Watching "Carry On Girls" recently, for the first time in many years, made me realise what a strange decade I grew up in. (I was a teenager in the seventies). In 1953 (to say nothing of 1943 or 1933) a film like this would never have got past the British Board of Film Censors, and in 1963 would probably only have scraped through in bowdlerised form. By 1983, however, humour like this was already starting to look a bit passé, and in 1993 (to say nothing of 2003 or 2013) would have been regarded as sadly outdated (as well as offensive to women). In 1973, however, they did things differently.
The story concerns a beauty contest held in the seaside town of Fircombe and the efforts of a group of feminists to disrupt it. (The name "Fircombe" was probably intended as a double-entendre in itself, but someone obviously got cold feet and told the cast to pronounce it "Fir- coom", with the second syllable rhyming with "room". The alternative pronunciation "Firk'em" was presumably too near the knuckle). There is something very seventies in that storyline in itself. Beauty contests were big news in the seventies, but although they are still held in Britain few people take much notice of them- not the television channels, not the tabloid press, which once covered them avidly, and not the broadsheet press, which once equally avidly thundered against them in the name of women's equality. Even feminists no longer feel it worthwhile to disrupt them.
The "Carry On" films relied heavily on character-based humour, featuring as they did a team of "regulars", several of whom played essentially the same character in every film they appeared in. These included:-
A lecherous, dodgy Cockney wide-boy, generally played by Sid James and often named "Sidney" in his honour. Here James plays the appropriately named Sidney Fiddler, the organiser of the contest. (For those not conversant with British slang, "fiddler" literally means a violinist, but in colloquial usage can also mean "cheat" or "swindler").
A saucy Cockney trollop, invariably played by Barbara Windsor. Windsor and James were lovers in real life, and their characters (as here) are often portrayed as being romantically involved. It was a running joke in the series that Windsor was an irresistibly gorgeous sex-siren, although the idea of this rather plain actress as a beauty queen might strike some people as the only funny joke in this film, especially as some of the other contestants, notably Margaret Nolan and Valerie Leon, are genuinely attractive. Leon's character is another comic stereotype, the dowdy, severe-looking secretary who inevitably turns out to be a real beauty when she takes off her spectacles and lets her hair down.
A formidable female battleaxe, normally played by Hattie Jacques, but here by June Whitfield as Councillor Augusta Prodworthy, the leader of the protesters. Rather unusually for a seventies feminist, Mrs Prodworthy is played as an upper-middle-class grande dame; Whitfield seems to have modelled her portrayal on Margaret Thatcher.
A camp and effeminate character, normally played by Kenneth Williams or Charles Hawtrey, but here Williams was unavailable and Hawtrey had been sacked from the series the year before, apparently because of his heavy drinking. Jimmy Logan steps into the breach as a television presenter named Mr Gaybody, occasionally mispronounced as "Gayboy". (An early example of the word "gay", in its modern sense, being used in a British comedy context).
A pompous but ineffectual character played by Kenneth Connor. (Mr Bumble, the mayor of Fircombe).
A blowsy middle-aged nymphomaniac played by Joan Sims. (Hotel manageress Connie Philpotts. The object of Connie's lust is Sidney Fiddler, which suggests just how desperate she must be).
A dull, frumpy woman played by Patsy Rowlands. (Mrs Bumble).
In the early episodes of the "Carry On" series the humour was very traditional; in "Carry On Constable" from 1960, for example, the scriptwriters were still trying to get laughs out of a man slipping on a banana skin, a gag which was probably corny even in the days of Laurel and Hardy. Between the early sixties and the early seventies, however, a revolution had taken place in British comedy. Banana skins were out, sexual humour was in.
Apart from screamingly obvious puns and innuendo, there is not a lot of verbal humour. Topics such as breasts, bottoms, effeminate men, butch women, toilets, men losing their trousers, donkeys defecating on a hotel carpet and dirty old men lusting after nubile young dolly birds were all assumed to be automatically funny. The scriptwriters did not need to strain themselves to come up with amusing jokes involving breasts, bottoms, effeminate men, butch women, toilets, men losing their trousers, donkeys defecating on a hotel carpet and dirty old men lusting after nubile young dolly birds. They merely assumed that they only had to mention such matters for the audience to fall about helpless with laughter.
Perhaps in 1973 this sort of thing was regarded as the last word in sophisticated wit and audiences really did fall about helpless with laughter every time Kenneth Connor's trousers fell down or Patsy Rowlands made mention of her weak bladder, or when Margaret Nolan sneezed and her swimsuit flew open, revealing her cleavage. I don't know; I didn't see the film until the late eighties, by which time the "Carry Ons" were assumed to have gone the way of the dodo we didn't realise that their last hurrah, "Carry On Columbus", was just around the corner- and this sort of humour was starting to look like the last word in crass vulgarity. If anything, it looks even crasser today than it did then. 4/10 (A mark which would have been lower but for the fact that some of the cast, notably Whitfield, do show evidence of some genuine comic talents).