possibility of “shagging” or “snogging” were invariably thwarted by the buttoned-up guardians of society or interrupted by unattractive women.
The films also found humour in engaging with another British taboo, that of class, as a group of working class characters often take on the roles of the upper classes, bringing their markers of lifestyle, language and accents to all-round hilarity at the carnivalesque inversion of social norms, often picking up class conflicts that emerged during army and national service in the war and post-war years.
As children, we loved the rudeness and subversiveness of Carry On, even though we understood barely half the jokes. By the time we were at university, we had elevated them to cult classics, crying “Ooo matron!” or “Sauce!” at any innuendo and introducing ourselves to the uninitiated as characters with ludicrous names, too silly to repeat.
Yet I doubt I could sit through a Carry On film on my own. Their humour lay in the mass silliness they engendered for which a few drinks were needed. Now that talking about the sexual or swearing is no longer risqué, the grotesque sexual representations, particularly of women and gay characters, and sex-mad men and other dubious stereotypes make one feel embarrassed rather than amused.
I screened clips from the classic send-up of the Empire, Carry On Up the Khyber (1968), at a conference and was greeted by stony silence among the assembled young scholarly viewers.
Khyber Pass is rhyming slang (“arse”) and sets the scene for the below the belt – or, rather, up the kilt – references of the film, which focuses on the underwear worn, or not, by the “Devils in skirts”, aka the 3rd Foot and Mouth regiment. Although Scots are said not to wear underwear under their kilts, the underpants of Private Widdle (Charles Hawtrey) are captured by Bungdit Din (Bernard Bresslaw) and the regiment’s honour is at risk.
The wife of the Governor, Sir Sidney Ruff-Diamond (Sid James), is willing to sell photos of men in underwear to the Khasi (Brit slang for lavatory) of Khalabar (Kenneth Williams). Amid numerous jokes about the Princess Jelhi (jelly), taking tiffin, and other adventures filmed in Snowdonia, the plot unfolds. Classic Carry On one-liners abound as do contemporary political jokes about allowing Sikhs to wear turbans in the UK.
The film sends up Zulu and other heroic films about Empire to form – perhaps , a subaltern view of empire as one where there is no policy, incomprehensible values, silly clothes, and plenty of lust and lechery. It is, in fact, empire as pantomime. While European filmmakers such as Louis Malle and Roberto Rossellini were making films about India’s unknoweablity and exoticism, Carry On Up the Khyber was the British contribution. It’s sexist and racist but some of it is still funny, and perhaps I will watch it once again before too long.
And, a gem for trivia fans: Benedict Cumberbatch’s mother, Wanda Ventham, plays the Khasi’s first wife.